The Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe rivalry was the centerpiece of Men’s Tennis in the late 70s and early 80. Many have come to regard the Borg-McEnroe rivalry as perhaps the greatest of all time, and not without reason. Apart from their on court duels, it was their wildly contrasting personalities and styles that captured the public attention like never before. Lefty vs righty, net specialist vs baseliner, America vs Europe, brash vs aristocrat, James Dean-esque rebel nature vs Viking God are a few words that come to mind when this rivalry is spoken about.
Borg the Iceman
Borg is a Swedish former player, who won 11 Grand Slams, 6 French Opens and 5 Wimbledon titles. The surfaces are different as chalk and cheese and that’s what makes Borg an all time great. He was a baseliner, with tremendous stamina and ice cold nerves who never lost his cool.
Mac the Brat
John McEnroe was as removed as possible from Borg. From the streets of Brooklyn, New York, he was a player who wore his passion on his sleeve, often swearing at opponents, linesmen and umpires. He was a classic practitioner of the serve and volley game and thus found most success on the fast Wimbledon and US Open surfaces with 3 & 4 titles respectively.
Fire and Ice
The duo slugged it out 14 times, over the course of 4 years (‘78-’81), with honours being shared equally, 7 wins apiece.They clashed 4 times in Grand Slams, each time in the final. As befits all great rivalries, they saved their best for these biggest occasions, with Mac coming out on top thrice. Also, as is the case with giants of the game, there was mutual respect and admiration, with both bringing out the best in the other Champion. Let’s look at 3 of the defining matches of this rivalry, which have contributed to the legend of ‘Fire and Ice’, as their rivalry was known because of their diametrically opposite on-court personas.
Before there was the Roger–Rafa duel of 2008, the greatest Wimbledon match of all time was the Borg-McEnroe duel. For many purists, it still is. After 7 meetings, this was their first match in a Grand Slam final. It had all the ingredients of a classic. Borg, the 4 time defending champion, the gentleman like demeanour befitting a Wimbledon champion. McEnroe, a brash 21 year old kid, hell bent on upsetting the established order, and doing it his way. Borg led 2-1 till the fourth set. The fourth set went into a tiebreak, which is without a doubt, the greatest tie break the game has ever seen.
Unbelievable, gravity defining shots were exchanged at a battering ram like pace for 22 minutes, before the American triumphed 18-16, not before saving an eye popping 7 match points. It looked as though he would carry that momentum till the end of the match, racing into a 0-30 lead in the first game of the decider itself. But then, the champion called upon his trademark resilience, and poise, uttering the now famous, ”Don’t get tight,” to himself.
He followed that with a stunning turn of fortune, taking the next 19 points of his serve. What followed was a classic display of otherworldly strength and skill from the two, with Borg finally prevailing 8-6 to take home his 5th Wimbledon title. 35 years hence, the Borg-McEnroe match still feels as fresh as ever, surviving the test of time. If rivalries can be defined by one match, then this Wimbledon decider is a fitting tribute to this great rivalry.
US Open 1980
Flushing Meadows was Borg’s Achille’s heel, having failed here on 7 occasions. After navigating arduous territories, including soaring temperature, tough matches and injury scares, the duo clashed again at the summit. After taking the first 2 sets, and leading in the 3rd, it looked like the home favourite would defend his crown.
But Borg, showcasing his iron will and endurance, bounced back from seemingly a point of no return to take the next two sets. What was more remarkable about this recovery was the fact that Borg did this on a day when he was having a nightmare with his serve. Regardless, just when it looked like the King would usurp the Pretender again, McEnroe called on the bitter taste of the Wimbledon defeat 2 months ago to wrap up the match in 3 hours.
This Borg-McEnroe match is often cited as one of the greatest matches ever played, for the full repertoire of 2 champions at the zenith of their prowess was on full display here. Also, this was where Borg’s decline and McEnroe’s ascent to world domination began.
US Open 1981
This was where it all ended. The empire came crashing down. After seeing his arch nemesis wrest the Wimbledon title from him, Borg was determined to get back at him in his own backyard. The two clashed again in the Final amid rumours that Borg was too tired and distracted to continued.Though they were never confirmed, the once Ice-Cool Swede never fully arrived in the match.
After losing the first set, McEnroe quickly bounced back, taking the next 3 and making short work of the once mighty Borg. Amidst utterly bewildering scenes, Borg quickly left the arena, without picking up the Runners-Up trophy. And though nobody knew at that moment, this was the last they saw of tennis’ first ‘Superstar.’ Borg retired after the match, leaving a peerless legacy. The Borg-McEnroe rivalry which promised so much was cruelly cut short, like the Senna-Prost rivalry, leaving people ruing what could have been.
The greatest of foes complete each other. It is beyond the comprehension of us mortals, but there is something in such rivalries, where they bring out the best in each other. McEnroe, by his own admission, never really recovered psychologically, nor did he enjoy his tennis as much, after seeing his greatest competitor walk away into the sunset. Maybe because nobody made him aspire again.
HBO made a documentary on the great rivalry, fittingly titled ‘Fire and Ice’. It is a highly enjoyable and emotional watch, which will give you a better perspective on why this rivalry will always stand the test of time, and why it will still be spoken of with the same reverence 100 years from now.