The French Open just ended and yet we’re only nine days away from Wimbledon. Why not visit a little lawn tennis history. I am watching the 1981 Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Björn Borg. Let’s set the scene.
Borg won his fifth straight Wimbledon the year before by defeating McEnroe in probably the most exciting Wimbledon final and possibly the most exciting tennis match ever played. McEnroe saved five match points in the tremendous fourth set tiebreaker and finally won it 18-16. Borg won the match and fifth set 8-6. He went on to win his first U.S. Open later that year and already had the Wimbledon crowd booing him in reaction to his furious outbursts at referees and anyone else
In 1981 it was even worse. He was fined $1500 for an outburst Even though I was around at the time and paying attention, somehow I didn’t realize that Borg won Wimbledon five (straight) times and the French Open four times but never won a US Open and didn’t win the one Australia Open he entered. This is strange because clay court players are usually baseline players, at least clay court champions and Wimbledon champions are usually serve and volleyers. Borg was never a great volleyer and his second serve, at least here with a wooden racket, it looks like a lollypop, cautious and high. He has a pretty good serve and can serve and volley but he’d much rather lure you to the net and put a dipping passing shot by you.
He was a very cautious player. He wasn’t aiming for the lines, he was aiming to get the ball a few feet beyond the baseline but with so much topspin that you had to stay back. It says a lot about his mental makeup that he could win Wimbledon once let alone five times with that cautious, get the ball back approach.
but for some reason he could not win on a hard court, at least not the Grand Slam. It is pretty fun to watch. First of all, it is those wooden rackets and the serves look slow, glacially slow and the announcer at the beginning hopes that there are no bad feelings in the crowd, even in this time. Back in 1981, Americans were not too popular, not because of our politics this time, but because of the antics of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. John McEnroe would throw fits and Jimmy Connors would play up his opponent using the crowd, or play up the crowd. So, the announcer is hoping that the audience, the fans, do not applaud McEnroe’s errors. He wants them to be civil and McEnroe’s serve, it is the snaky, twisty, winding, bounce the ball a few times, lean forward and rock back and forth with the racket, bring the racket behind and then snake a serve, lefthanded serve, wide down the line, whatever and he strokes. He just kind of lays the racket back and swings it. You wonder what he would do with a modern racket. McEnroe’s quickness is pretty incredible. He is kind of like a Dominican ballplayer, the way that the Dominican ballplayer’s learn to play field balls when they are growing up, is they just throw balls off a wall all day long. The wall in the house, the wall outside and that is what McEnroe did. He got up close to a wall and he just hit against the wall repeatedly so that he could work on his reflexes. What is even more amazing is how quick Borg is in covering the court. The crowd is quiet. It is almost like they are kind of waiting for John McEnroe to explode and that is probably why the announcer who is British says at the beginning of the match that he hopes that the crowd is a very polite crowd and does not do something such as applaud one of the player’s errors. He is anticipating an explosion by McEnroe and he is hoping that Wimbledon or just the sight of Wimbledon itself, playing at Wimbledon can confer the kind of decorum on the crowd so that we do not have any of that unpleasant behavior that you might have elsewhere. There is also a different in that time because the announcers are so quiet. I turned on in the middle of a broadcast at one point I stopped it and then started again and I thought well maybe I had lost my sound because the announcers were actually quiet while they played the points. And they played this one particular point which was pretty indicative of both of the athleticism of both players, McEnroe comes in, well nothing new there, he always does. Borg miss hits it and it goes high. McEnroe jumps up in the air and smashes an overhead lance right on the line. Borg is right on the line. Gets another overhead up and then McEnroe just hits an easy overhead for a winner. But how Borg got to that shot I do not know, that is just a quickness that is exceptional. Borg wins the first set 6 to 4 and now the crowd is starting to get on McEnroe. They are cheering Borg and they are starting to applaud when McEnroe does not do well. And of course when McEnroe does not do well it is not his fault. The first thing he will do is look down at the grass and see if there was a chunk in the grass that caused the problem or he will look at his racket or he will look around or he will look at a lineman, usually not himself. There are no composite rackets here and the players also do not take forever and have to minutely scrutinize every single ball before they play with it. Is there a professional player today that does not take three balls and then throw one of them back? I am assuming that that is just an opportunity for them to mentally take the time for them to get it together. There is not that much difference between the balls; I know that. We were in the first game in the second set and at deuce McEnroe serves up a double fault. McEnroe is like a vacuum cleaner at the net. He approaches the net with no surprise there, puts a volley in the corner, Borg hits a sharp cross-court passing shot and McEnroe glides from one end of the net to the other and puts it away. McEnroe how has the advantage and he misses his first serve, turns around and looks back at the grass, at the baseline to see if that was the problem. And