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Sports Articles: Rivalries 3: Borg v McEnroe

Rivalries 3: Borg v McEnroe
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Rivalries No 3 - Bjorn Borg v John McEnroe


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Rivalries in sport can often become bigger than the sport itself, this particular rivalry, known as 'Fire and Ice' was one of those, despite it only existing for a short period before Borg's shock retirement. It was enough to spawn a Hollywood movie (which actually starred Borg's son as him in the film, though Borg himself had no involvement in it} in 2017, though both players have heavily criticised the film's accuracy since its release.

The 'Ice' part of the rivalry, Bjorn Borg was born in Stockholm in 1956 and only became interested in tennis when his dad won a golden tennis racquet at a table-tennis tournament. The young Bjorn became utterly obsessed with the racquet, so his dad gave it to him and Bjorn would play tennis with it every day. His dedication made him an outstanding player and, by the time he was 13, he was beating Sweden's best 18-year-old players. At 14 he joined the professional tennis circuit and won his first tournament, the Italian Open, aged just 17. At 18 he won his first Grand Slam tournament, the French Open.

His rise was meteoric, but it was also well-managed, with Borg signing with IMG sports management at the age of 15. They moved him to Monte Carlo to live and made him one of the richest athletes the world had ever seen, endorsing everything from beer to breakfast cereal, as well as tennis products. Borg was the pin-up poster boy idol for tennis fans, with an ability to make even the best of his opponents play at his pace and use his incredible fitness to wear opponents down. One of the top tennis professionals at the time, Ilie Nastase said of Borg: "We're playing tennis. He's playing something else." Borg was just a step ahead of the rest as the best in the world, but a new force was coming, albeit with a lot less panache and style of the Swede.

While Borg was living a life of glitz and glamour, McEnroe's entry into the world of professional tennis was a little different: "When I came to Europe for the first time I was given $500 and a plane ticket and that was it for a seven-week period. No one set me up in hotel rooms and I didn't have any coaches either. The US Tennis Association just said, 'Good luck'. You had to fend for yourself. I had to find people I could room with in London and Paris. It made me want to succeed more quickly."

It was not long before McEnroe began to gain his own piece of the sponsorship pie as Nike founder Phil Knight attended his first Wimbledon that year, 1978, and loved the cocky antihero so much Knight signed the 18 year old McEnroe to a shoe deal. While Borg was winning at Roland Garros and Wimbledon that year, McEnroe's early impression of Borg was: "I remember thinking, 'this guy looks so cool. I hope I can be a professional tennis player and experience something of what he is experiencing'." McEnroe remembers the hordes of screaming girls outside the locker room and referred to Borg as like "a Viking god."

So it was that the two met for the first time in the 1978 Stockholm Open. Borg the great world number 1, with two titles under his belt already that year, indoors on an exceptionally sticky surface which favoured the great man's game. McEnroe, the brash, loud, angry young upstart. It was all set for Borg to impose his dominance and put the youngster in his place, so of course McEnroe won in straight sets, bringing himself to the world's attention. Borg was unusually magnanimous about the defeat: "There was little I could do, John just played too well." Unusual for a man who was known for going into sulks that lasted for days after defeats, but it was the opening shot in what would be a great, if short-lived, rivalry that brought tennis to the forefront of the sports world while it lasted.

The following year began to build their rivalry, Borg's calm, cool emotionless play constrasting greatly with McEnroe's tantrums. They were so opposite even down to Borg being right-handed, McEnroe left-handed. Borg had a 2-handed backhand, McEnroe's was one-handed. It was probably because they were so opposite that they caught the public imagination, rather than the concurrent rivalry McEnroe had with fellow American Jimmy Connors. Even though that rivalry was founded on a genuine personal dislike, while Borg and McEnroe clearly liked and respected each other. Borg even said that he was probably the only one who respected McEnroe. Meanwhile Connors, according to McEnroe, would not even acknowledge his existence.

The other difference was that there was a clear goodie and baddie to root for in the Borg/McEnroe duel. Connors was known as the Brat, with McEnroe Superbrat, with neither player being a crowd favourite like the so-called former 'Teen Angel' Borg. With a villain and hero battle, it brings the crowd alive, it matters who wins and Borg was such a hero that McEnroe admitted he was also an idol of his!

That did not stop the American from trying to beat Borg, though he lost both invitational finals that he contested with the Swede in 1979, they also faced each other in six tour events. Borg won out four to two that year in the tour events, but it only made McEnroe work harder to try and reach the same level.

It was the following year that their rivalry became headline news around the world as the pair faced off in the 1980 Wimbledon Men's Singles final. World number 1 Borg had already won his third successive French Open that year and was attempting to win his 5th Wimbledon in a row. McEnroe was world number 2 and entered Centre Court to a chorus of boos, the first time anyone could remember a player being booed on Centre Court. It was McEnroe's first ever Wimbledon final, but he had already upset the crowd with his temper tantrums and heated exchanges with officials in the semi-final win over Jimmy Connors.

What followed is widely regarded as one of the best tennis matches of all time. Borg, who was well known for being a slow starter in matches, was still stretching his legs during the first set, as McEnroe won it 6-1. The Swede then fought back to win the next two 7-5 and 6-3 to head into the fourth with a chance of sealing his fifth Wimbledon title in a row. Despite getting two match points, Borg was unable to finish off the American and the set went to Wimbledon's first ever tie-breaker.

