A well-known unknown in the name of tennis

If you mention Per Hjertquist, the entire Swedish tennis community nods knowingly. Similarly in large circles on the international tennis cirquit where the 56-year-old Swede is a known and respected name.

 

At the same time, he is a bit of an unknown. It may seem contradictory. But the explanation for the renowned Per Johan Anders Hjertquists person is relatively unknown because he would rather talk about the players and the events which he represents than about himself and his actions on and off the court.  

It was not like he he clapped his hands in delight at the proposal that we would sit down for an interview who is Per Hjertquist.

 - It actually feels a bit nervous, he says and smiles when we sit down in the in Björn Borg room at the  Salk Tennis Club, the club who’s hallway Hjertquist and the other Kings of Tennis-staff  have called home for the last for several months. 

Tennis has been a very big part of your life for fifty years - how did it happen?

- My father loved tennis. He played for exercise at home in Bodafors and I followed along to watch. I was seven when I started playing myself.  I had my dad's old racket, a white Tretorn Racket and with a grip six, so I found it hard to hold it, he says, smiling at the memory.

At twelve year’s old  Per went othe DM-final.

It was the same year that 15-year-old Bjorn Borg with his successful Davis Cup debut in Bastad created an unprecedented boom around the sport.

For Per Hertquist it was still far from a given to bet on a tennis career.

- I wanted to be a cop and interned twice at the police in Eksjö.

Soon, tennis would take up more and more of Pers time and although Borg obviously was the biggest name to look up to, there was an example closer to home: Birger Andersson or "Bragd-Birger" he merely called after a sensational car from 1975 when Sweden won its’ first of seven Davis Cup titles.

- Thanks to Birger, all the children and younger generation played tennis in Bodafors.

As early as eleven year old got Per play with the district's great son who was nine years older.

"Just hit forehands so you get the ball over the net," cried Birger and perhaps sensed already at this point that his backhand would become his Achilles heel.

 When he turned 15 Hjertquist decided to make a whole-hearted effort. Schoolwork was less important than right after the bell rang for school to cycle to the lake Lake and run 3.5 km.

School was a closed chapter after ninth grade, Per moved to Stockholm, trained four hours a day at KLTK and ran afterwards in the Lill-Jans forest.

How was it to leave home so early?

- It was a big step but I had no own apartment but had rented a room and that gave a sense of security.

 At 16 year Hjertquist qualified for the Stockholm Open. A breakthrough and memorable moment.

But it doesnt beat his first meeting the same year at Copenhagen Airport where Per would  for the first time meet Bjorn Borg.

- I was so nervous I threw up before.

 

And what happened next?

- Good. Bjorn was welcoming and my nervousness vanished after a while.

Borg's coach Lennart Bergelin had invited Per to a ten-day training camp in Barbados and the young Swede realized immediately that the trainings would be something completely different than what he was used to.

- I had trained hard before but this was something  completely different. I was used to warming up a bit for about 15 minutes and then I could take off my sweater and drink some water. But with Björn there was a half-hour warm-up at a very high tempo. And you could not walk, but run and fetch the balls, Per says and continues:

- After three days I was a bit tired and in a workout, I dragged my legs a little. Bjorn said nothing but his eyes said it all. So I immediately had momentum again and was back on my feet, ha ha.

What do you think about the possibility that one day we will see Borg play Kings of Tennis?

- Of course it's a big wish of ours. It would be absolutely fantastic. We'll see.

The training at Barbados produced results. Shortly thereafter Per won the Rolex International, where he was in the finals and defeated Ivan Lendl.

During junior career Hjertquist also won the title in the US Open boys' singles and he was world number two after just Lendl who later came to dominate the world of tennis for many years.

During the WCT Finals in Dallas in 1978, Per was one of four young hopefuls for the future of tennis that was invited by the organizer. One evening there was a dinner for 250 guests and the four players were greeted by a welcoming applause.

The MC added that the young promising Swede Per Hjertquist, had his father Waith with him.

- Dad stood up, and people applauded politely. I then gesture that Dad could sit down. He did not speak English so I knew he would not say anything but he just stood for a while. It was a bit embarrasing.

The applause stopped soon. Waith Hjertquist stood. The crowd was quiet in the room.

Suddenly the silence was broken, and the equally surprised as fascinated guests realized that the young Swede's father was blessed with a wonderful singing voice.

- Tennis and opera were his major interests, and he sang opera in the Sjöman’s Church.

