Swedish power in the 80s (born in the 60s)
Mikael Ymer (b. 1998) has been the best Swede in the past few years, he lately tries to become a Top 50 player, his two years older brother Elias has never entered the Top 100, and these two guys of Ethiopian origin are the only Swedes born in the 90s who have reached the main-level. How is it possible that more or less thirty-five years ago as many as 26 Swedes born in the 60s were able to enter the Top 100; nine of them were Top 10ers, and two of them belong to the greatest players of the Open Era? How is it possible that a relatively small population (8.3M in the 80s) could produce so many good players? It’s even stranger that the tennis superpower of the 80s totally fell apart. History is perverse, currently there are much better Nordic players than the Ymer brothers from countries (Holger Rune of Denmark, Casper Ruud of Norway, Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland) which meant actually nothing in the 80s when the neighboring Sweden enjoyed enormous amount of successes… Björn Borg (b. 1956), one of the biggest stars of the entire sport in the 70s, triggered an avalanche; the six-time French Open and five-time Wimbledon champion, contributed to the astonishing popularity of tennis in Sweden, an economically stable country. Plenty of boys from working-class families dreamed about following Borg’s footsteps, and the soil was fertile to make the dream come true: good infrastructure, friendly atmosphere, and an idea to create a tennis centre in Båstad where the young talents from the entire country, could continue their passion for learning tennis. Among those hundreds of boys hitting the ball on the courts in different clubs, first a dozen of right-handed, mainly blondes using double-handed backhands, then four the most gifted in the late 70s, were selected by John-Anders “Jonte” Sjögren (in his mid 40s at the time, captain of the national team). “We are from a small nation with our own special language,” he said. “It is our national character to stay together, to help out each other, to be there. This is the team idea.” The group of the chosen ones was consisted of Anders Järryd, Hans Simonsson, Joakim “Jocke” Nyström & Mats Wilander (their photo of 1981). They started to work as a SIAB team when they were 13-14 years old. “Why are there so many of us doing well? It started with Borg. We saw him on television and were inspired to pick up a racket. Now that he’s retired, we feel the desire to carry the banner.” explained Wilander. An investment of the Swedish Tennis Association allowed this group to train in 1981 under the guidance of a legendary Australian player Roy Emerson, and each of them, who grew up on clay, was taught how to play on grass and doubles. “The Swedes’ communal sense of going along to get along is tied to their culture,” said Tim Mayotte, Top 20 player in the mid 80s. “Their plan was simply that the strength of a group increases the success of the individuals. It’s terrific for them. We aren’t brought up that way. But when I play a Swede, I usually see the others supporting him. That’s a psychological edge right there.” It was unbelievable that Borg’s departure from the tennis scene was coincident with explosion of the talents of Swedish teenagers, among which, the youngest (Wilander) was the best. Already as a teenager he claimed two Grand Slam titles, and led his country to the Davis Cup final in 1983 (second year with Hans Olsson as a team captain), the first of seven in a row! The year 1984 brought a valid change in the Sjögren’s team: health issues of Simonsson occurred at the time when Stefan Edberg‘s displayed his huge potential; in 1983 he won all Grand Slam junior titles, the following year he got the gold medal at the unofficial Olympics. He replaced Simonsson in the team, and two pairs were constructed: Edberg/Järryd and Wilander/Nyström. The mid 80s were crazy, these four players not only were Top 10ers in singles, at the same time they were Top 5 players in doubles! The Edberg/Järryd pair played four major finals together, won Masters ’86 and got a bronze medal at the Olympics ’88, while the Wilander/Nyström combo also reached major finals at three different venues with a highlight at Wimbledon ’86 where they unexpectedly triumphed. More or less at the same time, not a member of the Sjögren’s team, but a member of the national team, Henrik Sundström also found his way to the Top 10 in singles, and he did the most in 1984 as far as the first of three Davis Cup triumphs of the 80s are concerned (photo). “I think we should all be seen as individuals, as persons,” Sundström said, a kid from an upper-class family, who preferred to travel alone, “The only thing that counts in life is knowledge. At the same time when we read ‘L’Equipe’ we should read the ‘International Herald Tribune’.” His days in the tennis elite were counted, similar story with a few years younger Kent Carlsson who appeared in the mid 80s as a clay-court sensation, and helped Edberg & Järryd to claim the World Team Cup ’88 (it’s surprising the Swedes raised this trophy just once in the 80s… twice in the 90s – Edberg was always a member of the team). The Swedish Big 4: Wilander, Edberg, Järryd & Nyström, they helped each other to improve their tennis training together because they styles were diversified: generally speaking they all could play serve-and-volley because it was a standard tactic on grass (two Slams on that surface then), but Wilander & Nyström were patient baseliners most of all, naturally adapted to clay, Edberg was a pure serve-and-volleyer while Järryd didn’t perfectly fit to either of the basic categories; he used to play a lot at the net, but he was the quickest among the four, quite unconventional in his on-court movement, his reflex was the finest, it made him a tricky all-court player, and he was a nightmare at times for the best serve-and-volleyers as an unsurpassed receiver – John McEnroe, in the days of his glory being virtually unbeatable, twice didn’t know what was going one for 1.5 sets facing Järryd while Boris Becker, known as the biggest server, on a fast carpet surface in Dallas, he was broken by Järryd within three sets more times than he was able to hold… Other Swedes followed suit, the number of them in the Top 100 increased in the second half of the 80s; the “shadow guys” like Gunnarsson, Svensson, Pernfors & Lundgren, also had proud moments of their careers in the 80s, creating temporary attention of media and fans.
