John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg: a rivalry that ended too soon

For the past 17 years, Roger Federer has played Rafael Nadal 40 times , including nine times in the Grand Slam final. He played Novak D...


For the past 17 years, Roger Federer has played Rafael Nadal 40 times, including nine times in the Grand Slam final. He played Novak Djokovic 50 times since 2006, twice in Wimbledon league matches in five sets, both won by Djokovic. And Nadal and Djokovic played an amazing role 58 times, including nine times at Roland Garros.

By comparing, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe performed 14 games from 1978 to 1981. And yet they produced one of the biggest and most talked about rivalries in the history of sport.

Forty years ago, as the setting sun cast shadows over Louis Armstrong Stadium, more than 18,000 spectators saw a bizarre end to an era too short that involved two of the best of all time. First, they watched in wonder at McEnroe, from New York, won their third consecutive United States Open by beating Borg 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 in 2 hours 40 minutes. But what happened next caused perplexity, and then concern, at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

As McEnroe hugged his parents, Kay and John Sr., and held the champion’s trophy in the air, Borg was nowhere to be found. He had skipped the post-match ceremony and the obligatory press conference. He had left the stadium with Lennart Bergelin, his coach and longtime confidant, had hastily showered and jumped into a pending station wagon, never to be seen competing at the US Open or any other major tournament again. .

Borg, barely 25 at the time, was a six-time Roland Garros champion and also won five straight Wimbledon titles from 1976 to 1980 before McEnroe beat him in the 1981 final. For much of the final of the US Open, he stayed close to McEnroe, even leading 4-2 after splitting the first two sets. But when McEnroe fell back and tied the third set, Borg seemed to mentally disappear. He lost the fourth set obediently, shook hands and disappeared.

“For me, it was bittersweet,” McEnroe said in a telephone interview in August from his home in Malibu, Calif. “The way it ended, with a moan, with him coming off the pitch before the ceremony never to play again. So while it’s been a great time for me, winning Wimbledon and the Open with my back to back and take the lead in the No. 1 ranking, looking back, I would have liked to be able to continue playing.

“For years I would see him and say, ‘When are you coming back? This is ridiculous, let’s go, ”added McEnroe, who was a long-time tennis commentator for ESPN. “I just felt like there was a void and it took me a few years to come to terms with it. I think it was also a shame for the sport.

Borg manager Per Hjertquist did not respond to multiple interview requests.

What many didn’t know at the time was that Borg had received two death threats during the Open, both called at the Tennis Center switchboard, although no one ever said why. One was before his semifinal victory over Jimmy Connors. The other was at 4:45 p.m. Sunday, in the middle of the first set against McEnroe. Borg was not made aware of the threat until Bergelin alerted him after the game.

That day, many fans were looking for Borg, the suave Suave who wore a red, white and blue headband stretched across his forehead to control his mane of dirty blonde hair down to the shoulders. Borg was playing his 10th US Open and his fourth non-championship final. He had lost to Jimmy Connors in 1976 and 1978 and to McEnroe in 1980, just two months after defeating McEnroe in a five-set final at Wimbledon which included a 34-point tiebreaker in the fourth set and a fifth set. 8-6.

Their marked differences were part of the Borg-McEnroe appeal. While Borg preferred to quietly follow the baseline, swinging his backhand with both hands as if it were a pendulum, southpaw McEnroe was all about the disruption, in his play and in his demeanor.

“We were the perfect yin and yang,” McEnroe said. “You had someone who was naturally aggressive against someone who was a kickback punch. Everything about us was totally different, the way we looked and the way we played.

Even their competitors saw the value of confrontation.

“Bjorn had some distance with him,” said Rick Meyer, who grew up playing with McEnroe and lost to him in the third round of the 1980 US Open. “He never played doubles, neither did he. was never trained on the spot, was basically perfect for the calm atmosphere of Wimbledon. John, on the other hand, was all about the New York electricity where people behaved like it was a boxing match In the end, it hurt Bjorn.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, tennis in the United States was exploding. Everyone wanted to play and the audience, in person and on TV, was at levels never seen before. The day before the 1981 US Open men’s final, 18-year-old Tracy Austin won her second women’s title with a 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) victory over Martina Navratilova. Navratilova, who beat Chris Evert in the semifinals, sobbed, not because she lost, but because the New York crowd finally kissed her six years after her defection from Czechoslovakia.

In March 1981, World Tennis magazine published a cover photo of Borg and McEnroe, standing back to back, revolutionary-style guns pointed upward, with the headline “McEnroe-Borg: Will Their Dueling Become a Legend?”

In the months and years following the 1981 US Open, Borg made a few attempts to return to the pro circuit. He has never played another major tournament, but he was the captain of the winning Europe team in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 Laver Cup competitions (against Team World, led by McEnroe) . His son, Leo, followed in his footsteps and reached the third round at Roland Garros junior in May and the second round in Wimbledon junior in July. Borg also launched a successful fashion line.

“There are a lot of reasons why Borg might have stopped playing, whether it was because he lost the No.1 ranking, or because he had been doing it for a long time and was a bit exhausted or that he was the first athlete to make enough. of the money to be able to leave, “said McEnroe.” But I just wanted to know if he was okay, if he was living a happy life, feeling satisfied and not didn’t question himself and wished 30 years later that he had done things differently. It’s one of those things we may never know the answer to.

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Newsrust - US Top News: John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg: a rivalry that ended too soon
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