The Golden Boy of Centre Court by Graham Denton – Review
By Karl Hornsey
As Wimbledon makes a welcome return to its regular summer slot among the highlights of the sporting calendar, this seems as good a time as any to read Graham Denton’s new offering about one of tennis’s most loved figures and an era that brings back many fond memories to this day. The Golden Boy of Centre Court gives readers an insight into the career of Bjorn Borg, whose flame shone so brightly during the 1970s and early 80s, most notably at Wimbledon and the French Open, and who is still regarded as one of the all-time greats of the game.
I’m old enough to just about remember the last couple of years of Borg’s career and, in particular, his rivalry with John McEnroe, but young enough to not have been born when the Swedish star first became what seemed to be an overnight sensation. While the ‘70s had more than its fair share of charismatic characters and brilliant players in both the men’s and women’s draws, including Ilie Nastase, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and the aforementioned McEnroe, it was Borg who seemed to capture the imagination most, initially with a fervent teenage fanbase the likes of which Wimbledon had yet to come across.
Denton has chosen with this book to focus very much on Borg and Wimbledon. While he touches briefly on his rise to fame and some of his relationships with other players, the chapters are broken down into each of the nine years that Borg entered the main draw, starting in 1973. This approach, perhaps timed to coincide with this year’s championships, means each Wimbledon tournament is given a great depth, but it also means that some aspects of Borg’s career, including his phenomenal achievements at the French Open, are downplayed, and there is little included about his fascinating and hectic life off the court. For tennis aficionados, though, this is a relatively minor quibble, as several classic matches and rivalries are brought alive on the page, and the social context that Denton adds makes each year interesting in its own right.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Borg and his time at Wimbledon is not the victories that everyone will be well aware, but the battles he had to go through to get to each of the six finals that he reached, and how even just one tournament victory on grass would have been a significant achievement, given that a) Borg was so much more suited to playing on clay courts and b) the quality of opponents around during the period. The fact that Borg was able to triumph so many times at SW19 having won just a couple of weeks previously on clay in Paris is what sets him apart as an all-time great, but he came so close to defeat on many occasions in the early rounds at Wimbledon, as he struggled to adapt and players raised their game. Denton demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of each championship and of the array of players aiming to stop Borg in his tracks, drawing on newspaper columns from the time and anecdotal evidence to tell the stories from a different aspect to the norm.
What also develops naturally as Denton tells the story chronologically is an understanding of why Borg bowed out when he did, seemingly still in his prime and with many years left at the top of the sport. But, when it becomes clear how much tennis he was obliged to play, and how many off-court commitments he had to deal with, it gradually becomes obvious that the situation was unsustainable, and even at a relatively early age, Borg was heading for burnout and a tennis career that would have likely seen him fall by the wayside, rather than continue to challenge the likes of McEnroe, Connors and the newcomers such as Ivan Lendl at the highest level. Denton brings out the human element in Borg and makes his departure from the scene perfectly understandable, while demonstrating to any reader just how brilliant he was as a player, and an icon of the sport who continues to be so revered 40 years on from his final Wimbledon appearance.
‘The Golden Boy of Centre Court – How Bjorn Borg Conquered Wimbledon’ is published by Pitch Publishing,