Writing this text I used articles of Curry Kirkpatrick &Joe Clerico from 1985. Below comparison of 26 Swedes born in the 60s who advanced to the Top 100. First their highest ranking, then number of main-level titles, win/loss records, best Grand Slam results and the approximate age of retirement.
Stefan Edberg… no 1… 41 titles… 801–270… Six GS titles… 30
Mats Wilander… no 1… 33 titles… 571–222… Seven GS titles… 32
Anders Järryd… no 5… 8 titles…. 396-261… Wimbledon (SF in 1985)… 35
Kent Carlsson… no 6… 9 titles… 160–54… French Open (4R twice)… 21
Henrik Sundström… no 6… 5 titles… 154-109… French Open (QF in 1984)… 24
Joakim Nyström… no 7… 13 titles… 265-142… Three QFs (US Open twice)… 26
Magnus Gustafsson… no 10… 14 titles…. 415–260… Aussie Open (QF in 1994)… 34
Jonas Svensson… no 10… 5 titles… 258–204… French Open (twice SF)… 28
Mikael Pernfors… no 10… 3 titles… 140–114… French Open (runner-up 1986)… 31
Henrik Holm… no 17… 0 titles… 96–110… Wimbledon (4R in 1992)… 29
Ulf Stenlund… no. 23… 1 title… 52-44… French Open (4R in 1982)… 21
Jan Gunnarsson… no 25… 1 titles… 188-204… Aussie Open (SF in 1989)… 31
Peter Lundgren… no 25… 3 titles… 119–136… Wimbledon (4R in 1989)… 29
Christian Bergström… no 32… 0 titles… 161-162… QF thrice (!)… 28
Thomas Högstedt… no 38… 1 title… 89–152…. 2R seven times… 31
Hans Simonsson… no. 45… 0 titles… 42-73… US Open (3R in 1982)… 23
Niclas Kroon… no. 46… 1 titles… 48-65… French Open (4R in 1990)… 26
Stefan Simonsson… no. 48… 0 titles… 100–124… Aussie Open (4R in 1984)… 26
Jan Apell… no. 62… 0 titles… 44–68… 2R four times… 29
Lars A. Wahlgren… no. 66… 0 titles… 23-50… Aussie Open (3R in 1992)… 31
Per Hjertquist… no 68… 1 title… 59–73… French Open (3R in 1981)… 24
Tomas Nydahl… no. 72… 0 titles… 34-62… twice 2R… 30
Stefan Eriksson… no. 72… 0 titles… 19-34… never beyond 1R… 25
Johan Carlsson… no. 81… 0 titles… 55–77… US Open (3R in 1988)… 27
Tobias Svantesson… no. 89… 0 titles… 11-23… twice 2R… 26
Magnus Tideman… no. 100… 0 titles… 14-35… French Open (3R in 1983)… 26
Wilander: Edberg 11-9, Jarryd 7-3, Nystrom 12-1, Sundstrom 7-2, K.Carlsson 4-0, Pernfors 2-1, Svensson 4-0, Gustafsson 2-2
Edberg: Wilander 9-11, Jarryd 9-2, Nystrom 0-3, Sundstrom 1-1, K.Carlsson 1-0, Pernfors 1-3, Svensson 10-0, Gustafsson 5-1
There were also a few guys born in the 60s who advanced to the Top 100 only in doubles: Peter Svensson (b. 1961), Jörgen Windahl (b. 1963), Peter Nyborg, Nicklas Utgren, Per Henricsson (all b. 1969), Christer Allgårdh (b. 1967), Ola Jonsson & Rikard Bergh (both b. 1966). Below short characteristic of those who were the most distinctive in singles.
