Letter from an all-time classic6 min read . Updated: 11 Dec 2017, 12:28 PM IST
Was the 1980 Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe the greatest tennis match ever?
In USA Today’s list (in 2015) of 10 most memorable men’s tennis matches of all time, this one ranks at No. 2. It features in Sky Sports’ list of greatest Wimbledon matches of all time; BBC has it, as does any other listing made by tennis writers or fans.
In this generation, we have only heard of the 1980 Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Some of us have seen sepia-toned video footage of it—wooden racquets, tight shorts et al. But was it the greatest match ever?
Every passing generation’s consideration of “the best" invariably corresponds to what’s more contemporary. So when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played that final in 2008, it suddenly became the best ever. Even McEnroe, by now a commentator, thought so, though he did not have the privilege of watching the 1980 final live from the sidelines—because he was playing it.
A player’s “greatness" and the “epic" nature of a match exist in the present—future generations will have a different perspective. So, while there is never any doubt about the quality of tennis in this 1980 final, many of us did not live through the build up to it, the drama behind the scenes and the personal stories involved.
The other factor is that while Federer and Nadal may have different playing styles and personalities, they are not as dramatically contrasting as Borg and McEnroe were, which gave added impetus to the latter’s rivalry.
This is not an attempt to compare the rivalries or the matches, but to contextualize the 1980 match.
Janus Metz’s new feature film, Borg vs. McEnroe, which released in India this Friday, helps a bit. The film may not provide brand new insights into the Borg-McEnroe saga, but it can connect fans of this generation to a bygone era through the medium of visual storytelling. For those of us who are constantly searching for answers to what champions are made of, there are some revelations in this.
Borg, by then a four-time champion at Wimbledon and chasing a record fifth-straight title, was the present-day version of a monk on grass. Many called him a machine for his unexpressive demeanour, clinical performances on court and seeming invincibility. The Swede was a 24-year-old athlete at the prime of his career, constantly honing his craft, hitting ball after ball in a search of perfection.
His challenger, built up enthusiastically by the press, was a brash, 21-year-old American. McEnroe is shown as being hugely unpopular, mainly for his tantrums and bad temper considered unsuitable for the gentlemanly sport of tennis. He is a natural talent, who is never shown practicing or training. He is the antithesis to Borg.
Yet, both are plagued with insecurities and self-doubt—due to the pressure of expectation, loneliness and inability to share or articulate what they are going through.
Written by Ronnie Sandahl, the film shows Borg as a brooding champion, fighting battles in his head, public pressure and dealing with close relationships.
As a young teenager, Borg is given to temper tantrums on court because he hates losing. But his Davis Cup coach Lennart Bergelin (played by Stellan Skarsgard) lays down a condition for him—load your rage, fear and panic into every stroke (but don’t express it on court).
In the final, McEnroe does the same. Time and again, as one line call after another goes against him, despite expectations from the commentators of a meltdown, McEnroe plays without drama. He channels his rage against his opponent and the tennis ball.
In his book Serious, co-authored by James Kaplan, McEnroe says, “I never acted like a jerk when I played Borg. I respected him too much; I respected the occasion."
McEnroe shocked everyone, winning the first set 6-1, but Borg clawed back to take the next two 7-5, 6-3. The fourth set went into a tie-breaker before McEnroe won it 18-16.
“That fourth set tie-breaker we’d played at Wimbledon had begun to take on mythic overtones, and as great as it had been, in my private moments, I sometimes wondered if the sportswriters and commentators weren’t being a little… poetic about it," Mac wrote later.
But in the fifth set, Borg got stronger and stronger—results of the intense amount of training—while McEnroe wilted and the Swede won the title.
McEnroe won the crowd’s appreciation for the performance but he also realized that he could beat Borg, which he did the next year for his maiden Wimbledon title.
Borg retired in 1983 from tennis, while McEnroe won three titles overall at the All England Club.
If Borg and McEnroe were playing in this day and age, I would expect young McEnroe to be the more popular one. His game of finesse combined with his explosive personality would have suited this generation more. He would have been on all social media platforms, telling every troll to “shut up" and “you can’t be serious".
But then, 37 years ago, Borg was the hero. Women clamoured to get a glimpse of the long-haired athlete; a picture, an autograph or more. Over the years, though, McEnroe mellowed and is today a popular commentator, though he never became the heartthrob his rival was.
Watching the film Borg vs. McEnroe, which has been termed as inaccurate by both players in interviews, reminded me on an incident. Borg was in Mumbai to play a veteran’s tennis tournament at the Cricket Club of India many years ago. This was before the proliferation of the internet and there were only a few reporters from newspapers who were lining up to speak to him.
One evening, after his match, as I waited to talk to him along with a young woman from a TV channel, we were told that Borg would like to speak in the men’s changing room. He perhaps didn’t want to be seen in a public area and there were no other accessible private spaces around. As a sports correspondent, this was not an unusual scenario for me, but the new reporter from the channel recoiled in horror. She said she would not be comfortable stepping into the men’s room.
A former, multiple-time Indian tennis national champion, who was standing with us, sighed. “20 years ago," he murmured, bringing up the past, “Ladies like you would have run over each other to see Bjorn topless."
As McEnroe explains in his book, “That’s the funny thing about tennis points, and games: They may be awe-inspiring at the moment, but then—except for the videotape, which really tells only a little bit of the story—the moment is gone. They’re like poetry written on water."
Nearly two decades after Borg gave up tennis, abandoned his passionate fans, buried the conflictions arising due to tennis, and said goodbye to a lucrative career, he sat in a dimly-lit changing room at a club in Mumbai, wearing only his shorts, talking to me.
A decade-and-a-half after I interviewed Borg, thanks to a new movie, I see the irony of that situation—fame and greatness, like almost everything else, alter with time.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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