It’s 40 years since Bjorn Borg faced John McEnroe in an epic Wimbledon men’s singles final… the 1980 showpiece was later turned into a movie such was the Centre Court artistry on show between two legendary competitors
- Bjorn Borg beat John McEnroe in an epic five-set thriller at Wimbledon in 1980
- The encounter at SW19 was a contrast of styles between the two tennis stars
- Borg won his fifth-straight title via a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6 scoreline
- The match was enshrined as Wimbledon’s finest ever at just shy of four hours
Coronavirus may have robbed us of the Wimbledon Championships this year, but here we go back 40 years to one of the greatest men’s finals in history, when Bjorn Borg faced John McEnroe.
The match is being shown on the Wimbledon website and YouTube channel as part of their Greatest Championships series.
‘We really do have a classic confrontation here,’ purred John Barrett into his BBC microphone. ‘The best server in the world against the best returner in the world; the best volleyer against the man with the best passing shots; and the most volatile player in the world against the calmest.’
John McEnroe (pic) was involved in one of the all-time great finals against Bjorn Borg in 1980
The stage was Wimbledon’s Centre Court on Saturday July 5, 1980 and Bjorn ‘Ice Man’ Borg had lost the opening set to John ‘Superbrat’ McEnroe. Barrett knew the match-up promised a delicious contrast of styles and personalities but he could not have anticipated the drama that was about to unfold.
Forty years later, speaking from his home in Wimbledon, Barrett recalls: ‘It turned into the most unbelievable match. It was absolutely thrilling tennis. The quality of play was electrifying and the atmosphere there was just wonderful. I’ve never experienced anything like it until Murray’s win in 2013.’
Covid-19 makes this the first summer since 1947 in which Barrett has not attended the Championships either as player, commentator, or All England Club member. The fifth edition of his book Wimbledon: The Official History was released last week and during his career he commentated on 23 men’s finals – but none so dramatic as this.
Borg won his fifth consecutive title 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6 in three hours and 53 minutes. The match was enshrined as Wimbledon’s finest ever; its victor as the finest ever champion.
Also at the All England Club in 1980 was a 15-year-old Swede making his debut in the Wimbledon junior tournament.
Mats Wilander went on to win seven Grand Slam titles – the same as McEnroe – and has become one of the voices of the sport in his role as a Eurosport pundit. But in 1980, he was just a kid with a dream from a country gripped by a sporting fever.
‘The only thing going on in Sweden in the summer was Borg,’ Wilander tells Sportsmail.
‘Every tennis court would be full from eight in the morning until 11 at night. Every piece of lawn was drawn up as a mini tennis court. We would lay down the water hose as the line, stacking up the garden furniture as the net.
‘More than any other sports culture, tennis in Sweden during Borg’s time at Wimbledon reminds me of being in England during the World Cup.
‘I don’t remember being nervous as a kid, ever. There was never a fear of him losing so you could plan your whole two weeks during Wimbledon around watching Borg.’
The Swedes’ faith in their man was well founded. The 24-year-old was the first man to win four Wimbledon titles in a row since the end of the challenge round system, whereby the defending champion went straight through to the final.
Wilander, as an emerging Swedish talent, was introduced to Borg a few times as a teenager and played a five-set practice match with him before the 1980 Championships. He found his idol to be as icy cool and remote as he appeared on the court.
Mats Wilander reveals the whole of Sweden was gripped by Borg’s historic run 40 years ago
‘He was very, very quiet,’ says Wilander. ‘The myth was Bjorn Borg arriving at Wimbledon in a Bentley in a fur coat, and the long hair and the beard – oh my god he looked so cool. But he was a very quiet, serious and professional athlete who looked like he should be playing in a rock and roll band.’
And then there was McEnroe, the 21-year-old world No 2 from Queens, New York with the touch of an angel and the temper of a devil. This was the year before ‘You cannot be serious’ but McEnroe already had a reputation.
Barrett says: ‘A total contrast: the man with ice blood in his veins who never showed emotion outwardly and you never knew what he was thinking, that was Borg. And McEnroe was exactly the opposite: he was fiery, he showed all his emotions; he growled, he snarled, but he also caressed the ball with great delicacy. The combination of that aggression and touch was superb to watch.’