Per Hjertquist (b. 1960, Bodafors)
A transitional player between the Borg era and the new wave. The second best junior of 1978 (behind the great Ivan Lendl), US Open champion among boys that year. One of two Swedes born in the 60s who had a privilege to represent Sweden beside Borg in the Davis Cup (first time at 2-3 vs Czechoslovakia in 1979). Runner-up twice in Tel Aviv.
Stefan Simonsson (b. 1960, Hyltebruk)
The other Swede born in the 60s, who was a member of the team in Borg’s Davis Cup appearance (Borg’s last tie, 4-1 vs West Germany in Bastad ’80). Involved in two five-setters in the Davis Cup ties against the legends of the 70s (Ilie Nastase & Adriano Panatta), the older brother of Hans Simonsson. As a junior the US Open ’78 runner-up losing to fellow Swede, Hjertquist 6-7, 6-1, 6-7. As a pro the best result: semifinal in Rome ’83.
Anders Järryd (b. 1961, Lidköping)
The oldest in the new wave of blonde Swedes of the early 80s, the only extrovert. At the beginning of his career, he was wearing glasses. As opposed to his peers, more interested in attacking the net; he felt the most comfortable on carpet. One of the best players in the world in the 80s, but ultimately more successful in doubles than singles. 8 major doubles titles with four different partners, two with Swedes (H.Simonsson & Edberg). The biggest singles success: title in Dallas ’86 (final win over Boris Becker – the best on carpet at the time), the WCT Finals. Always substantial at all Swedish Davis Cup triumphs in the 80s. Actually the third best Swede born in the 60s, a bit tricky to indicate no. 4 though.
Hans Simonsson (b. 1962, Färgaryd)
Best result: semifinal in Indianapolis ’82 after defeating two top clay-courters at the time (Guillermo Vilas & Andres Gomez). Much better in doubles than in singles, the first partner of Järryd, they played 15 Grand Prix finals as a pair and helped Sweden in advancing to the Davis Cup ’83 final (won three rubbers leading to it). In the early 80s, he and Järryd were using wooden racquets.
Jan Gunnarsson (b. 1962, Olofström)
One of two Swedes who went bald during his career. Only one singles title which is quite unusual for someone who reached two big semifinals of 128-draw events (Delray Beach ’85 and Aussie Open ’89, after a bad previous season). Very solid doubles player and co-author of the longest tie-break won with four players on the court (26/24 at Wimbledon ’85). In 1989 he had a lifetime chance to be better remembered but lost doubles in the Davis Cup final partnering Järryd. Like a few other Swedes, he had a chronic injury (right knee), but in his case it didn’t lead to a premature retirement.
Joakim Nyström (b. 1963, Skellefteå)
Just like Järryd, among the best players in singles of the mid 80s, but more successful in doubles (played majors at three different venues, partnering Wilander). Always in the team as Sweden conquered the Davis Cup thrice, but never as essential as Järryd. Good on every surface, the best on clay, biggest title: Monte Carlo ’86. In Dallas ’85 he stunned John McEnroe in straights, the American was totally dominating the circuit for 1.5 years up to that moment. A singles Slam semifinal it’s something missing in his memoir. He coached a few good players, i.a. Jürgen Melzer.
Mikael Pernfors (b. 1963, Malmö)
The shortest among Swedes born in the 60s (only 172 cm). He had the biggest inclination among them to play dropshots, also lobs which was the consequence of his height, and times when he was playing (serve-and-volley was a dominant game-style). He shocked the tennis world in 1986 advancing to the French Open final with a little experience at the main-level (he finished a college in the United States and turned professional at age of 22). Thanks to that success, he became a Top 10 player without a main-level title. Biggest result outside Slams: title at the Canadian Open ’93 when he shocked the world again, that time as a forgotten veteran.
Thomas Högstedt (b. 1963, Mariestad)
Peaked at the age of 20. Two years earlier became the junior US Open champion. In 1982 he defeated his two great compatriots as they were teenagers: Wilander (already a French Open champion) & Edberg (his third main-level event), ten years later had an opportunity to defeat another member of “Holy Trinity” – Borg, when he was losing to everyone. After retirement Högstedt’s been known as a coach of Magnus Norman (b. 1976) – one of the best Swedes of the 90s, and several good female players. Like Gunnarsson, the long-haired Högstedt went bald in his mid 20s.
