June 16, 1974: Teenagers Borg and Evert stun Roland-Garros and usher in new era

On this day in 1974, two teenagers won their maiden Roland-Garros titles. Find out how it happened

Bjorn Borg, On this day 6/16

What happened exactly

On this day, June 16, 1974, 18-year-old Bjorn Borg, from Sweden, and Chris Evert, 19 years old, both triumphed at Roland-Garros for the first time. Then the youngest man to ever win the tournament, Borg came back from two sets down to edge Manuel Orantes in the final (2-6, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1), while Evert, who wouldn’t be defeated on clay until 1979, destroyed Olga Morozova (6-1, 6-2).

This was the first page of their legend, the first of 11 major titles claimed by Borg, and the first of 18 for Evert. The Swede would become the first tennis “rockstar”, more popular than any tennis player, with “Borgmania” taking tennis’s popularity as a sport to a different level.

Chris Evert winning the French Open, 1974

The players involved: Bjorn Borg and Manuel Orantes, Chris Evert and Olga Morozova

The men’s final 

Bjorn Borg, born in 1956, started playing tennis at nine years old. By the age of 15, he was already a member of the Swedish Davis Cup team and for his first appearance in the competition, he won his singles match against New Zealander Onny Parun. He turned professional the next year, in 1973, before even turning 17, and soon he reached the final in Monte-Carlo, where he was defeated by Ilie Nastase (6-4, 6-1, 6-2). For his first appearance at Roland-Garros, he reached the fourth round, beaten by Adriano Panatta (7-6, 2-6, 7-5, 7-6). In January 1974, he claimed his first title in Auckland. It was followed by three other titles – London and Sao Paulo (both WTC events), and eventually, the most important one, in Rome, where he edged Ilie Nastase in the final (6-3 6-4 6-2). After this win at the Italian Open, he was seeded No 3 at the French Open and, despite his young age, he was now considered as a serious contender for the crown. His game style, which involved a lot of topspin and a two-handed backhand, was revolutionary and would be copied all around the world.

Manuel Orantes, from Spain, was born in 1949. Left-handed, his peak year on the tour was 1972, when he claimed three consecutive titles on clay (including his most important title so far, in Rome) before he reached the semi-final at both Roland-Garros (defeated by Patrick Proisy, 6-3 7-5 6-2) and Wimbledon (beaten by Ilie Nastase, 6-3 6-4 6-4). Before the 1974 French Open, he had claimed a total of 14 titles in his career.

The women’s final

Chris Evert was born in 1954 in Florida. Coached by her father, she developed a game based on consistency, keeping her opponents away from the net with her deep groundstrokes, and punishing them with great passing shots if they were to take the net carelessly. She obtained her first remarkable result at the age of 16, reaching the semi-final at the US Open (defeated by world No 1, Billie Jean King, 6-3, 6-2). In 1973, at the age of 18, she finished runner-up at both Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, beaten by the two best players in the world, King and Margaret Court, and she started 1974 with another loss in the final of a Grand Slam tournament, defeated by Evonne Goolagong in Australia (7-6, 4-6, 6-0).

Olga Morozova, from the USSR, was born in 1949. She was a first-class player since 1972, the year she obtained her first remarkable results, reaching the quarter-finals of all the Grand Slams but Wimbledon. In April 1974, a few weeks before Roland-Garros, she claimed the most important of her seven titles, defeating Billie Jean King in the final of the Philadelphia Virginia Slims (7-6, 6-1).

The place

The story took place in Roland-Garros, Paris. The stadium, located in the west of Paris at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne forest, had been hosting the French Open since 1928. It was the first and now the only Grand Slam to be played on clay, the slowest surface, which made it the hardest tournament to win from a physical perspective.

The facts

In 1974, in the absence of Billie Jean King and Evonne Goolagong, who, at the time, were considered as the two best female players in the world, 19-year-old Chris Evert was the favourite at Roland-Garros. Since her heartbreaking loss to Margaret Court in the 1973 Roland-Garros final (where she collapsed after having led 7-6, 5-3), the American had won no less than 13 tournaments. She had gone through the entire clay-court season without a single loss, and she arrived in Paris full of confidence. Evert, determined to claim her first major title, stormed through the draw, making her way into the final without dropping a single set. On the last day of the tournament, even though she faced Olga Morozova, with whom she had won the doubles event, she showed no mercy, prevailing 6-1, 6-2. 

In 1974, Bjorn Borg was competing in the Roland-Garros main draw, where he was the youngest player, for the second time. Since his triumph in Rome, he was considered as one of the favourites at the French Open. On his way to the final, he had shown a lot of self-control to survive two five-set battles, one in the fourth round against Erik van Dillen (0-6, 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3), the second in the quarter-finals against Raul Ramirez (6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3).

Manuel Orantes had more experience. The 27-year old, on his way to the final, defeated Argentinian rising star Guillermo Vilas (3-6 3-6 7-6 6-3 6-2), and world No 6 Arthur Ashe in the fourth round (6-1 6-2 6-2). Borg and Orantes had faced each other five times already, and after Orantes had edged Borg without losing a set in their three first encounters. Borg had prevailed in their two last matches.

None of the players had participated in a Grand Slam final before. At first, it seemed like Orantes’ experience was paying off. While he was still fresh, his elegant technique and his exquisite touch helped him outplaying a defensive Borg. The Spaniard took the first set, 6-2. Running around the Swede with his wonderful backhand, Orantes continued cruising towards victory until he was up 4-1 in the second set. Borg’s shots then gained in depth and spin, and he managed to even the score and obtain a set point at 5-4. Although Orantes saved it and sealed a two-set lead by claiming the tiebreak 7-4, he could not prevent Borg from brutally reversing the scenario. Exhausted by Borg’s consistency, kept at bay by his opponent’s heavy topspin, Orantes collapsed and lost the three next sets, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1. The Spaniard, totally worn out, only scored four points in the last five games. Borg had just become the youngest man thus far to win Roland-Garros. A legend was born.

What next

A few weeks later, Evert would face Morozova again in the Wimbledon final, claiming a second Grand Slam title (6-0, 6-4). The American would remain undefeated on clay until 1979, setting a record of 125 consecutive wins on her favourite surface. While Morozova would never reach another Grand Slam final, Evert would accumulate a total of 18 major titles and spend 260 weeks as world No 1. Her rivalry with Martina Navratilova would be one of the greatest in tennis history.

Manuel Orantes would reach another Grand Slam final in 1975, at the US Open. This time, at Forest Hills, he would edge world No 1 Jimmy Connors (6-4, 6-3, 6-3) to lift the only major trophy of his career. Manuel Orantes would claim the last of his 33 titles in April 1982 in Bournemouth.

Bjorn Borg would become the greatest tennis star of his era. In total, he would claim 11 Grand Slam titles between 1974 and 1981: he would triumph six times at Roland-Garros (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981) and five consecutive times at Wimbledon (1876-1980). His cold-blooded attitude would gain him the nickname of “Ice Borg”, and his baseline game would inspire thousands of tennis players around the world. The constant attention and pressure would eventually make him burn out and quit professional tennis in 1981, at the age of 26, having already won 64 tournaments and held the world No 1 spot for 109 weeks. He would try an unsuccessful comeback with his wooden racket in the early 1990s.

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