Thursday, June 30, 2011

The End of the Borg Era

They're playing the men's semifinals at Wimbledon tomorrow, which is a good time to pause and remember when John McEnroe defeated Björn Borg in the men's singles final at Wimbledon in July 1981.

If you just shrugged your shoulders at that, you probably don't realize just how dominant Borg had been in men's tennis up to that time.

By July 1981, he had won five consecutive men's singles championships at Wimbledon.

During that stretch (1976–80), he beat Ilie Năstase (whose name may be mostly forgotten now but he was one of the sport's best in the 1970s), Jimmy Connors (twice) and Roscoe Tanner (mostly a journeyman but he was in the Top 5 when he faced Borg) in the final — and he had beaten McEnroe in an epic, five–set, three–hour–and–53–minute duel for his fifth consecutive title in 1980.

It would be hard to top that one, but the truth was that McEnroe did just about everything — except win — in 1980. A victory in the men's singles final was the only thing that would be an improvement on that memorable performance, and he came into the match determined to do what he failed to do the last time.

Perhaps that was Borg's problem. Maybe Borg had no fire in the belly. Maybe he felt he had nothing left to prove — and, to be honest, he probably didn't. In the late 1970s, there was no one in men's tennis who could compete with him. He had proven that time and time again.

Until McEnroe came along. And even McEnroe couldn't overcome Borg the first time.

But theirs was a compelling rivalry — and one that was over far too soon. It was meteoric, really. It was comparable, in its way, to the Roger Federer–Rafael Nadal duels except for a couple of things.
  • The Borg–McEnroe rivalry was over almost before it began, and

  • McEnroe was, as Mike McGovern writes in the Reading (Pa.) Eagle, "borderline crazy."
Borg and McEnroe were opposites, in almost every way. To be blunt about it, they were good copy for sports journalists who found themselves struggling at times to bring some excitement to the dreary days of summer.

McEnroe was always a ticking time bomb, ready to blow up at the officials or his foes ... or the fans.

Borg, on the other hand, was much more reserved. He wasn't prone to outbursts. He did have — as the world has learned in the last three decades — personal issues, but he tended to let his tennis do the talking on the court.

He had a deceptive appearance — he was bowlegged yet quick — and a devastating two–handed backhand shot that evolved from the slap shot he preferred when he played hockey as a young boy.

To put it simply, Borg was great. He won more than two–fifths of the Grand Slam tournaments in which he participated. He won nearly nine out of every 10 singles matches in those tournaments.

Surfaces never seemed to bother him. He was as comfortable — and successful — on the clay of the French Open as he was the grass of Wimbledon. That's always a tricky transition.

Historically, it has been nearly impossible to win both of those tournaments in the same year, coming back to back as they do, but Borg did it in three consecutive years — 1978, 1979 and 1980.

Winning five straight Wimbledon titles might not impress as many folks in the 21st century as it did three decades ago, but, until Federer came along, Borg was the only men's player to do it since professionals have been included.

(Federer, by the way, is one of only three men to win more Grand Slam singles titles than Borg, but he won't be adding to his total at Wiimbledon. He lost in Wednesday's quarterfinals — his first loss ever after taking a two– set lead.)

Năstase, arguably the world's best male tennis player until he lost the Wimbledon title to Borg in '76, once said, "We're playing tennis, he's playing something else."

Personally, I never knew what there was to comprehend. Borg was a baseliner, perhaps the best there ever was. I always suspected that, because he was so good, most of his contemporaries couldn't see how deceptively simple the whole thing was.

But Arthur Ashe had it right, I think.

"I think Bjorn could have won the U.S. Open," Ashe said. "I think he could have won the Grand Slam. But by the time he left, the historical challenge didn't mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody. He'd lost touch with the real world."

Thirty years ago, McEnroe must have figured out what Borg's game was — because McEnroe beat him at it.

There were reports that Borg's life had been threatened after he beat Connors in the semifinals. I never saw any credible evidence to support that. Perhaps only by inserting an element of personal stress and danger could some people rationalize the reality of a brash upstart like McEnroe toppling one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

That match wasn't as legendary as the one played the year before, but it was noteworthy for two things:
  • It ended Borg's record 41–match winning streak at Wimbledon, and

  • it turned out to be his last Wimbledon final.
It was nearly his last Grand Slam final, but Borg and McEnroe met in the U.S. Open a couple of months later. McEnroe won the title in four sets, and Borg decided it was time to go.

Borg said at the time that he had lost his motivation, and perhaps he had. But the tennis world had lost a great rivalry, perhaps the only one that could have matched the one between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (who met in 14 Grand Slam finals).

Evert and Navratilova were truly the Lakers and Celtics of women's tennis — of individual sports — and other individual sports (especially men's tennis) wanted the same thing. Mostly, it would bring attention to the sport — the way Ali and Frazier brought attention to boxing, the way Nicklaus and Palmer brought attention to golf, and the way the rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding brought attention to skating when it boiled over into something more sinister.

The rivalry that developed between McEnroe and Connors was good — but they only met in two Grand Slam finals, exactly half as many as McEnroe and Borg.

The Pete Sampras–Andre Agassi duels of the 1990s were memorable — but the two played for only five Grand Slam titles.

Borg and McEnroe met in four Grand Slam finals between 1978 and 1981 — and three of those matches came in the last 15 months of that time span.

We will never know what might have been.

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