Bjorn again – An Irishman’s Diary about coming to terms with my inner Swede
“It all began when I sat down to write a letter to the Swedish embassy in Dublin.” Photograph: Thinkstock
Today at 5pm Ireland take on Sweden at Euro 2016. Normally I would be with my Swedish compatriots in Stockholm this afternoon, wearing the yellow and blue and shouting “Heja Sverige” but a traumatic incident that took place when I was a child ruined all that.
It all began when I sat down to write a letter to the Swedish embassy in Dublin. I felt it my duty to bring to their attention that I had discovered many similarities between the way I play tennis and that of the Swedish great, Bjorn Borg.
TopspinI wrote: “As with Mr Borg, I am a baseliner who plays with heavy topspin on my ground strokes and I rarely approach the net. Like Mr Borg, my game is best suited to clay courts but because we don’t have any clay courts in Ireland, I would like you to consider bringing me to Sweden to be coached by Mr Bergelin (Lennart Bergelin – Borg’s coach). At school, the teacher showed us some pictures of really nice cottages in a Swedish forest with people swimming in a lake and laughing, so I could live in one of these. I will work very hard and try to be a champion”.
Coded messageAs I waited for the Swedish authorities to put an exit plan into place for me, it didn’t escape my notice that those men out walking their dogs behind the courts I played on were – in most likelihood – actually Swedish tennis spies who had been alerted of my talent by the embassy (I’d say by coded message) and had come to Dublin to get in on my career early. The Swedes are like that – always planning ahead for the next generation.
I had to be grown-up about this; there was pressure on me. I didn’t have a suitcase but I kept my school bag packed with my tennis gear and a Galtee cheese sandwich wrapped in tin foil in case they just arrived in a Saab car one day and said “We must go to Sweden now – there is a tournament in Malmo”.
Raw herringThe Galtee cheese sandwich was because a school friend had told me that his Auntie had been in Sweden and they had made her eat raw herring and she was sick afterwards. I thought deeply about this. The vomiting I could handle but eating raw herring didn’t feature at all in my career plan. That Galtee cheese sandwich would get me through my first days by which stage I could write to my parents to get some more cheese sandwiches posted over to my nice cottage in the forest in Sweden.
It took the Swedish embassy 17 days to reply to my letter. In a big white envelope that didn’t even fit through the letter box, they had sent me a lovely magazine all about tourism in Sweden.
There was also a letter which I will paraphrase here: “Dear Brian, thank you for your interest in Sweden. Here is a lovely magazine about our country. Bjorn Borg lives in Monaco now and we don’t have his address. Good luck with your tennis. Now f**k off and leave us alone”.
TraumaI’ve never really recovered from reading that. I stopped writing letters to the Swedish embassy and became a teenager instead.
I was thinking of my childhood trauma when I arrived in Stockholm’s Arlanda airport for the first time some two decades later on a sunny June afternoon. I took the high-speed train link from Arlanda to Stockholm central train station, then walked to where I was staying on the beautiful waterside boulevard of Strandvägen.
As I turned the corner, I came face to face with Bjorn Borg (he lives on Strandvägen, I found out later). There he was in front of me – all blond and beautiful, looking like he was wearing clothes made out of the finest silk in the world. He was the reason I first put a tennis racquet in my hand, he was the first love of my life, I was going to be him when I grew up. We even have the same initials – God had done that for a reason.
I should have taken his hands in mine, said “I love you, Bjorn” and his eyes would have twinkled as he replied “I know, Brian. You should have been me”.
But instead he just kept walking, leaving me there frozen to the spot.
BackhandI gazed out over the water thinking about the Donnay Borg racquet (it had an extended grip for the two-handed backhand) I had saved up to buy in Stillorgan Shopping Centre, the wristbands I used to carefully hand-wash in the sink and endless, joy-filled summer evenings playing against “Jimmy Connors” (my school friend) where the matches would go on so long, we would have to play the fifth set in the dark.
I couldn’t sleep that night in Strandvägen so in the early morning, I travelled to Hagaparken in the Swedish countryside.
As dawn broke, I hired a bike and cycled and cycled around the forest in a daze. I was looking for my life.
Through a clearing I found it: it was a really nice cottage in a forest with people swimming in a lake and laughing.