1.BUILD-UP: Massive. The two had never faced off in a Slam before (Borg owned a 4-3 edge going in) and some thought that the cocky ‘79 U.S. Open champ McEnroe and his net-loving style would be the man to finally take down the Swedish backboard. The crossover celebs were treated “like rock stars,” said Mary Carillo.
Nearly every expert of note was asked to weigh in on who would come out on top and after watching Borg beat the odds from the backcourt for four consecutive years, most were convinced the Swede would win a then record five straight. “When somebody finally beats Borg at Wimbledon,” noted Erik van Dillen, “it’s automatically going to be one of the biggest single-match wins of the century.” (A+)
2.RIVALRY: “McBrat” vs. the “Ice Man,” the slightly crazed serve-and-volleyer against the vintage baseliner; a ballistic up-and-comer versus a calm and collected vet, a combustible urban cowboy vs. the Angelic Assassin. The lefty Johnny Mac, the teen rebel with his unkempt brunette locks and a ferocious frown vs. the blonde Borg, the right-handed teen idol with his long flowing hair and a subdued smile. (A+)
3.SETTING: The two had radically different takes on hallowed Centre Cour.t Borg would call it “my Wimbledon,” his “tennis cathedral.” Mac would call the fans that turned on him “vultures,” and opined that officials thought he was an “a–hole” but were worth challenging nonetheless. (A+)
4. POLITICAL/CULTURAL IMPACT: Still in the midst of a long and embarrassing hostage crisis in Iran, U.S. pride was battered. Its president, a gentle-souled, ex-peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter had bungled one resolution after another and looked weak when trying to face down the sharp-tongued dictator of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter withdrew the U.S. Olympic Team from the ‘80 Games in Moscow. Western economies were in tatters and people were looking for a diversion. They turned to Mac vs. Borg, where some Americans saw McEnroe as a heroic young gunfighter who could still save the nation from land-grabbing outlaws, while some Europeans saw in Borg a representation of the glory days of lofty monarchies, when perfectly sculpted athletes would put on shows all for the pleasure of princes and princesses. “It was more than just two guys; it was the whole culture,” said McEnroe’s doubles partner, Peter Fleming. (B+)
5. STAKES: Borg entered ‘80 Wimbledon having won 28 matches in a row, not having lost on the AELTC lawns since Arthur Ashe in ‘75. His mind was set on eclipsing the then all-time record of 31 straight held by Rod Laver. Borg had won both the French and Wimbledon in ‘78-’79 and had just captured his third straight Roland Garros. If McEnroe could take down Borg on the Swede’s turf, he’d prove correct those who said that he was destined to be The Next Great One. (A)
6. IMPACT ON SPORT: This rivalry was largely responsible for keeping the U.S. tennis boom of the ‘70s going into the ‘80s, when everyone from clumsy kids to suburban moms to baseball-loving dads picked up rackets and flooded private clubs and public parks. Children would dress the part — McEnroe fans in their fiery red headbands imitaed his crazy twisting service motion, and Borg fans in their classy white Fila outfits tried to smooth two-handed down-the-line backhands. “People like Connors, Borg, Chrissie, McEnroe became family members,” Jim Loehr said. “You grew up with them, in an extended family. Wimbledon 1980 put them into a different sphere.” (A+)
7. LEVEL OF PLAY: It was left-handed McEnroe’s corkscrew serve and slight-of-hand volleys against the right-handed Borg’s silky smooth two-handed backhand and seeing-eye passing shots. The balls didn’t bounce as high as they do today and didn’t penetrate the courts nearly as much. To give the white pellets an eye-bursting ride, the competitors had to swing incredibly hard and meet the ball in the center of their small wooden racket heads. As a result, there were far more defensive lobs, drop volleys, sliced floaters and tempting mid-court balls. The contest was full of heart-tremoring momentum swings, with McEnroe forced to dominate on his serve and at the net, as well as pushing himself stridently in his return games, as the Swede was the far superior player from the backcourt. Borg attempted to crowd the net on his service games in order not to concede the frontcourt offensive, and Mac’s slice backhand carved up the blades. While every strike of the ball wasn’t perfect, the symphony of stoke production sounded sweet notes for hours upon end. It was a match of both man’s best, with McEnroe attempting to negate the quickest and most effective two-handed backhand ever with confusing serves and searing approaches, and Borg tempting Mac to approach on questionable shots so he could unleash his fierce passing game. It was the Swede cranking up his much-improved first serve and short elbowing volley winners in key moments, and McEnroe unleashing previously unseen running backhand passes and hard, flat forehands. It’s both men daring each other to better the best that they had to offer. (A+)
8. GRIT & GRACE: Borg was the quickest man ever seen on court: a quiet, majestic Swede who was a virtual backboard with his groundstrokes. His incredible footwork and remarkable anticipation were sights to behold. He literally flew to the ball and watching him put wicked topspin on his groundies was like viewing a master chef scoop ladles of chocolate syrup on an ice cream sundae. McEnroe was born with remarkable touch and anticipation, which made up for his largely unorthodox strokes. He was taught at an early age to take the ball on the rise, which to him not only meant skipping through impossible half volleys, but flying toward the net. “John saw the game differently than most of us,” said Peter Fleming.