then someone yells out something to him, one of the fans yells at him. He misses his second serve too and gets his second double fault in the set and shoots his racket at the guy and says “thank you very much” just as sarcastically as he possibly can. Now he has someone else he can blame for real. You think tennis is not more popular than it is because players spend most of their time walking back to the baseline after missing their first serve? McEnroe is leading 5-4 in the second set when he takes a really bad tumble slipping coming in for a volley. It is a full force battle by now. They look like they are moving in slow motion with those graceful shots the way McEnroe just takes his racket back and swings at it, no full twist, 180-degree windup like you see today. Just takes the racket back and swings and Borg with his relaxed backhand. Borg seems to be bringing the racket back rather than twisting his truck. He wraps it all the way behind him and forward. Well, he is up 4-30 when they have a marvelous point. McEnroe just shows mastery, slices, long, deep slices mixed in with top spin forehands and then a very flat cross-court background. Finally the short ball and board manages to come in. McEnroe hits a very hard passing shot at him and Borg is long enough and quick enough to get to it and get it back enough over the net for a winner. Amazing athletes. And we do not see Brad Gilbert up in the third row or Pam, I cannot remember what her name is, sitting in the front row speaking while the point is going on interviewing somebody. We get the announcers who are quiet and let us watch the points. How cool is that. Borg is standing in the alley, see if he can track down that left-handed twister wide. He uses that positioning now and then to hit a passing show outside the line that lands in the corner on the opposite side of the court. I believe the previous year was an amazing match. It was Borg and McEnroe again and I believe that Borg managed to win his fifth straight Wimbledon in a fifth set Wimbledon finals. And there is I guess, if there was a tiebreak it went to 18-16 okay. I need to research that. I am beginning to remember McEnroe now after every point that he makes an error or does not win the point he is just beside himself. It is if he was saying how could this possibly be happening to me. How could it possibly happen that I, I would lose a point, that I could hit the ball into the net. Borg is serving with McEnroe at 6 to 5 and twice he comes in to take the second serve, gets a backhand and dumps it into the net on the way to the net. Borg wins the game and they go to tiebreak, 6-6. McEnroe is down 1-5 and the tiebreak is an incredible point. Borg serves, comes to the net and puts it behind, volleys behind where McEnroe is to reach back and get up a lob that goes over Borg’s head. Meanwhile he gathers himself together enough to come into the net and then win the next point on a volley. Very, very heavy play. I take that back, McEnroe was up 5-1 for that point. Not only that but as far as I can tell the audience, the fans, the stands are not filled with celebrities. Sometimes McEnroe will come in and have an impossible volley to pick up. The ball does not quite make it, he goes into the net or kind of drops dead a few feet before the net. And he is looking at the ball, why are you not with me here, what could possibly be the problem, can’t you just get over the net. At the end of the third set at 6 games on we are going to another tiebreak and the crowd is yelling out “Borg, Borg, Borg”. At one point in the third set McEnroe dives full length across the grass to get the volley up, gets it up, unfortunately Borg is standing there and just taps it in. But, how often do you see that? He is just going for everything. He is completely sprawled out, racket full length. Borg’s second serve looks like a
lollypop. I am sure I have seen harder second serves in my tennis league. At 2 all in the third set, tiebreaker, they played back and forth. McEnroe gives Borg some slices and gets ready to come in on a backhand approach shot and goes into the net. He goes down on one knee as though he has just lost his grandmother. Had McEnroe won a Grand Slam by now? McEnroe makes two brilliant shots, one a very shot cross-court passing shot and a one down-the-line passing shot and takes the tiebreaker in third set. McEnroe is up 5-4 in the first set when Borg serves to stay in the set. ****. I am wrong. Princess Diana is there, Prince Phillip, Princess Michael Kent I believe, that is celebrities. When did Princess Diana and Charles marry? Were they married by then or was she getting ready to be married? Yeah they were not married yet. She is now Lady Diana Spencer, she is not Princess Diana quit yet. You do not really need to look at the scoreboard. You can always tell who won the point by looking at McEnroe. If he won it okay maybe he would be neutral, maybe he would be buoyant. If he did not his hands are on his hips, he is looking at the racket, he is looking at the ball, he is looking at someone to blame or someone to be mad at including himself. Forget what I said about tennis not being very popular because most of the time you are watching the server go back to the baseline to serve his second serve because if that were the case then baseball would be pretty unpopular too because a huge percentage of baseball consists of no action whatsoever. It is not just that McEnroe throws fits, it is that he has the most attitude of any tennis player who has ever lived. If the calls do not go his way, if the ball does not go over the net, if he does not get the shot where he wants it to be then the entire world sucks. When things do go his way he puts his hands up to the sky as if to say okay now you finally got it right, let us just keep going here, no more deviations from the plan please. Borg and McEnroe’s entourage have to sit in the same box, one in front of the other. That