Sweden’s road back to tennis stardom runs through Ethiopia

by Zelalem
  • The rebirth of Swedish tennis may have begun 12 years ago on a roadside in Skara, Sweden, a small town a few hours from the capital.

    That’s where a pair of young boys named Elias and Mikael Ymer would trudge up and down while their father, a professional long-distance runner, urged them to follow in his footsteps. All 10 kilometers of them.

    But they just weren’t seeing the appeal. “He wanted me and my brother to be runners, but I don’t like to run so much,” Elias said.

    “He hated running,” confirmed younger brother Mikael, with a look that suggests he wasn’t that high on it himself.

    Then one day, about half an hour from their house, a weary Elias decided he needed a bathroom break. Looking for one, the boys went into a tennis club up the road, where they spotted some people on the courts. For the then 8-year-old Elias, running around hitting a tennis ball looked a lot more appealing than running on the road.

    “So we watched, played a little bit, and then every day it was tennis,” Mikael told ESPN.com.

    Their father, Wondwosen, had watched tennis players like Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, and he liked the sport. Wondwosen decided it might be time to take his reluctant sons off the road, especially since their complaints also had their mother suggesting they stop.

    ”Because obviously we had no energy; we weren’t happy when we went,” said Mikael.

    And while running had Elias dragging his heels, he couldn’t get enough of tennis, playing as much as he could. Mikael recalls he got his start when his brother “wasn’t happy on the court one day, so my dad gave me the racket to first time play against the machine.”

    “My dad saw I was hitting it very well,” he said.

    By the time they were 11 and 9, respectively, the brothers were playing junior finals against each other and becoming the youngest to win the national doubles in their age group. Their father took them all across Sweden by car, building their relationship as well as their game. “Very good memories for me,” said Mikael, who switched to football for a while, but decided he didn’t like the team aspect of the game.

    They kept at it, eventually joined by a third brother, Rafael, and became top juniors.

    But while they were growing up, Swedish tennis was on its way down. The country had been one of the sport’s powerhouses in the 1980s, with successive No.1s Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, followed by a crowd of top-10 regulars like Jonas Bjorkman, Thomas Johansson and Magnus Norman among a host of other players.

    Then it dried up, with Robin Soderling becoming the lone Swede presence. After he left the game, there were no Swedes in the top 200 for a while. A nation that was accustomed to hoisting Davis Cup trophies has recently been turning to semi-retired players to fill its ranks.

    “We did too well,” explained Bjorkman in an interview with ESPN.com. “I remember we won Davis Cup in 1997 and we won back-to-back, so we won in 1998, and they had this sports award gala, and we were not even nominated of the top three teams, because that was routine. It was supposed to be like that. And that got into the federations as well. We’re going to produce great players all the time.

    “All the countries were coming to look at Sweden, to look at the Swedish way of playing, coaching and all that, and they improved it.”

    As Bjorkman sees it, several of the country’s top coaches, such as Thomas Hogstedt and Peter Lundgren, were lured elsewhere, and the quality of coaching fell.

    “They were the ones who were supposed to help the new young coaches,” Bjorkman said. “A lot of our kids didn’t have very good technique, and it’s a lot tougher to get good if you don’t have good technique from the beginning.”

    It changed when the country’s former top players stepped in, he added, though they had to convince the existing coaches that their experience counted. “In Sweden, it’s very important that everyone is equal,” said the former No. 4. “In the beginning now the coaches back home were like, we shouldn’t come in and do something now; they can do it.

    “[We] explained, we’re not different but we can learn. I did tons of mistakes, and if you ask the other Swedish players, they did a lot of mistakes that they learned from.

    “But it’s good that a lot of guys have been coming back and getting involved.”

    The most prominent has been Magnus Norman, who together with Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillstrom formed the Good to Great Tennis Academy 3½ years ago to develop promising players.

    “Instead of talking about how bad everything is, let’s do something,” was Norman’s description of their discussion in an interview with ESPN.com. “What it came down to is that practice needs to be better, the whole approach to player development needs to change a little bit. But instead of saying how things should be done, we actually wanted to do it ourselves.”

    They designed a development system, and attempted to bring together good players, also going with them to tournaments. The academy has now grown to 40 players and 11 coaches.

    “It’s really a professional program,” said Norman, who juggles coaching Swiss star Stan Wawrinka with his presence at the academy. “We are there every day from seven in the morning to help the young kids.

    “I might also see that other clubs are also starting to copy a little what we are doing, and this gives me a lot of satisfaction. This is probably the biggest impact that we have.”

    Among those who joined the academy in Stockholm when it began were Elias and Mikael, who wanted to learn to be professionals from those who had done it themselves. “Obviously we had a great coach but it comes to a point when you need someone with more experience,” said Mikael. “It was obvious we were going there.”

    While the Swedish federation sends them to team events and Grand Slams, the academy and sponsors have helped them play other events, accelerating their development. Elias, 19, began the season by qualifying for the Australian Open and reached the second round a week ago in Barcelona, cracking the top 200 as a result. He left the academy to go to Barcelona, working with Galo Blanco, who seems impressed with his new player. Mikael, 16, has risen to No. 12 in the juniors. The brothers, along with Christian Lindell, 23, and a few younger juniors, are leading Sweden back to a presence in tennis.

    The brothers didn’t have to run far to get to the tennis club that started them off in their Swedish town, but the road that took them there was a longer and more winding one. Their parents are both from Ethiopia, with their father leaving to escape the conflict in his homeland, and their mother, Kelem, a doctor, unable to return from attending university in Moscow and going to Sweden instead. Somehow they connected, married and had sons who found their way onto the tennis courts.

    “I don’t know, it’s just luck I guess. I could be in Ethiopia right now and I could be a runner, but I’m a tennis player,” Elias said following the first round at the Australian Open, reflecting on his improbable route to becoming Sweden’s most promising player.

    And should he or his fellow up-and-comers break through, they will have plenty of others to inspire, which could produce even more players.

    “Well, tennis is huge in Sweden right now when it comes to the amateur level. We have about 2,000 kids [trying] to get into the clubs in Stockholm, we don’t have enough courts,” said Bjorkman. “Now everyone who grew up with Borg and Mats and Stefan, they’ve got families. They played a lot of tennis before and now they get the kids into tennis.”

    All they need is somewhere to play.

    Bjorkman noted: “If [officials] can get involved to help us build more tennis courts, it’d help the game.”

    And presumably, make sure they’re well-equipped with bathrooms. Elias and Mikael may not have wanted to be runners, but they could put Sweden back on the path to tennis prominence.

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