“This kid is difficult to play because he makes shots from impossible places,” added Jimmy Connors.
Borg entered the final with a pulled stomach muscle, but was treated favorably by the rain gods, having had two full days off. McEnroe’s schedule wasn’t as favorable — a super-stressful, teeth-clenching four-set win over his hated American elder, Connors, in the semis on Friday where McEnroe told Connors he could kiss his a– and then a doubles semis loss on Saturday with Fleming.
Borg and his legendary lungs and legs were just too strong. Despite the massive mental stress of going for the record, the man who had once bested an Olympian hurdler in the Superstars competition would not be worn down. A savage McEnroe heroically saved five match points in the fourth set tiebreaker and was clearly reveling in the moment, but by the time he reached the fifth, he was reeling. “Something in me wilted,” he said. Sitting forward on a couch, his doubles partner Fleming thought: “John looked fried.” (A+)
9. DRAMA: While there were nail-biting moments in every set, the fourth-set tiebreaker was match within itself; a 34-point affair where Borg saved six set points and McEnroe saved five match points. There were incredible forehand volley winners, authoritative backhand passes, out of nowhere backhand volleys, extraordinary forehand passes, tricky down-the-middle serves, a lucky, match saving, net-clipping approach shot, a crisp volley that landed right on the baseline, brief moments of despair and even briefer ones of impending triumph. Borg’s fiancee, Mariana Simionescu thought, “Who says the human heart is made to function for 150 years?”
Finally, the consummate stoic missed an easy forehand volley. Mac had stolen the set 18-16 in the breaker and thought: “I knew I had won the match. I knew it.”
But that thought was fleeting as Borg’s cool court stewardship and fathomless lungs brought him through. As it should have been, it’s his signature shot that gave him his fifth trophy, a wrists-cocked, hatchet follow-through crosscourt backhand pass in a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7(16), 8-6 victory. “I knew I could beat Borg, but Wimbledon still belonged to him,” Mac thought.
10. THE WOW FACTOR: It was the match that shook the world and put both men in another stratosphere of celebrity. Partly due to the Olympic boycott, nothing that summer came close to its impact. When Mac arrived back in Douglaston, letters flooded his parents’ home, some addressed to “John McEnroe, USA.” Rock n’ roller Eddie Money asked him to come on stage to play the tambourine at a Central Park concert. “There was an incredible allure. There was a sense of tremendous excitement,” McEnroe said.
Borg’s celebrity was already over the top in Europe, but it soared when he arrived in North America for the summer hard-court season.
“He no longer belongs to himself. He can no longer say yes or no when he pleases,” Simionescu complained. In September, when they would meet once again in the U.S. Open final and where Mac would emerge triumphant in another delicious five-setter, broadcaster Pat Summerall said that gaining entrance to the final Sunday was “the toughest U.S. Open ticket ever.” (A+)
Cronin’s book, Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Season in Tennis Ever will be published by John Wiley & Sons in 2010.