- 05 Jul 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, July 5, 1980, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe played one of the most remarkable matches in tennis history, in the Wimbledon final. Everything made this eighth encounter between the two players exceptional, from their opposite game style and personality, to the drama of the match and the level of tennis displayed. The highlight of this final was the fourth set tiebreak, considered as the greatest tiebreak ever played, which McEnroe won 18-16. Although McEnroe won the legendary tiebreak, it was Borg who prevailed in the end (1-6 7-5 6-3 6-7 8-6), after three hours and 53 minutes of play, to claim the last of his five consecutive Wimbledon titles.
The people involved
Bjorn Borg, the game-changer
Bjorn Borg, born in 1956, was the champion that changed the game of tennis forever. His unprecedented stardom and his numerous successes were the main reason why tennis became such a popular sport in the 1970’s. His game style , which involved a lot of topspin and a two-handed backhand, was revolutionary and would be copied all around the world. His nickname “Ice Borg” reflected his attitude on the court : he seemed to have his emotions under control at all times. He started playing tennis as a 9-year-old. By the age of 15, he was already a member of the Swedish Davis Cup. 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). His domination on the game started in 1974, when, at the age of 18, he claimed his first Grand Slam at Roland-Garros, becoming at the time the youngest ever French Open champion.
Since the start of his career, only one player had managed to defeat Borg in Paris : Adriano Panatta, from Italy, who beat him in 1973 and 1976. Otherwise, the Swede remained undefeated in Paris where he had already triumphed five times (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980). Since 1976, he had also proved himself invincible at Wimbledon, where he had claimed four consecutive titles : Arthur Ashe was the last player who beat him at the All England Club, in 1975. As Bjorn Borg had attended 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.
John McEnroe, young talent and stand-out on-court behaviour
John McEnroe, born in 1959, had become world No 1 for the first time in March 1980. He had only occupied the spot for three weeks though, before he handed it back to Bjorn Borg. The lefty from New York had amazed the tennis world since his first steps on the tour, in 1977, when at the age of 17, showing up at Wimbledon as an amateur, he made his way out of the qualifications unto the semi-finals. “Mac” was very talented, his game being based on precision and touch on top of an iconic and lethal serve. In 1979, he became the youngest ever US Open champion, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis (7-5 6-3 6-3). That year, he also made quite a sensation by edging Borg (7-5 4-6 6-2 7-6) to win the WTC Finals. In 1980, just before Wimbledon, he had sharpened his serve and volley game by claiming the title at the Queen’s Club Championships. McEnroe was known for his shocking on-court behaviour in the well-mannered world of tennis. His constant quarreling with the officials made him famous in a gentleman’s sport.
Wimbledon is the oldest and the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. Held by the All England Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club since 1877, it moved into its current location in 1922, the same year when the Centre Court was built. Considered by many as the most intimidating court in the world, with its famous Rudyard Kipling quote above the entrance (“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”), the Centre Court had seen the best players of all time competing for the title.
After the US Open switched to clay and then hard court in the 1970’s, and after the Australian Open switched to hard court in 1988, Wimbledon remained the only Grand Slam tournament to be played on grass, a surface that is usually more suitable for serve and volley players. Not only did Wimbledon keep its surface, but it also maintained old-fashioned traditions such as the white dress code.
On July 5, 1980, when Bjorn Borg and John Mcenroe walked unto the Wimbledon Centre Court, the entire world of tennis expected a great match, but no one had anticipated that the players were going to write one of the most famous pages of tennis history.
All the components for a spectacular final were there. The two competitors could not be more different. While the right-handed Swede was nicknamed “Ice Borg”, the American lefty was called “Superbrat” by the British public, due to his attitude towards the officials. Borg had built most of his success on consistency, while the unpredictable McEnroe was the king of shot-making.
Both players had serious reasons to believe in their own chances. Borg had not lost a single match at the All England Club since 1975, winning the four last editions of the tournament. Besides, he had just triumphed for the fifth time at Roland-Garros, without dropping a single set. On the other hand, John McEnroe had become, in 1979, the youngest ever US Open champion. He had already managed to beat Borg three times in six encounters, and his aggressive game was made for grass.
In the first set, Borg was maybe surprised by McEnroe’s confidence. The American outsped the Swede and quickly took the first set, 6-1. Borg didn’t panic and he fought back in the next sets, coming more to the net than usual to prevent McEnroe from controlling the game and taking the net himself. With his sharp returns and great passing shots, Ice Borg took a hold on the final by winning the second and third set, 7-5 6-3. When the four-time champion served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set, it looked like McEnroe’s fate was sealed already. It was at this moment that the legend began : the American, desperately fighting to stay in the match, managed to break back and he pushed Bjorn Borg into a tiebreak that would live through history.
In this 22 minute-long tie-break (only five minutes less than the entire first set!), McEnroe, who had already faced two match points before, saved five more before eventually winning 18-16 to take Borg to a fifth set.
In Borg’s situation, many players would have collapsed in the last set, after such a dramatic twist. Borg did not and, deserving more than ever his nickname of Ice Borg, he kept fighting for every point. Increasing his level, particularly on his serve where, after being down 0-30 in the first game, he won 19 points in a row, completing close to 80% of first serves. Eventually, after 3 hours and 53 minutes of play, a last backhand passing shot from the Swede put an end to the most amazing final ever seen at Wimbledon.
Borg, who was already the first player to win the tournament four times in a row, had now triumphed five times consecutively. It was the third time, after 1978 and 1979, that he achieved the feat of triumphing the same year at both the French Open and Wimbledon, only a few weeks apart, on such different surfaces.
That year, John McEnroe would take his revenge against Bjorn Borg in the US Open final, where he would prevail in five sets (7-6 6-1 6-7 5-7 6-4).
In 1981, Borg would claim his last Grand Slam title with a sixth Roland-Garros crown, beating Ivan Lendl in the final (6-1 4-6 6-2 3-6 6-1). In the last episodes of their rivalry, John McEnroe would then edge him at Wimbledon (4-6 7-6 7-6 6-4) and at the US Open (4-6 6-2 6-4 6-3). This fourth loss in the final of the US Open would be Bjorn Borg’s last Grand Slam appearance. The constant attention and pressure would eventually make him burn out and he would put an end to his professional career at the age of 26, holding 11 Grand Slam titles, having already won 64 tournaments and held the world no.1 spot for 109 weeks. He would try an unsuccessful come-back with his wooden racket in the early 1990’s.
In his career, McEnroe would triumph three times at Wimbledon (1981, 1982, 1984), and four times at the US Open (1979, 1980, 1981, 1984). 1984 would be his peak year. Claiming both Wimbledon and the US Open, but also the Masters Cup and the Davis Cup, he would finish the year as the undisputed World No 1, holding an 82-3 record. The only disappointment in that glorious season would be his heartbreaking loss against Ivan Lendl in the Roland-Garros final after blowing a two set lead.
After 1984, McEnroe would never win a Grand Slam title again. In 1986, mentally worn out, he would even take a break from the tour to marry Tatum O’Neal. He would be back but “Mac” would never obtain the same remarkable results and would not reach any more Grand Slam finals. His last remarkable result before he retired from professional tennis would be reaching the 1992 Wimbledon semi-final (lost to Andre Agassi, 6-4 6-2 6-3). In total, McEnroe would hold seven Grand Slam titles and would have spent 170 weeks as world no.1.
Borg and McEnroe would face each other 14 times in total, each of them counting 7 wins. Although it had been built in a very short period, between 1978 and 1981, their rivalry would remain famous in the game of tennis, thanks to its intensity, combined with their different game style and character.