July 6, 1980, any time in the morning, London.
In the middle of the airport, two types are recognized between the crowd. They approach, shake hands and talk. People pass by her without realizing that the day before, those two men had been the center of attention around the world and that they would go down in history for starring in one of the best tennis matches in history. They are Björn Borg and John McEnroe. After a brief chat, they hug and say goodbye. What happened in that Wimbledon final would unite them forever.
That Sunday, July 5, the sun shone bravely in the sky of the capital of England. He also didn’t want to miss the game of the moment. There was something special in the air. During the two-week tournament, everyone expected Borg and McEnroe to meet in that final. They were the two best tennis players in the world and there was a lot at stake. On the one hand, the Swede sought to be the first player to win five titles at Wimbledon, while the American sought to overthrow the great dominator of the men’s circuit and world leader.
McEnroe was already a special guy back then. He came from winning the US Open the year before and the fame he gained in his country spread to the whole world. The press wanted to confront them and everyone prayed that no one would hinder their way to the final and they could meet in the duel for the title. Borg only lost two sets in the entire tournament (despite suffering a minor abdominal injury in the first week) while McEnroe found himself on the ropes in the second round against Rocavert, who put two sets to one up. After tracing the Australian, McEnroe focused to beat everyone (including Connors in the semifinals) and meet with the Swede on the last Sunday of competition.
Both marked a turning point in the evolution of tennis history with their rivalry. Not only for its quality, but for its image. Borg, with blond hair and a ribbon in his hair, was cold as an iceberg on the track. Known as ‘Iceman’, he didn’t show a single feeling on the court. Whether it was right or wrong, his face never twisted. No one could imagine what was going through the Swedish head at any point in the game. For his part, John seemed like a rock star, more than a tennis player. Nothing like it had been seen before.
With that mischievous boy face, McEnroe not only welcomed the title of ‘Bad boy’ in tennis but wanted to take it to the extreme. The American entered tennis like an elephant in a china shop. In a clean, neat, educated and gentleman sport, John came to completely revolutionize it. His tone outputs were habitual and people crowded into the stands with the morbid sight of how he exploded in front of the referee or against himself, expelling bad words from his mouth.
It was difficult to find two rivals as perfect as them. The Nordic cold blood of one and the New York flame of another; the calculating and methodical against the rebel; the man in the back-end game against the aggressive game in the network. They did not disappoint. The party was a masterpiece. To see it from start to finish and enjoy it every point. “That game was one of the few I played where I felt there was something incredible at stake. You breathed a unique, special energy,” said McEnroe, a couple of years ago, recalling that final. It was not for less.
The game started with John McEnroe coming out to bite from minute 1. He was passing over the Swede, almost literally. Borg hardly saw the hole through which to harm the American, who did not stop climbing the net and drowning his rival. In the blink of an eye, the first set was scored 6-1 and started well with an advantage. Borg pulled mental strength to put a McEnroe in a bind that little by little was losing his temper and nerves, seeing how the Swede was cutting him off on the scoreboard.
The next two sets were for Björn. Many thought that everything was already done, but few expected what would happen in that fourth set. Even today, what happened in that fourth sleeve continues to be remembered as one of the best battles that have been seen on a tennis court. With both players reaching the tiebreak, in that tiebreak we could see 34 points of absolute tennis delight, caviar for all fans, not only tennis, but sport in general.
Where words may not be there, nothing better than enjoying the tiebreak in its entirety. 22 minutes of history of this sport. A masterpiece.
They say that the resale at that time exceeded 200 pounds (today, it would be ten times more). Money well invested, no doubt. The North American saved five match points against to take the meeting to a fifth electric sleeve in a Cathedral that vibrated at each point. McEnroe was booed at his entrance to the track, at the beginning of the match. After what he did in that tiebreaker, he earned the respect of the stands and turned those jeers into cheers.
Iceborg was not intimidated and despite the missed opportunity, continued to fight and control McEnroe’s thrusts. The Swede was so concentrated that he only lost three points with his serve in this fifth set. A real madness. With the two defending their games in service until 7-6, it was Borg who managed to break John’s serve with a passing cross that was recorded for history. It was then that the Stockholm tennis player’s shell broke.
From the outside, Björn was known as the ice man but everyone knew that what he was doing was to contain a whole volcano of feelings, fears, insecurities, and pressure. Maniacal to the extreme, Borg slept with the air conditioning to the maximum since that made him control his pulsations and that they were lower than normal throughout the night. He always wore the same clothes. He rented the same Hotel, the same taxi, always used the same shower. He sat in the same chair on the track and always carried two towels. Along with his coach, he strung to perfection 50 rackets, whose strings he stepped on the night before the game and chose the ones that gave him the best feeling.
All that contention was released. Borg opened the gates of the dike and let everything out after scoring the last point of that final. He sank his knees into the green, clenched his fists, and raised his arms in victory. Screaming into the air, with each puff of air that came out of his mouth, he released a little of what he had kept inside for so long. He had succeeded.
Returning to the airport, that last goodbye hug would mark a before and after in their relationship. One won, the other lost, but both created a friendship for life. John ended up being the best man for Björn Borg and many years later, he convinced the Swede not to sell his titles, including that of the 1980 Wimbledon, when Björn was in financial trouble. Curiously, a year later, the same final was repeated, this time, with different results. McEnroe would defeat Borg, who at the end of that 1981 decided to retire from tennis with only 26 years and 11 Grand Slam titles.