Henrik Sundström (b. 1964, Lund)
Six months older than Wilander, brown hair. As opposed to his older Swedish friends, he was using one-handed backhand, clay was his favorite surface. Peaked at the age of 20, played six finals in 1984, and was the most important member of the team which claimed the Davis Cup title that year, having defeated two best players in the world at the time (Lendl, J.McEnroe). Given how good he was then, it’s quite surprising that he was easily defeated in the French Open quarterfinal by the ageing Connors. Biggest title: Monte Carlo ’84. In contrast to his friends, not interested in doubles career at all. Back problems forced his premature retirement.
Mats Wilander (b. 1964, Växjö)
The great successor of Borg. It was like a fantasy in 1982: Borg decided not to defend his French Open title (having won the event in the years 1978-81), his eight years younger compatriot, Wilander became the youngest champion in the history at Roland Garros playing actually the same type of tennis, even Wilander’s backhand technique at the time was almost Borg’s copy, so releasing the left hand in the moment of hitting the ball. Just like Borg, Wilander was able to be very efficient on clay with endless rallies as well as on grass attacking the net behind the first serve. Despite one more major title, Wilander is arguably behind Edberg in the Holy Trinity of Swedish tennis, but in 1988 he was better than Edberg in the years 1990-91 when finished as No. 1. With a title at Wimbledon ’88, Wilander would be mentioned as a player who enjoyed the best season in the Open Era. That year he won 34 matches “the best of five”, more than anyone in the Open Era.
Peter Lundgren (b. 1965, Gudmundrå)
The Swede known for being a coach of Rios, Federer, Safin & Wawrinka, nonetheless he had his “five minutes” as a player between August and November of 1987. He created an aura of one of the hottest players on the tour defeating a few best guys at the time (Cash 2x, Wilander, Lendl) which allowed him to make an impressive jump from no. 112 to 25. He was bearing the biggest resemblance to Borg with his long hair and headband (double-handed backhand too).
Stefan Edberg (b. 1966, Västervik)
The unique Swede… Just like all others of that generation he was known for a reserved on-court behavior & off-court shyness, but in contrary to others, he was using one-handed backhand, and it’s arguably the best stroke in history. Also he was the only one who was trying to implement serve-and-volley tactic on all surfaces which preserved his legacy of the arguably best attacker in history. Wilander hadn’t natural game to conquer Wimbledon, Edberg hadn’t natural game to conquer Roland Garros, yet he was closer to do this in 1989 than Wilander whenever in London. Comparing three Davis Cup triumphs of the 80s, he wasn’t as important as Wilander, however, Edberg significantly contributed to the fourth Davis Cup victory in 1994, at the time when Järryd & Wilander were still active, but not good enough to be in the team.
Niclas Kroon (b. 1966, Karlstad)
Perhaps the least remembered Swede among players I decided to make short bios about. There was a period when he could believe for better achievements: two weeks in Australia 1989 (won a title in Brisbane, the following week reached the semifinal in Sydney). Known for the ‘Vicht’ salute as a form of celebration. His compatriot Wilander began to use it being on the top, later on it was a standard gesture of Lleyton Hewitt.
Jonas Svensson (b. 1966, Gothenburg)
Parisian phenomenon… The French capital somehow turned him a couple of times into a better player than he really was: two French Open semifinals (1988 and 1990), and two semifinals at Paris-Bercy (1990-91). Two different surfaces, but he was able to play from the back of the court (where his dropshots were very efficient) as well as at the net, rather avoiding a regular S/V. My first favorite player when I witnessed his route to the semifinal at Bercy ’90 where he barely lost to Becker.
Magnus Gustafsson (b. 1967, Lund)
Late-bloomer, he is actually associated with the 90s. Perhaps his later development made an impact on his longevity, and as the only Swede born in the 60s, he was still dangerous in his early 30s. The player known for enormous forehand swing to hit the ball flat (similar technique had Magnus Larsson, b. 1970), and extreme position to serve on ad-court. Biggest title: Stuttgart ’93 (clay). Contributed to the Davis Cup ’94 and ’98 triumphs. Tough to call him “third best Swede born in the 60s” but only Wilander & Edberg collected more titles and won more matches.
Ulf Stenlund (b. 1967, Falun)
An enigma, a meteor. 17 days younger than Gustafsson. One of the most impressive debuts at the main-level. He had never played a Grand Prix event when – as a 19 y.o. player No. 101 – advanced to the fourth round at French Open ’86 destroying three opponents! In 1993 he made a cameo in Monte Carlo after being sidelined for a few years, and as a qualifier won both matches 6-1, 6-1 before losing 0-6, 1-6!