The tie-breaker ended up lasting 20 minutes, as McEnroe saved match point after match point, five in total, making it seven in the set, as the points racked up. Eventually Superbrat beat the Teen Angel 18-16 to make it two sets each and the pair faced a deciding, all-or-nothing final set. Borg was a master at five sets, he was the fittest player on the circuit and that conditioning told as McEnroe was unable to break his serve. Eventually, with the score at 6-6, Borg broke McEnroe's serve and went on to win Wimbledon number five with an 8-6 final set. He sank to his knees in triumph, later admitting it was the first time at Wimbledon that he was afraid to lose.

"I thought.... maybe he will end up winning the match. I have never been so disappointed on a tennis court as when I lost that fourth set. Seven match points and I failed to do it. Every time I had another match point John came up with a great shot." - Bjorn Borg

McEnroe may not have won the match, but he earnt the respect of the crowd and the boos were replaced by an ovation at the end. It took an epic 4 hour battle, which included what has since become known as the 'War of 18-16', but he turned the boos into applause and gave Borg a tremendous fright in the process. The youngster was just devastated that he was unable to turn that fourth set victory into a platform to win the match: "Borg's won Wimbledon four straight times and out there he just lost an 18-16 tie breaker. You'd think just once he'd let up and say forget it. But oh, no way."

Later that year McEnroe was able to get a measure of revenge by beating Borg in the final of the US Open, a tournament the Swede had never won. It was only a small measure of revenge though as Borg always struggled in the heat, humidity, noise and floodlights of Flushing Meadows and he was carrying a knee injury her picked up in the Canadian Open final. To be fair, McEnroe was also hindered by injury, he had twisted his ankle in the second round, so what followed was not a classic match like the Wimbledon final.

In fact Borg's performance was so bad in the second set, particularly his serve, that Curry Kirkpatrick accused him of quitting in Sports Illustrated. After losing the first set, Borg did raise his game, but his serve was still terrible and he missed 12 first serves in a row at one point to lose the second set 6-1. Borg fought back to win the third by tie-break and then the 4th to take it into a 5th set. Borg had won every 5 set match he had played since 1976.

McEnroe said later: "Bjorn, once again capitalising on my fatigue and his superior conditioning, started inching his way back into the match. I'm positive he had our Wimbledon match in mind - I know I did. He must have been thinking that I would wilt again, and the king of the five-setters would once again prevail." However his serve was still failing badly and two double faults gifted McEnroe two break points to win the match. Borg managed to save the first, but not the second and McEnroe got the win. Twice more they faced each other in 1980, but Borg won them both, in straight sets to win the Stockholm Open final and in four sets to win a round robin match in the Masters GP.

At the start of 1981 McEnroe hit back to win the Milan Indoor final by two sets to none, but they were not to meet again until the Wimbledon final. Sadly it was not as exciting as the previous year as McEnroe put an end to Borg's run of Wimbledon titles and the Swede had to settle for 41 Wimbledon matches won in a row as he lost by three sets to one. Though McEnroe did at least stir up some controversy by skipping the Champions Dinner to party with The Pretenders.

They met once more in the final of the US Open and McEnroe once more won by three sets by one, but this time it was Borg that caused controversy. The Swede had walked straight off the court immediately after the loss and headed straight to the locker room, not even waiting around to receive his runners up trophy. While McEnroe was on court making a gracious speech and then preparing to face the media, Borg was changed and on his way home!

Whether that was simply his inability to handle defeat, as he was known for going into sulks that lasted days after a loss, or because of the death threat that had been phoned into the stadium the previous day while he was beating Jimmy Connors in the semi-final, only Borg really knows. It was certainly not because of the second death threat that was phoned through while he was busy winning the first set of the final, as once again he was not told until later. What was certain was that McEnroe had usurped his place as world number 1 in the rankings.

And that was it, the end of the rivalry just as it begun to build as a genuine contest as Borg played just one more tournament over the two years following that defeat, before eventually retiring at the age of just 26 in January 1983. McEnroe admits that the game was not the same without him: "I know he made me a better player. Even if I had lost my number one spot, I would have preferred if he had carried on playing. He is my greatest rival that I've ever had."

As for Borg, he had to put up with digs about him choosing to retire because McEnroe had got the better of him. Borg maintained he was just burnt out from the lifestyle: "It's tough when you're number 1. You don't have any private life, you can't even walk anywhere. I think that is why I lost my motivation to play tennis. My life was tennis, tennis and then tennis. At a certain point I was no longer able to endure it. I wanted a life of my own."

Borg did come out of retirement for a while in 1991, but the game had moved on and the Swede doggedly stuck with his old wooden racquet and struggled badly as a result. Despite the rivalry being shortlived, they only faced each other 14 times on the tour and each won 7 of the matches, it has lived long in the memory of tennis fans from the time. It even spawned a movie in 2017, starring Bjorn Borg's son playing his father, though neither McEnroe nor Borg approved of it and both were very dismissive of its realism. McEnroe claiming that they "made up a lot of stuff", while Borg described it as "fiction".

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For the previous Rivalries article onBrighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace click HERE

Requested by ken

Written by Tris Burke July 14 2021 18:15:26