• Sal Maiorana

Forty years later, the Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final remains iconic

WIMBLEDON, England (July 5, 1980) – It was an undertaking that the editors of Tennis magazine took great pride in.

They commissioned a diverse international panel of tennis luminaries to compile a list of the greatest matches ever played, and then they whittled the findings down to an all-time Top 20 for publication in the July 1980 issue.

It’s too bad that all that hard work went for naught because with the magazine on the newsstands barely two weeks, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe made the list obsolete.

In a matter of three hours and 53 minutes on a cool but rain-free afternoon at the hallowed All England Club, Borg and McEnroe turned Wimbledon’s men’s singles final into the sport’s most unforgettable battle, and no one on that distinguished panel could have disagreed that Don Budge’s five-set victory over Germany’s Gottfried von Cramm that helped the United States advance to the finals of the 1937 Davis Cup was no longer No. 1.

Re-issue the ballots, please.

When it was over, and the stoic Borg had completed a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6 victory over the tempestuous McEnroe, the overflow Centre Court crowd was left every bit as breathless as the two exhausted and emotionally-drained combatants. Still, they summoned enough energy to bestow on Borg and McEnroe a thunderous two-minute standing ovation.

The cheering was at its apex in the immediate seconds after the final shot of this theatrical marathon had been so wonderfully executed – a patented Borg two-handed backhand cross-court winner that landed just inches inside the line. That was when the 24-year-old Swede dropped to his knees, clasped his hands together in prayer, looked to the heavenly skies as he whispered in his native tongue the equivalent to “unbelievable’’ and arched his back so far that his long mop of dirty blonde hair brushed the grass court beneath him.

It is a scene forever burned into the memories of the more than 16,000 who witnessed it live, and the millions worldwide who saw it on television.

“At this rate, I don’t know when he’ll ever lose here,’’ McEnroe said in reference to Borg’s 35-match win streak at Wimbledon dating to 1976 which had produced five straight singles championships. “He’s a great player, already one of the best ever.’’

Borg had burst onto tennis’ center stage as a 17-year-old prodigy in 1974 when he won the first of his six French Open titles, beating Manuel Orantes in four sets. That same year, Jimmy Connors won the other three grand slam events, propelling him to the No. 1 ranking in the world.

Borg had stated on many occasions that, “My biggest ambition is to be remembered as the greatest player ever.’’ But Connors – or more appropriately the computer that determines the player rankings – refused to allow Borg to ascend to No. 1.

For five years, through 1978, Connors finished No. 1 even though the only grand slam events he won were the 1976 and 1978 U.S. Opens (both times beating Borg in the finals), compared to Borg’s two victories in the French (‘75 and ‘78) and his first three Wimbledon triumphs (1976-78).

However, in 1979 when Borg won the French and Wimbledon each for the fourth time in his career to eclipse Connors, there was no denying he was the world’s best player, a point he further hammered when he won the French again in 1980.

And while Connors was still a terrific player, Borg entered Wimbledon’s fortnight knowing that the brash, bombastic McEnroe would be his prime challenger.

In 1977, as an 18-year-old amateur and freshman-to-be at Stanford, McEnroe became the youngest player in history to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon, where he lost to Connors. He then left Stanford after his first year to turn pro on the heels of winning the NCAA individual championship.

In the last five months of 1978, the rookie advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Open where Connors again sent him home; led the United States to victory in the Davis Cup, losing only 10 games in his final two matches; won four singles titles and six doubles championships; and rose to the No. 4 ranking in the world.

One of his singles victories came in the Stockholm Open where he routed Tim Gullickson in the final. More importantly, though, he had sliced up Borg with incredible precision in the semifinals. Their first meeting lasted a mere 74 minutes, and given the shocking 6-3, 6-4 result in Borg’s native land, Connors was moved to call McEnroe, “the future of American tennis, probably for the next eight or 10 years.’’

