November 12, 1978: John McEnroe beat Björn Borg for the first time

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On this day in tennis history, John McEnroe notched his first win over Björn Borg at Sweden, while also became the first younger player to beat the Swede.

What happened exactly on that day

On this day, November 12, 1978, young John McEnroe, facing Björn Borg for the first time in the semi-finals of the Stockholm Open, 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 younger player. The Stockholm match was the beginning of one of the most exciting rivalries in tennis history,  due to the players’ polarizing playing styles and personalities.

The players involved

Björn 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 for tennis’ rise to mainstream popularity in the 1970’s. His playing 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 and in 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 of 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 — Italian Adriano Panatta, who beat him in 1973 and 1976. Otherwise, the Swede remained undefeated in Paris where he had already triumphed four times (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979). Since 1976, he had also proved himself 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 Björn 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, born in 1959, was the American rising star. The lefty from New-York 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 qualifiers and into the semi-final. “Mac” was very talented, his game being based on precision and touch on top of 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 quarreling with the officials made them famous in the gentlemen’s sport. 

The place

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

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

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

Bjorn Borg Roland Garros 1974

Borg had already claimed nine titles in 1978, including Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, and at the US Open, he finished runner-up 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 semifinals at the Stockholm Open in November 78 — 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 Björn. I just felt that I was with the big boys now — and this was the official coronation.”

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

What’s next? 

Björn 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 game of tennis — despite it being 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, 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, John 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 finished 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 final of Roland-Garros 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. In total, McEnroe would hold seven Grand Slam titles and would have spent 170 weeks as world no.1.

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