is kind of uncomfortable I think. I think I was wrong. I believe the score is 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4. The third set tiebreaker is a doozy. McEnroe gets the first point as Borg serves and volleys. McEnroe hits a really sharp return right at him and he sends one of the new balls long. On the second point McEnroe gets a serveless winner, he is up 2-0. McEnroe serves and volleys, serves down the middle. Borg gets the ball up, McEnroe comes in and puts it right down the line in the deuce court and leaves a sliver of space to his left through which Borg sends the ball. It is 2-1. Borg serves right into McEnroe’s body w ho sends the return wide. McEnroe gets a short ball to come in on in his backhand. He puts it into the net, it is just as though the world had ended it is that bad. Serving volley wide by McEnroe who then hits a cross-court volley winner. We are now 3-3, one set all. And the announcers are quiet, they are quiet. I am just thrilled. It is like being at the game, the match. McEnroe gets Borg running a good serve and two good volleys and on a good serve and a good volley and he is up 4-3. God he covers the net. It is like a blanket. It is just like a Hoover, a vacuum cleaner, a Rota rooter, nah. On the next point Borg comes in with this swinging backhand volley to the add court and McEnroe hits a beautiful cross-court volley right past him for a winner, 5-3. McEnroe does it again. Borg comes in with that same low two-handed backhand volley and this time McEnroe just puts the ball over him. It is not a lob, it is not a passing shot, it is just kind of over his left shoulder and lands in the corner. The guy’s touch, his range of strokes, is pretty incredible. The only thing he does not do is hit with extreme power and that is because he likes that wooden racket. It is now 6-3 McEnroe. One more point to go up two sets. Sheer genius is the term that the announcer applies to McEnroe’s last two shots. Well, I guess I cannot agree with that. This time Borg sets up the swinging volley and passes McEnroe cross court. He is still in there. He saves the first of three set points. How did Borg win so many Wimbledons. I mean I can see how he won them but I am, doing his swinging volleys there halfway into the net, I just do not get it. Oh yeah and the electronics, there is actually a person there touching the net to see if there is a net-court on the serve. Of course we have, I do not know what it is called, but we have an automatic way of doing that and pretty soon we will have shot spot. Borg hits a running cross-court volley that McEnroe manages to get back and hit before in there. He has got the second set. There you go. Let us set the scene here. McEnroe had already been in the final against Borg the year before in Wimbledon on an incredible match. I think that one of the set tiebreaks went to 18-16 and it was a five-set match and he had been booed there because he had already run into trouble with having outbursts. This year he had already been fined $1,500.00 for an outburst at an earlier match and this is the tournament when he got into a few fights and came up with the phrase “You are the pits of the world and you cannot be serious”. So I think what is most amazing sad to say is that McEnroe got through this entire match without any big blowups. He had already had his blowups and he knew he had a chance to win the match and he managed to keep his cool. Heaven knows what would have happened if he had gone down two sets first though. That might have been more entertaining. Wimbledon got back at McEnroe by not inviting him to be an honorary member of the club which is usually what you do when you win the award first and then McEnroe got back at them by not going to the champion’s dinner. What can I say, it is that difficult thing you know when McEnroe and Connors were around when you had true stars. But the price you paid was behavior like McEnroe’s. Pretty disrespectful and disruptive behaviors to your opponent and to the organizers. I do not know why it is in tennis but when you have basketball and you have a star they do not have to be disruptive. They do not even necessarily have to be charismatic, they just have to be good. For instance you have someone like Kobe Bryant, okay, not a good example because he is controversial to die for. Get someone like Kevin Garnet, he is a star. He is not controversial he is just very good. Tim Duncan is a star. But in tennis evidently being really a beautiful player and a really elegant and very, very good player on the court is not, you know, there are two kinds of tennis stars. One of them is one who is beautiful. You could have someone like Anna Kornikova who is beautiful but never wins a match. Or you could have someone like Rafael Nadal who is beautiful and does win matches. Or you can have someone like John McEnroe who wins matches and is controversial. Heaven forbid if we had all three. I think what we might want to have is somebody who is charismatic, who is a winner. If you are going to be controversial then be controversial about what should change so that tennis is more popular. To give it more of a team point of view, to somehow change Davis Cup so that it gets more press and more involvement, at least here. Billy Gene King is the closest to come to that. She has been doing tennis for some time and she is starting to make progress, and this is not a bad time for me to express the fact that I think what could make tennis more popular is to make it much more of a team sport.
Borg: He won the French Open six times, including four consecutive titles (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981) and Wimbledon five consecutive times (1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980).
‘I never acted like a jerk against him,’ McEnroe would admit. ‘I had too much respect.’
By the way, for a brilliant article about Bjorn Borg in Britain’s Guardian Unlimited, click here.