Christian Bergström (b. 1967, Gothenburg)
Some sort of a mystery. Three-time major quarter-finalist even though he didn’t win a title (only two finals, both in the same city – Adelaide – and on both occasions he was very close to win those finals in straights). Not interested in doubles. Just like Gustafsson, made his first respectable results in the late 80s, but generally associated with the 90s.
Kent Carlsson (b. 1968, Eskilstuna)
A prodigy, just like Borg & Wilander, he was able to reach very high level already as a 17-year-old boy (16 y.o. when triumphed at Orange Bowl). Due to chronic problems with knees, he was almost entirely dedicated to clay-courts. Thanks to heavy spins off both sides and extraordinary patience, he was exceptionally efficient on the red surface; unfortunately he never even reached the quarterfinal at Roland Garros, but he could be perceived as a potentially most successful player in Paris in the 90s. In the 90s he didn’t play at all, finished his career at the age of 21 having played 17 Grand Prix finals. Given the win/loss ratio, he’s as good as Edberg, better than Wilander (75% vs 72%)! Best result: triumph in Hamburg ’88.
Henrik Holm (b. 1968, Täby)
As opposed to Carlsson, he needed a lot of time to play his best tennis. It happened in 1992. He was a sensation of the second part of the season when moved from no. 137 to 19, defeating great players like Lendl, Becker & Courier. In 1993 he also stunned Stich (3-1 in New York), Edberg (3-2 in Paris) the following year, which puts him in a special category of players who never won a main-level title despite having defeated so many legends of the game.
Jan Apell (b. 1969, Gothenburg)
The only Top 100 Swede born in the 60s who was a left-hander and the only one who played his best tennis turning 25, so the age when many Swedes had their best times already behind. In 1994 he almost reached a final on grass (Queens Club), the following year advanced to the Stuttgart final on clay. In 1994 he enjoyed his best year as a doubles player partnering fellow Swede, Jonas Björkman (b. 1972) – they claimed ‘Masters’ title and won all four rubbers leading to the Davis Cup triumph.
# The Swedes won 13 out of 39 Grand Slam titles in the 80s (Wilander 7, Borg 3, Edberg 3) – each of these three players finished seasons as the best in the world: Borg 1979-80, Wilander 1988, Edberg 1990-91.
# They won 2 out of 10 ‘Masters’ in the 80s (Borg 1, Edberg 1); Wilander finished as a runner-up once.
# Edberg got two Olympic medals: 1984 (unofficial Gold) & 1988 (official Bronze)
# Four major titles for the all Swedish pairs in the 80s:
(2 – Järryd/Edberg, 1 – Järryd/H.Simonsson, 1 – Wilander/Nyström)
# Two Masters titles (all-Swedish affair in the ’85 final!); Bronze medal at the Olympics ’88
# Järryd in 1985, Edberg in 1986, they occupied the No. 1; Wilander was No. 3 in 1985, Nyström No. 4 in 1986, Apell & Holm were Nos. 10 in 1994 (H.Simonsson ten years before)
# Davis Cup – Sweden advanced to the finals in the years 1983-89, triumphing thrice (1984-85 & 87), Wilander participated in the biggest number of finals (six, skipped ’86); Edberg also in six adding the year 1994 (he skipped ’87)… Hans Olsson (lived 1937-2021) was the team captain in the years 1982-88, “Jonte” Sjögren (b. 1938) in the years 1979-81 and 1989-94
# World Team Cup – Sweden participated in every edition of the 80s, advancing just twice to the finals (1986 – loss to France & 1988 – victory over USA); Edberg won the Cup three times in total, because he was a leading member of the team in the 1991 & 1995 editions
Number of Swedes in the Top 100 singles at the end of the years 1980-89:
3 – 4 – 5 – 8 – 7 – 8 – 12 – 13 – 11 – 10
…written after Indian Wells ’23
Swedes got the Davis Cup trophy also in the years 1997-98 when players born in the 70s were responsible for the successes (however, born in the 60s, Gustafsson highly contributed in 1998). Carl-Axel Hageskog (b. 1954) was the team captain then (1995-2002), the coach of Järryd, Holm & Larsson during the two great decades of Swedish tennis
Administrative division of Sweden (21 counties, the twenty best Swedish players born in the 60s, came from 13 counties, the most from Västra Götaland – 5)