Borg’s progress through the tournament was – like the man himself – quiet and smooth. His four-set victory against Australian Rod Frawley in the third round was Borg’s 31st consecutive win at Wimbledon, equalling the record set by Rod Laver.
McEnroe’s fortnight had been louder and rougher. Rain played havoc with the schedule, forcing the men’s semi-finals to be played on different days. While Borg was able to take care of Brian Gottfried on the Thursday, McEnroe had to play his countryman Jimmy Connors on Friday, the day before the final.
If McEnroe’s matches against Borg could look like the Bolshoi Ballet, his contests with Connors were a bolshy bar-room brawl and the four-set victory was a physical and emotional drain.
The women’s final followed on Centre Court, with Evonne Goolagong Cawley upsetting Chris Evert to win her second Wimbledon title, nine years after her first. Then McEnroe was back on court to play another semi-final, in the doubles with Peter Fleming against Australians Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee.
The American duo were thrashed 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Fleming later admitted he was paralysed by fear of sabotaging his friend’s chances in the singles final by being dragged into a long match.
So on Saturday, for his third match in 24 hours, McEnroe walked out on to Centre Court. And, for the first time before or since at Wimbledon, one of the men’s finalists was booed by the normally deferential fans.
McEnroe was booed on his arrival on Centre Court after his behaviour against Jimmy Connors
‘When they came on court I remember the crowd booing McEnroe, because he’d behaved very badly in the semi final against Connors,’ says Barrett.
‘It was an extraordinary moment. The Wimbledon crowd were quite discerning in that way they didn’t like bad behaviour and of course McEnroe had made a whole career out of it.’
The opening chapter of the final was dominated by McEnroe’s swinging leftie serve, backed up by gossamer touch at the net.
‘Borg couldn’t make head nor tail of it,’ says Barrett. ‘His returns weren’t consistent at all so it was quite an easy set for McEnroe, 6-1.’
Borg was second best for most of the second set, too, but he snatched in 7-5 and when he won the third set and went up a break in the fourth, it looked as though McEnroe’s time was up.
‘There was this inevitability that Borg would turn it around and it was very weird to us that McEnroe didn’t fold in the fourth set, that Borg didn’t put him away,’ says Wilander.
Borg served for the title but McEnroe saved two match points with two wonderful passing shots and thereby they came to a tie-break which stands alone as the most thrilling 20 minutes in Wimbledon history.
The first-to-seven tie-break at six games all was adopted by the All England Club in 1979. One year later, across 34 points, five match points for Borg and seven set points for McEnroe, the newfangled format wove itself into the fabric of the All England Club.
Borg and McEnroe’s contrast in styles made it a fascinating matchup, says John Barrett
As Daily Mail tennis correspondent Laurie Pignon put in his report: ‘So to the tie-break which for the first time in my book became legitimate Wimbledon.’
As per BBC conventions, lead commentator Dan Maskell took a back seat and summariser Barrett flew solo on the tie-break. Never has his commentating maxim of ‘less is more’ paid such dividends, as he allowed the tennis and the rapture of the crowd to take centre stage.
‘It’s very important not to over talk in those circumstances,’ he explains. ‘In those days the commentators were much calmer and quieter. It’s much more frenetic now.’
Borg had five more championship points in the breaker to make it seven in total but every time McEnroe came up with the goods – stretching to reach almost impossible volleys or threading passing shots down the line.
On Borg’s sixth match point a McEnroe backhand clipped the top of the net and dropped over; yet still the ice man did not flinch.
Six set points for McEnroe came and went, too. As Barrett put it at the time: ‘They’ve both looked down the gun barrel and they’re both still alive.’
‘They were reading one another’s games so well,’ recalls Barrett. ‘They knew each others’ play backwards and so the anticipation was amazing. Almost before the ball had been hit they knew where it was going and they made the most impossible gets from wide angles.’
Trailing 17-16, Borg mistimed a forehand volley into the net. McEnroe raised clenched fists to the sky and in the players’ box his father – a huddled bundle of nerves beneath his trademark white hat – exploded with joy.
McEnroe came through the mammoth and astonishing fourth-set tie-break in the final
Between them in the tie-break they hit five unforced errors and 15 winners. ‘The tie-break was like watching a movie,’ says Wilander. ‘Every stroke was an artistic move.’
