Roger Federer may tie Bjorn Borg's modern record by winning a fifth straight Wimbledon singles title and he may also eventually break Pete Sampras' career record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles--but is Federer really a greater all-around player than Borg, who could be called the Sandy Koufax of tennis? Koufax put together a marvelous six season run (1961-66) as a Los Angeles Dodgers' pitcher before arthritis cut short his 12 year career when he was just 30 years old; he is the youngest player ever inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Borg's career ended at an even younger age (26) than Koufax' did and he enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise to the top of his sport. Borg is most remembered for the concentrated greatness that he displayed from 1978-80, when he won the French Open and Wimbledon each year, reached the U.S. Open Finals twice, captured 29 singles titles and earned three Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Player of the Year Awards (he also won that honor in 1977).
Well before Borg's unexpected retirement (he played his last Grand Slam in 1981 but did not officially announce his retirement until 1983), many observers felt that he had already proven himself to be the greatest player of all-time. In a September 17, 2003 Tennis Week article, Raymond Lee evaluated the statistics of all players whose careers took place entirely in the Open Era (1968-present). Borg proved to be the runaway winner in Lee's analysis, placing first in seven of the 10 categories considered, including career won-loss percentage (.855), best five year won-loss percentage (.916), career percentage of tournaments won (.483--a staggering number; Jimmy Connors ranked second at .312), percentage of tournaments won during best five year period (.655), percentage of career Grand Slams won (.407--another staggering number; Sampras ranked second at .269), Grand Slams won in best five year period (eight, tied with Sampras) and percentage of Grand Slams won during best five year period (.571). Federer's career was just kicking into high gear when that article was written, so it remains to be seen if he can match Borg's numbers. Federer broke the Borg/Sampras mark by winning 10 Grand Slams in a five year period (2003-07--and he may add this year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open to that list) but Borg retains an edge in most of the categories that are based on percentages, so Federer will have to play even better than he has (and then retire young before he begins to decline) in order to beat Borg in those departments.
Borg's dominance can really be seen in his Grand Slam record. He won at least one Grand Slam title for eight straight years (1974-81), a mark later matched by Sampras. Borg's Grand Slam winning percentage of .898 is the best of the Open Era (Federer's stood at .850 entering this year's Wimbledon). A record five of his Grand Slam titles came in five set matches, showing his mental and physical toughness (Borg's overall record in five set matches, 24-4, is by far the best in the Open Era). Three times he won a Grand Slam singles title without losing a single set (1976 Wimbledon, 1978 and 1980 French Open); only three other players have accomplished this in the Open Era, none of them more than once.
Borg's Grand Slam totals would undoubtedly be even more impressive but for the fact that he only played in the Australian Open once, losing in the third round in 1974, his second season as a pro. In 2001, Borg explained in a Rediff.com interview why he made a habit of not playing in the Australian Open: "When I boycotted the Australian, I was trying to make a statement. I had made my mind up. My point was that a player requires some time to himself, he can't keep rushing from one court to another all the time without a break. They all heard me say that, but no one did anything about it. So I did it myself, I skipped the Australian and gave myself the time I needed. That was the only way that I could think of to do it. I have always played my tennis and lived my life on my own terms. I have no regrets."
He really made his mark at the French Open and Wimbledon, going a combined 100-6 in his matches in those two events. Borg won a record six French Open titles, including a record four straight (1978-81); he retired with a 28 match winning streak at Roland Garros. Borg won his first French Open at age 17 in 1974 and for eight years he held the record as the youngest man to win a Grand Slam singles title. He won Wimbledon for the first time in 1976, the youngest winner in the Open era there until Boris Becker's 1985 triumph. Borg won a record 41 straight matches at Wimbledon, a streak that extended from his first title in 1976 to his loss to John McEnroe in the 1981 Finals.
The only blemish, such that it is, on Borg's Grand Slam resume is that he never won the U.S. Open. Still, he reached the Finals four times in nine tries, losing twice each to Connors and McEnroe, his two main rivals. Borg finished his career with a 15-8 overall record versus Connors and a 7-7 overall record versus McEnroe.
Borg did not lose a match to a younger player until 1977, when he had already been a professional for several years. During his career he set numerous records for being the youngest player to achieve various accomplishments; in addition to being the youngest ever (at the time) to win the French Open and Wimbledon titles, Borg was the youngest player to win a Davis Cup match (1972 at age 15), the youngest Italian Open winner (1974, age 17; this record has since been broken) and the youngest player to win 11 Grand Slam titles (1981 at age 25; Sampras was nearly 27 when he won his 11th, Roy Emerson was 30 and Rod Laver was 31).
Borg has graciously said that he would be happy to see Federer equal or even break his modern record of five straight Wimbledon titles. Federer certainly seems to have a great chance to do that--but can he truly be considered the best all-around player ever without winning at least once on the French Open clay? While Federer is making a run at Borg's Wimbledon mark, Rafael Nadal is likewise challenging some of Borg's French Open standards--but no one before or since Borg has remotely approached winning six French Opens and five Wimbledons, including three straight years of taking both titles. That kind of multi-surface dominance is not likely to be seen again any time soon.