The performance in Dallas was met with cheers and even today Per Hjertquist meets people who talk about their memories of that evening.

- What first appeared to be an embarrassing moment was something that I am very proud of, says Per who has not inherited his father's musicality.                                                                                                                               

- I can not sing, I tried to learn to play the guitar but no ...

Bu the improved more and more with a racket in hand. An ATP title in singles, two singles finals, a number of semi-finals, three doubles titles, and a 68th-place in the rankin, is in hindsight today enough to be ranked number 1 in Sweden.

Still, Per Hjertquist means that he played during a perfect time.

- Swedish tennis was so popular at that time. Thanks to Bjorn, we got so much for free. He opened all the doors and we also received much media attention. I have seven or eight filled scrapbooks at home.

If you look often in them?

- It happens sometimes. The kids (children Christian, Josefine and Anton) think it's fun to check out what I've done. And I would rather  show the scrapbooks than my grades for them, he says, laughing.

Per, who is careful with his words about his own career during which he defeated the likes of Nastase, Orantes and other top players who Dibbs, Pfister, Solomon and Smid.

 - I was super motivated when I met those guys. But I had the more difficulties playing my best against no-know talens in the first round of a small tournament. It was a weakness.

At a double semifinal in Bastad in 1986, Pers said farewell from his professional career.

But it was also the beginning of something new, but what he did not know at this point.

 

After two months improving his grades, a call came that gave the answer.

-m "Lunkan" (pro Peter Lundgren, my note) called and asked if I could help him. He was ranked 110 at that time. We worked together for five years, and  "Lunkan" climbed to number 22. I also worked a year with "Jocke" (Joakim Nystrom).

Although Per Hjertquist had a successful professional career, he has had at least as strong impression after it.

During his 26 years at International Management Group (IMG), he was involved to signing among others, Federer, Hingis, Safin and all of the latest Swedish stars.

 

- For ten years it was my responsibility to check all players IMG-signed.

What are you looking at most in new talent?

- How they move, timing and eye on the ball. It has to be there and the players who have it stand out. I saw Federer when he was 14 years old and it was obvious that he would be fantastic. Similarly, such as Safin and Kafelnikov.

IMG arranged for a number of years the If Stockholm Open, where Hjertquist after a few years of the competition committee, took the place of Johan Flink as tournament director.

 

- These ten years very educative and inspiring years. Sampras, "McEnroe" Agassi and numerous other stars were there. I am very happy about how the event developed.

After years of the Stockholm Open suggested Per that IMG should start a tournament on the Champions Tour.

- Interest was not high, I asked if I could start a tournament on my own. They said yes, which was great.

Hjertquist contacted Fredrik Alama atindex, they talked together and Index became the Title sponsor and owner of the brand Kings of Tennism, while Hjertquist manages the event and owns the tournament license.

 

Didn’t you fear that the tournament might not go home with the Swedish audience?

- No, I was convinced that it would be successful. We also had many and very strong sponsors right from the start.

Several other actors in the Swedish tennis have a very hard time attracting business, while Kings of Tennis seems gaining speed each year.  

 

Is it the tournament's merit or yours?

- The tournament is fantastic, just look at all the stars who have been involved over the years.  The Coaches Conference, Finance Day and Charity  Banquet are all very important elements that not only broaden the event but also improve it further.  

Then Hjertquist turns a bit more in his chair and says, as though in passing:

- Selling, establishing and developing cooperation with sponsors my strength, I guess.

 

He stopped working at IMG two years ago but has a consultancy agreement with the company and Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Rebecca Peterson and brothers Elias Ymer and Michael are among some of the clients.

In addition, Per volunteers in the Stefan Edberg Foundation and the Streber Foundation.

 

The future?

Per sits quietly for a moment, then says:

- Nothing is decided yet but I would love to create something more that can help Swedish tennis to develop.

More than that I cannot get out of him, and the interview is nearing its end. But it is of course impossible to stop without telling us about how he almost 20 years ago discovered the allure of forestry which today occupies a large part of his leisure.

- We bought a farm with a lot of forest in the southern part of Sweden (Småland)and I love to be there with the family. Cutting and clearing, trimming, chopping, splitting and stacking wood is so incredibly beneficial, not only for the body but also the soul.

With a dreamy gaze, Per Hjertquist disappears a moment to his favorite place in the forests of Småland.

 

Jonas Arnesen, tennis reporter

Kings of tennis

8-10 Mars 2017