And 37 years later it was a movie. From his home in Connecticut, Danish director Janus Metz tells Sportsmail about the tie-break that forms the centrepiece of his 2017 film Borg vs McEnroe.
‘I compare them to artists, they’re striving for a sense of perfection,’ says Metz. ‘In that tie-break everything dissolved and it’s like mano a mano, beast against beast. The game is elevated to another level and it becomes art, it becomes a state of zen.
‘If you look at some of the points they play, they pull off such stunts that you can only do when your mind is in total flow. In Spain they have a concept for it called duende, and duende happens when you are having almost an out of body experience, when what you are pulling off physically is otherworldly, it’s almost divine.
‘So there’s a reference there between the idea of the sublime in art and this feeling of flow or duende in sport. They break through to another dimension. That’s the way that I see it at least.’
All logic told that Borg would subside in the fifth and deciding set, that even his iron will would have been broken by those seven championship points.
Years after the final, Borg said of losing the fourth set: ‘I never felt so bad in my life. That was the worst moment I had since I was born. Losing seven match points… I think I am going to lose this match. I mean, I had no chance.’
McEnroe was thinking the same thing. ‘I thought there’s no way I can lose now,’ he said. ‘I was hoping he was going to fold.’
Borg went 0-30 down on his serve in the first game of the set and it looked as though McEnroe’s moment had come. But from there Borg’s perennially underrated first serve saved him, and as he ground his way through service holds, the seven sets McEnroe had played the previous day began to take their toll.
After losing those first two points, Borg dropped only one more on his serve in the final set. McEnroe recovered from 0-40 down to hold serve for 4-4 but serving at 6-7 he simply ran out of gas. Borg dropped to his knees in the moment of victory – the first flicker of emotion he had showed in almost four hours of tennis.
Borg sinks to his knees after winning the most incredible contest on Centre Court in 1980
In a sense, both men had won and both had lost. Borg had established himself as the heir to Rod Laver, the king of Wimbledon, but McEnroe had shown his reign was under threat. The American had suffered an agonising defeat but proved he was the world No 1 in waiting.
‘I know since talking to him afterwards that Borg knew this was not going to last forever against this guy,’ says Wilander. ‘What Nadal later did to Federer, McEnroe was starting to do to Borg.’
McEnroe had also redeemed himself in the eyes of the Wimbledon crowd and the press; by the courage of his performance as much as by his impeccable behaviour in the final. The Daily Mail’s headline on the Monday morning led not on Borg but on his beaten opponent: ‘The making of McEnroe: Quarrelsome kid turns into man to admire.
Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated: ‘McEnroe swaggered on to the court to boos and slumped off it to cheers, and with that metamorphosis he can never be the same.’
‘It’s funny: people usually think I won that match,’ wrote McEnroe in his 2002 autobiography Serious.
‘I almost always feel like a loser when I’m beaten in a tennis match… However, when you lose the final at Wimbledon 8-6 in the fifth set to Bjorn Borg, that’s different. Whether I won or lost was less important than that I got to be a part of history.’
When McEnroe beat Borg in another five-set epic in the Wimbledon final in 1981, it seemed as though a rivalry for the ages had been established, the battle lines drawn in the white chalk of the All England Club.
Borg kisses the Wimbledon men’s singles trophy – his fifth-straight title at the All England Club
But they would face each other only once more, in New York later that summer when McEnroe beat Borg to win his third US Open title in a row. Their head-to-head finished 7-7; their rivalry cut short, frozen in perfect equilibrium.
In January 1983 Borg retired from tennis at the age of 26 with five Wimbledon and six French Open titles. He threatened a comeback with a couple of one-off tournaments in the next two years but he was done. His era of dominance was drawing to a close and he sensed a chance at the freedom he craved.
His compatriot Wilander explains: ‘There were studies in Sweden that the three most famous athletes in the world are Mohammed Ali, Pele and Bjorn Borg. He couldn’t go to Sweden because the press hounded him everywhere he went. He didn’t make it easy for them but they made it impossible for him.
‘He was just a normal person who enjoyed his friends, and then suddenly he wasn’t winning everything and life goes on. He doesn’t want the fame, he’s uncomfortable in public.
‘He’s just one of us.’
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