Born: July 16, 1963 in Malmö (Skåne)
Height: 1.73 m
Plays: Right-handed (two-handed backhand)
An outlier among the notable Swedish tennis players born in the 1960s, crafted a career distinct from his compatriots. As a member of Sweden’s golden generation of tennis, Pernfors’ path to success, veered away from the typical Swedish mold. Unlike his counterparts, he did not possess towering height and, contrary to the prevalent “Björn Borg‘s pattern” he did not conform to the archetype of the patient Swedish blonde double-handed baseliner. Despite his shorter stature, the brown-haired Pernfors, blended retrieving and attacking strategies, above all displaying a penchant for lobs – popular strokes in an era featuring more attacking players than defensive ones, thereby becoming his trademark.
While other Swedish players trained extensively among their countrymen, Pernfors pursued education at the University of Georgia in the United States. There, he achieved a remarkable feat by becoming the first player since Dennis Ralston [1942-2020] two decades earlier, to clinch back-to-back NCAA singles titles, in 1984 and 1985. “Playing college tennis, I can go in and think, ‘I’m going to win this match,'” Pernfors said in Atlanta ’86 before a match against David Pate 3-6, 6-7(12) in which he squandered eight set points. “But tonight (against a pro), I’ll think I’m not going to win a point. Here, you know every stroke’s going to be a little better, every shot has to be that much better.” His professional journey commenced relatively late, turning pro at 22 after securing his second NCAA championship. Initially ranked outside the Top 200 and grappling with a dismal 3-8 record at the main level, Pernfors encountered a sudden surge in the ATP rankings following promising performances in the early months of 1986. However, as he arrived at the French Open ’86, expectations were modest, yet he defied the odds by progressing to the final, emerging as one of the most unexpected Grand Slam runners-up in the Open Era (similar story with Martin Verkerk seventeen years later). His astonishing feat included ousting four seeded players, especially Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, elevating him within a year from dreaming of a Top 100 entry to securing a spot among the Top 10.
Further surprising the tennis world, Swedish captain Hans Olsson [1937-2021] controversially chose Pernfors over Mats Wilander to compete in the Davis Cup final ’86. Despite Pernfors’ limited experience on the surface, he nearly justified his selection by stunning Paul McNamee on the opening day and exhibiting exceptional play against Pat Cash before succumbing in five sets (the following year Pernfors lost for the second and last time in his career after winning the first two sets easily, a memorable match against Jimmy Connors).
Subsequent years didn’t yield remarkable achievements, although he maintained a steady Top 30 position. The Australian Open ’90 marked a pivotal turn in his career, catalysed by a controversial fourth-round victory over John McEnroe, who was defaulted in the fourth set. Unfortunately, Pernfors faced a decisive defeat against Yannick Noah in the quarterfinals, subsequently fading from the upper echelons of tennis.
Struggling with a series of injuries, the 27-year-old Swede experienced a drastic decline, plummeting outside the Top 200 for over two years before staging a successful return in 1993, with a shocking triumph in Montreal. Ranked 95th and having clinched three Challenger titles that year, the 30-year-old Pernfors astounded by toppling four seeded players at the Canadian Open, securing his third and last ATP title. In a scorching final amid 85-degree heat (30°C), he mounted a stunning comeback from a 2:5 deficit in the deciding set against Todd Martin, denying him a significant title that many believe Martin deserved to win. After Montreal the motivation evaporated, Pernfors finished his career with 11 successive defeats; it all began in Stockholm ’93 where he was two games away from defeating an in-form Michael Stich in straight sets.
Career record: 140–114 [ 114 events ]
Career titles: 3
Highest ranking: No. 10
Best GS results:
Australian Open (quarterfinal 1990)
Roland Garros (runner-up 1986)
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