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An epic finish
Ride your surfboard along the Internet and you will discover multiple DVDs for sale of the Wimbledon men’s singles final July 5, 1980. It figures. All these years later, that duel between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe remains arguably the most epic tennis encounter ever.
Borg needed 3 hours and 53 minutes to collect his fifth straight title at the All England Club, and he won it only after McEnroe evened the match by winning a 22-minute tiebreaker 18-16 in the fourth set - likely the most memorable game in modern times.
For Borg, Wimbledon crown No. 5 was the toughest. It appeared his streak was over after McEnroe romped to a 6-1 triumph in the first set, but the Swede then took temporary command by winning the next two 7-5, 6-3.
Adding to the drama was the contrasting demeanor of the combatants. McEnroe, 21, was his customary feisty self, letting his emotions hang out for all to see. Borg, 24, as usual showed nothing - except at the finish after hammering a backhand cross-court winner for match point. It was then that he dropped to his haunches, pumped his fist and howled, perhaps as much in relief as triumph.
“For sure, it is the best I have ever played at Wimbledon,” said Borg, who also won five-set finals from Jimmy Connors in 1977 and Roscoe Tanner in 1979.
If McEnroe’s stirring comeback in the fourth set won him widespread admiration for true grit, it also cost him. The young American with the flaming red hair and temper to match admitted he was exhausted after the interminable tiebreaker in which he had seven set points and Borg five match points. Borg got in 80 percent of his first serves in the final set and lost only three points on serve.
Recalling the match years later, McEnroe acknowledged it was still special.
“You could definitely feel something in the air that day, more so than I’ve ever felt anywhere else,” he said. “This was the way tennis should be.”
As it turned out, the victory marked the beginning of the end for Borg’s career. McEnroe defeated him in the finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1981, and two years later Bjorn abruptly retired in his mid-20s, saying, “I don’t enjoy [tennis] anymore. The focus isn’t there.”
Five years later, Borg told Atlanta sports columnist Dave Kindred that he had no regrets, adding, “I’m so happy for the decision I made. I did tennis, and I did it well. I don’t need to do it all over again.”
As with so many athletic stars, however, the itch never went away completely. Borg tried a brief comeback using his old wooden rackets in the early 1990s but soon retired to the seniors tour.
Borg’s later life was checkered. He suffered a drug overdose, was rumored to have attempted suicide (which he denied), had a turbulent and brief marriage to Italian singer Loredana Berte and was thought to be in financial difficulty after several failed business ventures.
In recent years, he has remarried and started a family.
“I’ve never been more happy than I am today,” he told USA Today in 2006. “I have a great family, great kids…. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. It’s really true: Life starts at 50.”
McEnroe’s own stormy marriage to actress Tatum O’Neal broke up after six years; he is now wed to singer Patty Smyth. He has been a TV tennis analyst for years and was the host of a short-lived interview show on CNBC in 2004.
In 2007, the two old tennis players met again in a Tour of Champions seniors match won by McEnroe 7-6, 7-6. Afterward, Mac was extremely gracious toward his legendary adversary.
“The greatest matches I’ve ever played in my life have been against Bjorn,” he said. “Any time you play him, you don’t know you’ve won until the end.”
And usually players in that position don’t win. By the time Borg left the tennis landscape, he had won those five Wimbledon titles, six French Open crowns and a total of 97 tournaments. In the long history of men’s tennis, only a few have been as dominating: Bill Tilden, Rod Laver, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer.
But as McEnroe discovered that July day more than a quarter-century ago, there is no shame in losing when both victor and victim play a match for the ages.
About the Author
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