Los Angeles — Since Bjorn Borg returned to professional tennis in July, after a self-imposed exile that lasted approximately six months, he has not been the same incredible machine that once crushed opponents like they were so many aluminum cans.
The impeccable rhythm is not always there now; the topspin not always as pronounced; the ability to break back and win after falling behind not nearly as formidable. Still it is difficult to criticize a man who has already beaten John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Ivan Lendl at least once since rejoining his contemporaries.
Talking with Borg about his return to competition is like opening up a box of tired, old cliches. After Connors beat him in an exhibition at the LA Forum recently, Bjorn told inquiring reporters that he was ''coming along.'' Since he has never liked interviews, he tends to answer all questions as briefly as possible.
The way to Borg is through his longtime friend and coach and Swedish countryman Lennart Bergelin, who is not only close to him professionally but also personally. Even though Borg (as a young player) resisted when others tried to change his game, he made some helpful adjustments for Bergelin in his serve and baseline style that made him tougher to beat.
Asked about Borg's comeback, Bergelin replied: ''Four or five years ago Bjorn was 15 to 20 percent better than he is now. But that is not something to worry about, because you know that in time, he will get it all back. The ability is still there and so is the desire to practice long hours every day. Maybe the confidence on every shot is not quite what it used to be, but it can also be regained.
''Considering the quality of the competition in professional tennis, it is not easy to lay off and begin again at the same level,'' Lennart added. ''Borg's game is not quite as fast as it used to be and he is not getting under the ball on his return the way he once did. They are mistakes, but a good player will learn from his mistakes and go on. In a little while, you will see a different Borg. In the meantime he can speed things up by continuing to play people the caliber of Connors, McEnroe, and Lendl.''
Although Borg has won major titles in every corner of the globe (including five Wimbledons) and on surfaces both hard and soft and somewhere in between, the US Open Championship has so far escaped him.
Why Bjorn has not captured the Open is a question Bergelin has to volley almost everywhere he goes.
''It is a difficult question for anyone to answer, because every time at the Open he has played well,'' Lennart said. ''On at least a couple of occasions when Borg was ahead in the fifth set, he let another great player, who suddenly got hot, come back and beat him. It happens sometimes. But of course he wants at least one Open title before he quits. His time will come and he will make the most of it.''
It used to be said of Borg that his opponent must beat him on every point, because there was very little chance of him beating himself. And those who did occasionally beat him usually did so in the early rounds of a tournament, before he had a chance to get the feel of the court and establish his game.
To Borg, tennis is not a sport but a test of his iron will. He rules his emotions so completely that there is practically no way an opponent can know what he is thinking. If he is upset, he hides it. If he is injured, he often plays without batting an eye.
When Borg is at his peak, perhaps the most remarkable part of his game is his consistency. He simply doesn't make bad shots; his return of service nails his opponent to the baseline; and although he appears to be holding a tennis racket, it is really a camouflaged stiletto.
''I don't know another pro who can make the ball drop so fast in front of an opponent that it will untie his shoelaces,'' said tennis teacher Vic Braden. Added Arthur Ashe: ''Nothing Borg hits ever comes straight at you. All the time you're having to compensate for what he does instead of playing your own game.''
If anybody is wondering how Borg spent his six months away from tennis - that is, other than enjoying life with his wife Mariana - Bergelin can bring him up to date.
''Bjorn often played ice hockey with a club team,'' Lennart said. ''He likes to skate and I think the informal atmosphere of it all relaxed him.''