Manufactured in Sweden, assembled in America: Filip Bergevi and his role in the Swedish tennis crisis

Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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Across the Atlantic and in the Nordic north, there is a young Swede named Filip Bergevi practicing his strokes in an indoor tennis court. Eyeing the edges of the painted lines, Bergevi unleashes a powerful serve. The ball spins and skids across the corner lines. Ace. The court echoes with approval.

For Bergevi, it’s just another day at the National Tennis Center in Bastad, where he has been living and breathing tennis for the past few years. The invitation to train with Sweden’s junior development program is a sign of Bergevi’s star potential and Sweden’s piqued interest in him. After all, with his tall and toned build, Bergevi has all the tools necessary for a professional career: a strong and steady serve, powerful yet fluid strokes and an innate intelligence to end points at net. Level-headed yet quietly confident, Bergevi carries himself well both on- and off-court.

But in the bigger picture, Bergevi is only a microcosm of Sweden’s growing desperation to create the next generation of superstars.

The main rival to American tennis in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, Sweden has been losing most of its potential pro players to other sports. Gone are the days when the country exported the likes of Mats Wilander, Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg to the tennis history books. As Sweden’s popularity in mainstream tennis culture waned in the following years, the country shifted its priorities to focus on the juniors, including Bergevi, who was top ranked nationally with a modestly formidable presence on the international circuit.

When Bergevi returned from his tour in South America, he brought home a Grade 1 ITF trophy from Venezuela, the biggest win of his junior career. Sweden partially attributed his success to the training program. While the claim was true, Bergevi couldn’t shake off the growing inner itch to go beyond Swedish borders.

“In Sweden, they don’t have a good concept of ‘after high school,’ ” Bergevi says. “Either you had to study full time or go professional. You had to go pro without any help economically.”

He thought about going pro, yet he wanted a college education. Sweden couldn’t offer both. He thought about playing at an American college: Mississippi, where several Swedish national coaches were employed, sounded appealing enough. Like any story of the American Dream goes, Bergevi, a casualty of the Swedish juniors development program, saw the States as the land of opportunity.

“They (Sweden) really wanted new players,” Bergevi says. “But they had a bad system three or four years ago, and because of that, we couldn’t get any players from the juniors to the pros.”

Thus, Sweden was reluctant to let Bergevi go; he was one of the nation’s prized investments. The country’s need for retention stemmed from its acceptance that it was falling from those glory days. It wasn’t too long ago when Sweden held all singles championship titles from the four Grand Slams. Sweden’s current generation of top players only includes Robin Soderling — the first man to defeat Rafael Nadal on clay — who is on indefinite leave to recuperate from mononucleosis. Along the way, top Swedish coaches left to coach foreign players.

In a recent article in the New York Times, former Swedish grand slam champion Thomas Johansson said, “What I’m afraid of is that if we find a 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old guy, everybody is going to be on him. They’re going to give him everything. And that makes me a little bit scared as well.”

Bergevi is a case study of this. As a teen, Bergevi enjoyed the spoils of being a world-ranked junior. The Swedish federation funded his travels around the world, provided the otherwise difficult-to-secure coaches and facilities and connected him to various professionals, including the legend Edberg himself. It wasn’t entirely rosy, though. Bergevi found it hard to relate to Edberg, whose time as a Swedish junior included a meteoric rise to the pro circuit. But overall, Bergevi felt Sweden’s interest in him was superficial and fickle.

“The bad thing is, they based everything on your results,” Bergevi said. “If I didn’t play good for half a year, they would not choose me to the national team, and I would get no support. They couldn’t guarantee me a spot on the international team.”

Once Bergevi’s age would deem him ineligible for the juniors circuit, he would enter a new threshold of instability. The coaches, the traveling expenses, the training facilities would no longer be provided; he would be on his own in finding sponsors and space.

“I had a pretty good professional ranking, but I felt like I needed a couple more years to develop,” Bergevi says.

Time was running out.

The indoor tennis court booms again. This time, Bergevi is in New York, playing doubles at the U.S. Open Juniors with his partner, Mikael Torpegaard of Denmark.

Torrential downpour forced the juniors to play at another venue, away from the bright stadium lights of Flushing Meadows. Eager to recruit Torpegaard, Cal’s head coach, Peter Wright, even took the hourlong train ride upstate to watch him play. There, Wright discovered Torpegaard was NCAA-ineligible, and the extra efforts the coach had taken were becoming futile. That is, until Wright turned to Bergevi. The rest, as Wright sees it, was smooth sailing. It was a perfect fit for the two: a prestigious American university with a successful tennis program for Bergevi, a top-ranked international recruit with a good personality to match for Wright.

“It was kind of a fluke that Filip ended up here, but at the end of the day, it’s extremely positive for our team, for our university and for Filip,” Wright says.

The freshman Bergevi has been growing tremendously under the American collegiate tennis program. He defeated former UCLA star Dennis Novikov at a challenger tournament, a victory deemed the “biggest win of anybody on the team.” The Swedish tennis federation conceded Bergevi’s move, acknowledging it was better for him and, eventually and hopefully, the country.

“I like it here,” Bergevi says. “I like the guys here. I like playing on the team; it makes you better. This is kind of a new experience for me, playing on a team. This is a good way for me.”

As an extension of Swedish player development, the Swedish tennis federation has given Bergevi wildcards to professional tournaments. Consequently, Bergevi plans to go back home for the summer to compete. He dreams of turning pro one day as he eyes a top-100 professional ranking. But for time being, Bergevi is content.

“I can play tennis and still get an education, so I think this is perfect,” Bergevi said.

Jennifer Yu covers men’s tennis. Contact her at [email protected].