November 12, 1978: The day John McEnroe beat Bjorn Borg for the first time

On this day in tennis history, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg played the first of 14 matches in their intense rivalry that took tennis to new heights in the late 1970s and early 1980s

McEnroe OTD 11_12 McEnroe OTD 11_12 Image Credit – Panoramic/ Tennis Majors

What exactly happened on that day?

On this day, November 12 in 1978, John McEnroe faced off against Bjorn Borg for the first time in the semi-finals of the Stockholm Open and upset the Swedish legend in front of his home crowd, 6-3, 6-4. For the first time in his career, Borg had lost to a player younger than himself. The Stockholm match was the beginning of one of the most exciting rivalries in tennis history, due to the players’ clashing game styles and polarizing personalities.

The players involved: John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg

  • John McEnroe: the rising American serve and volley star

John McEnroe, born in 1959, was the rising American star. on the tennis circuit. The left-hander from New York had captured the imagination of the the tennis world ever since his first steps on the tour. In 1977, at the age of 17, he appeared at Wimbledon as an amateur, made his way out of the qualifiers and marched all the way into the semi-final. “Mac” was very talented, his game was based on precision and touch built around an iconic and lethal serve. In 1978, after claiming the NCAA title, he reached the semi-final at the US Open, where he was defeated in straight sets by world No 1 Jimmy Connors (6-2, 6-2, 7-5). McEnroe was also known for his shocking on-court behaviour in the well-mannered world of tennis. His constant berating of officials made him infamous in the gentlemen’s sport. 

  • Bjorn Borg: Ice-cool Swede who dominated Roland-Garros and Wimbledon
Bjorn Borg Roland Garros 1974

Born in 1956, Bjorn Borg was the champion that changed the game of tennis forever. His unprecedented stardom and his incredible success were the main reason for tennis’ rise to mainstream popularity in the 1970s. His playing style, which was based on heavy topspin and a two-handed backhand, was revolutionary and would be copied by millions of fans across the world. His nickname “Ice Borg” reflected his attitude on the court; the Swede seemed to have his emotions under control at all times. 

Borg started playing tennis at the age of nine. By the time he was 15, he was already a member of the Swedish Davis Cup team and in his first appearance in the competition, he won his singles match against New Zealand’s Onny Parun. He turned professional the next year, in 1973, before he had turned 17, and soon reached the final in Monte-Carlo, where he was defeated by Ilie Nastase (6-4, 6-1, 6-2).

Borg’s domination of the game started in 1974, when, at the age of 18, he claimed his first Grand Slam title at Roland-Garros to become the youngest ever French Open champion. Since the start of his career, only one player had managed to defeat Borg in Paris, Italy’s Adriano Panatta, who beat him in 1973 and 1976. Outside of that, the Swede remained undefeated in Paris where he had already triumphed four times (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979).

Since 1976, Borg had also been invincible at Wimbledon, where he had claimed three consecutive titles. Arthur Ashe was the last player to beat him at the All England Club, in 1975. As Borg had entered the Australian Open only once, in 1974, it was considered that the only major title he was still chasing was the US Open, where he had lost twice already in the final to Jimmy Connors, in 1976 and 1978. 

The place: Kungliga Tennishallen, Stockholm, Sweden

The Stockholm Open, held at the Kungliga Tennishallen, was founded in 1969. Played every year on indoor hard courts, it was a prestigious event, won by tennis legends such as Arthur Ashe (1971, 1974) and Stan Smith (1972). 

The facts: McEnroe beats Borg in straight sets

When 19-year-old John McEnroe faced Bjorn Borg in the Stockholm semi-finals in 1978, it was their first encounter on the tour but they had shared the same court once before — in 1971, McEnroe was a ball boy to Borg at the US Open junior event.

This time, the American didn’t show up just to pick up the balls. The young left-hander had already made a name for himself, having reached two Grand Slam semi-finals, at Wimbledon in 1977, and at the US Open in 1978, each time defeated by Jimmy Connors. Although he was facing tennis’ rock star Ice Borg in front of his home crowd, McEnroe was not overwhelmed by the occasion.

Borg had already claimed nine titles in 1978, including Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, and he finished runner-up at the US Open to Connors. However, in the semi-finals of the Stockholm Open, he was outclassed by a younger player for the first time in his career (6-3, 6-4). This is how McEnroe would recall that match, in his book, Serious, published in 2002:

“The first time we played — in the semi-finals at the Stockholm Open in November 1978 — was a perfect scenario for me, because it was on fast indoor, which wasn’t well suited to his game, particularly against me. I also think he felt pressure playing me in his hometown, in front of a Swedish crowd who’d gotten excited about the game because of him. The win in Stockholm was a huge win for me — I was the first player younger than Borg to beat him — but it didn’t make me think one bit less of Bjorn. I just felt that I was with the big boys now — and this was the official coronation.”

On this day, the 19-year-old from New York showed the entire tennis world that he was ready to compete with the very best. His memorable rivalry with Borg had just begun.

What happened next? McEnroe and Borg would end their career with a deadlocked head-to-head

Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe would face each other 14 times in total, with their head-to-head record ending in a 7-7 deadlock. Their rivalry would remain the talk of the sport — despite it playing out over a very short period (between 1978 and 1981) thanks to its intensity, combined with their different playing styles and characters.

The constant attention and pressure would eventually make Borg burn out and he would put an end to his professional career at the age of 26, holding 11 Grand Slam titles and 64 tournaments and being the world No1 spot for 109 weeks. He would try a comeback with his wooden racket in the early 1990s but that would be an unsuccessful endevaour.

In his career, John McEnroe would win Wimbledon three times (1981, 1983, 1984), and the US Open four times (1979, 1980, 1981, 1984). 1984 would be his peak year. He won Wimbledon and the US Open, and also the took home the Masters Cup and the Davis Cup. He finished 1984 as the undisputed world No 1, with an incredible 82-3 record. The only disappointment in that glorious season would be his heartbreaking loss against Ivan Lendl in the final of Roland-Garros after holding a two-sets-to-love lead.

After 1984, McEnroe would never win another Grand Slam singles title. In 1986, mentally worn out, he would even take a break from the tour to marry Tatum O’Neal. He would come back, but “Mac” would never obtain the same remarkable results and would not reach any more Grand Slam finals. In total, McEnroe would hold seven Grand Slam titles and would have spent 170 weeks as world no.1 in singles, besides nine Grand Slam doubles title and spending 269 weeks at world No 1 in doubles.

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