At the start of the match it didn’t seem like much had changed since Stockholm as McEnroe leaped to a 3-0 lead in the first set, breaking Borg’s first service game as his powerful ground strokes and menacing serves clearly had Borg befuddled. Within 20 minutes the set was over, 6-1, in McEnroe’s favor, and the fans – angered by a McEnroe outburst during his semifinal victory over Connors – were starting to appreciate his play with resounding cheers.

McEnroe played well in the second set but a service break cost him and he said, “I could easily have been up two sets to love, but when he won the second set, I wasn’t in the drivers’ seat anymore. It was an uphill struggle all the way after that.’’

Borg won the third set 6-3, opening the door to one of the most incredible sets in tennis history. Neither player faced a break point in the first eight games, and McEnroe had been particularly sharp with his serve, hitting 15 of 17 good first offerings. But in the ninth game, Borg battled gamely to break McEnroe, even though McEnroe had put six of eight first serves in play. On the last, Borg ripped a two-handed return for a winner on a serve so well-placed that it kicked up chalk in the corner of the box.

Moments later, McEnroe was down 40-15 and facing two match points, and it was here that he proved his character was every bit as formidable as his skill. On the first match point he ripped a backhand sizzler down the line, and then he forced deuce with a delicate forehand drop shot. Borg followed with a netted forehand, and McEnroe won the game by whipping another backhand passing shot down the line. Now at 5-5 and back on serve, McEnroe clenched his fists and let out a primal scream as the crowd roared its approval.

Two love games on serve set the stage for the breathtaking tiebreaker, during which each player called on unknown depths of resilience and talent. McEnroe survived five more match points while Borg fought off six set points before succumbing on No. 7.

In her book Love Match, Mariana Simionescu-Borg, Borg’s first wife, described the action in the tiebreaker this way: “These are not tennis players but just two convicts sentenced to death for whom only one pardon will be approved.’’

It seemed to last forever, but finally, at 16-16 Borg missed by inches on a forehand return to set up McEnroe’s final set point, and the American cashed it in as he returned a good Borg first serve and watched as Borg stubbed a forehand volley into the net. All square with one set to decide it all.

In the fifth set, Borg simply reached into his soul and willed himself to win because McEnroe certainly did not falter. Borg came up with what he called, “Probably the best set I’ve ever played on my serve.’’ He lost only three points on his serve, and he won 28 of 29 points after falling behind love-30 in the first game.

“In the first couple games of the fifth set, I was still thinking about all the match points (from the fourth set),” Borg said. “I was thinking I only needed to make one point and I didn’t do it. Always when I had an important point, he played a great shot. But I played very, very steady (in the fifth). I was just telling myself, ‘Don’t get tight, don’t get nervous, just relax.’’’

Borg worked his way into a 7-6 lead and because a tiebreaker is not used in the fifth set, there was reason to believe this epic confrontation might last all day. However, it was over in a manner of minutes.

At 15-all Borg ran around a second serve and drove a forehand just inches inside the line, and then he reached 15-40 and his eighth match point of the day – one hour and 17 minutes after his first – when McEnroe netted a volley off Borg’s backhand return.

McEnroe blazed one more first serve into the box, but Borg got good string on the return and put McEnroe into a defensive mode. McEnroe forehand volleyed to Borg’s backhand and Borg gripped his racket tightly, wound up and unleashed a cross-court winner that zipped past McEnroe and landed one foot inside the line.

“I gave it my best, I just got beat,” McEnroe said. “Somehow he picked it up in the fifth set. I had a very tough time on his serve. It wasn’t like I choked or anything. I just never got around to returning his serve in the fifth set. I thought he’d get tired mentally after I won the fourth set. It would have gotten me a little bit down, but it didn’t get him down. I’m disappointed, but I can’t complain that much. It was a wonderful final and Borg played great tennis. But I will beat the bearded wonder yet, there’s always next year.’’