When Sweden’s Björn Rune Borg was the teenage golden boy and resident Lothario of men’s tennis, he told friends, “When you read about my engagement, you’ll know that I’ve had it.”
It has been eight months since Borg, now 20, and Rumanian tennis pro Mariana Simionescu, 20, secretly exchanged gold engagement bands in London and moved in together. If domestic bliss has dulled Borg’s killer instincts, it is not yet evident.
In those eight months he has won Wimbledon, finished second at the U.S. Open to his most formidable rival, Jimmy Connors, and defeated Connors at the Pepsi Grand Slam in Boca Raton, Fla. “I get you finally,” muttered Borg after downing Connors in January. “It will be a great year.”
If it is, it will be due partly to the natural maturation of an enormously talented athlete and partly to the calming effect Mariana has had on her sometimes bumptious young roommate.
Björn says, “Mariana seems to understand me better than anyone I’ve known. I don’t feel that I have to impress her. She knows who I am and accepts me.” And Borg’s coach Lennart Bergelin adds, “Mariana has helped Björn gain self-confidence. She has settled him down.”
That Borg and Simionescu, who met and romanced at Wimbledon in 1975, are together at all is politically improbable. The Rumanian government has permitted men’s tour star Ilie Nastase to play wherever he wanted, but until last year Mariana could compete in only a few international events. “They think there is no one else but Nastase,” Mariana says. “Me, they say, you nice girl, you stay home and play.”
Last September, while she and her father, Oprea, a former office manager, were in the U.S., they applied for political asylum. (Her mother, Marie, still lives in Rumania.) “I love my country,” Mariana later said, “but now I have another love and I want to be with him. And I want to play tennis too.” A few weeks later the image-conscious Rumanian government notified Mariana that she was free to travel at will.
Borg, too, has had his problems with his country. Because Swedish taxes were swallowing 95 percent of his $500,000-plus annual earnings, he chose not to live in his native land. He now has an apartment in Monte Carlo and a three-bedroom condominium on Hilton Head Island, S.C., where he and Mariana have set up housekeeping. Nevertheless, in return for free plane fare, he still wears Scandinavian Airlines patches on his shirts, and he collects $50,000 a year for sporting Tuborg sweatbands to promote the Scandinavian beer and soft drinks. He is also a member of Sweden’s Davis Cup team.
Björn was raised in Södertälje, 10 miles from Stockholm, where his parents were grocers. When he was 9, his father, Rune, won a tennis racket in a table tennis tournament and gave it to Björn. Six years later Björn was selected to play on Sweden’s Davis Cup team. At 16 he won the junior championship at Wimbledon.
In 1973, after dropping out of school, Borg made his first appearance on center court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon. Aided by a male players’ boycott, he made the tournament quarterfinals. As far as many female fans were concerned, though, his blond good looks and playful manner made him the new champ.
When he returned to Wimbledon in 1974 after becoming the youngest player ever to win the Italian and French Opens, he was followed by worshiping crowds. One troupe of Borg-crazed young ladies even gang-tackled him. Shaken but calm, Borg scrambled free, smiled politely and said, “It is nice to know that finally I am being appreciated.”
Björn quickly acquired a reputation for disappointing as few of his young admirers as possible. In a sport known for its gallants, Borg was the top seed in the Groupie Open. “Ah, the girls,” he says with a feigned pout, “they are so nice to me. They say, you such a fantastic tennis player, Björn. You make so many dollars. They want me to take them to the disco so they can show off. But they don’t want me for love.”
Mariana did. “In London, I would see pictures of all these young girls after him,” she says. “I would think, That poor boy.’ But I would wonder what kind of person was he.” She got one answer when Borg was photographed indelicately pulling up his pants after a romantic interlude in London’s Hyde Park. “Björn, he was very upset by that picture,” Mariana says. “I was upset. My father was upset too.”
Borg eventually won over both of them. The three of them currently live together on Hilton Head Island. “Now my father and Björn are very close,” she says. “It’s like he’s Björn’s father too.”
Thus far Mariana has not distinguished herself on the women’s circuit, her most impressive performance coming at Wimbledon in 1974 when she was runner-up for the girls’ junior championship. “She hits big and tough like a man,” says Borg, who practices with Mariana up to five hours a day. “But I tell her, Scumpa [Romanian for sweetheart], the ball, it must come down on the court before it flies over the baseline.”
Borg scoffs at suggestions that he and Mariana have taken over the tennis world’s display-of-affection title recently vacated by Connors and Chris Evert. But the Cleveland Nets of World Team Tennis thought enough of their skills and romantic appeal to sign them to a $1.2 million, three-year contract.
Both are fiercely competitive, even at home playing backgammon. One place Björn is not a competitor, however, is in the household chores. “I want that we should be happy all the time, so I stay out of the kitchen,” he says as he patters over to their electric stove.
Mariana, all concentration, is making a fiery Rumanian dish called qimazare cu carne de pui—sweet peas, chicken and hot sauce. Borg bites her earlobe, then backs off innocently. Puckering up, he says, “Pus, pus [kiss, kiss]. Scumpa, it is true, no, that you kill me if I come in the kitchen?” Mariana menacingly waves a ladle at him and laughs, “Yes, it is so.” (Later she admits, “When Björn likes my food, my heart is so full of happiness.”)
Content and mutually supportive as they seem, neither wants to rush into marriage. “People always ask me, ‘When you get married, when you get married?’ ” Borg says. “We’re still surprised that we’re getting along okay. It takes me six years to get engaged, maybe in another six I get married. Okay, Scumpa?” Mariana smiles as she nods her head. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.”