Sports

John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg: A Rivalry That Ended Too Quickly

Over the past 17 years, Roger Federer has performed Rafael Nadal 40 times, together with 9 occasions in Grand Slam finals. He has performed Novak Djokovic 50 times since 2006, twice in five-set Wimbledon championship matches, each gained by Djokovic. And Nadal and Djokovic have performed a staggering 58 times, together with 9 occasions on the French Open.

By comparability, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe performed 14 matches from 1978 to 1981. And but they produced one of many biggest and still-talked-about rivalries within the historical past of the game.

Forty years in the past, because the setting solar forged shadows throughout Louis Armstrong Stadium, greater than 18,000 spectators noticed a weird ending to a too-short period that concerned two of the sport’s all-time finest. First, they watched in awe as McEnroe, a local New Yorker, won his third consecutive United States Open by beating Borg 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 in 2 hours 40 minutes. However what occurred subsequent brought on bewilderment, adopted by concern, on the Nationwide Tennis Heart in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

As McEnroe was hugging his dad and mom, Kay and John Sr., and holding the champion’s trophy aloft, Borg was nowhere to be discovered. He had skipped the post-match ceremony and compulsory information convention. He had left the stadium with Lennart Bergelin, his longtime coach and confidant, swiftly grabbed a bathe and hopped in a ready station wagon, by no means once more to be seen competing on the U.S. Open, or every other main.

Borg, barely 25 on the time, was a six-time French Open champion and had additionally gained 5 consecutive Wimbledon titles from 1976 to 1980 earlier than McEnroe beat him within the 1981 closing. By way of a lot of the U.S. Open closing he remained shut with McEnroe, even main 4-2 after they’d break up the primary two units. However when McEnroe broke again and evened the third set, Borg appeared to fade mentally. He misplaced the fourth set meekly, shook arms and disappeared.

“To me, it was bittersweet,” McEnroe stated throughout a telephone interview in August from his dwelling in Malibu, Calif. “The best way it ended, with a whimper, with him strolling out of the courtroom earlier than the ceremony to by no means play once more. So although it was an incredible second for me, profitable Wimbledon and the Open back-to-back and taking up the No. 1 rating, wanting again I want we may have stored taking part in.

“For years, I might see him and say: ‘When are you coming again? That is ridiculous, let’s go,’” McEnroe, who has lengthy been a tennis commentator for ESPN, added. “It simply felt like there was a void and it took me a few years to simply accept that. I feel it was too dangerous for the game as nicely.”

Borg’s supervisor, Per Hjertquist, didn’t reply to a number of requests for an interview.

What many didn’t know on the time was that Borg had acquired two dying threats throughout the Open, each known as in to the switchboard on the Tennis Heart, although nobody has ever stated why. One was earlier than his semifinal win over Jimmy Connors. The opposite was at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, in the course of the primary set in opposition to McEnroe. Borg was not informed about that risk till Bergelin alerted him after the match.

Lots of the followers that day have been pulling for Borg, the suave Swede who wore a purple, white and blue headband stretched throughout his brow to manage his shoulder-length mane of dirty-blond hair. Borg was taking part in in his tenth U.S. Open and fourth closing with no championship. He had misplaced to Jimmy Connors in 1976 and 1978 and to McEnroe in 1980, simply two months after beating McEnroe in a five-set Wimbledon closing that featured a 34-point fourth-set tiebreaker, and an 8-6 fifth set.

Their stark variations have been a part of the Borg-McEnroe attract. Whereas Borg most popular to quietly stalk the baseline, swinging his two-handed backhand as if it have been a pendulum, the left-handed McEnroe was all about disruption, in his recreation and in his conduct.

“We have been the right yin and yang,” McEnroe stated. “You had somebody who was naturally aggressive in opposition to somebody who was a counterpuncher. Every thing about us was completely totally different, the best way we appeared and the best way we performed.”

Even their fellow rivals noticed the worth within the matchup.

“Bjorn had a sure aloofness to him,” stated Rick Meyer, who grew up taking part in with McEnroe and misplaced to him within the third spherical of the 1980 U.S. Open. “He by no means performed doubles, by no means practiced on web site, was mainly excellent for the quiet ambiance of Wimbledon. John, alternatively, was all concerning the electrical energy of New York the place individuals behaved as if it was a boxing match. Ultimately, that harm Bjorn.”

Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, tennis in the USA was exploding. Everybody needed to play and viewership, in particular person and on tv, was at never-before-seen ranges. The day earlier than the 1981 U.S. Open males’s closing, 18-year-old Tracy Austin gained her second ladies’s title with a 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) win over Martina Navratilova. Navratilova, who had overwhelmed Chris Evert within the semifinals, sobbed, not as a result of she misplaced however as a result of the New York crowd had lastly embraced her six years after she had defected from Czechoslovakia.

In March 1981, World Tennis journal ran a canopy picture of Borg and McEnroe, standing back-to-back, revolutionary-style weapons pointed up, with the headline “McEnroe-Borg: Will Their Duels Grow to be Legend?”

Within the months and years after the 1981 U.S. Open, Borg made just a few makes an attempt to return to the professional tour. He by no means performed one other main, however he captained Group Europe to victory within the 2017, 2018 and 2019 Laver Cup competitions (versus Group World, captained by McEnroe). His son, Leo, has adopted in his footsteps and reached the third spherical of the French Open junior match in Might and the second spherical at Junior Wimbledon in July. Borg additionally began a profitable trend line.

“There are plenty of causes that Borg could have stopped taking part in, whether or not it was as a result of he misplaced the No. 1 rating, or had been doing it a very long time and was a bit burned out or that he was the primary athlete to make sufficient cash to have the ability to stroll away,” McEnroe stated. “However I simply needed to know if he was OK, residing a contented life, feeling content material and never second-guessing himself and wishing 30 years later that he had carried out issues in a different way. That’s a kind of issues that we could by no means know the reply to.”

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