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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Borg vs. McEnroe

July, 1980. Wimbledon, the tradition if not the very soul of tennis on a chewed-up grass court. Bjorn Borg, four-time consecutive Men’s Champion, a gentleman of uncanny restraint and icy nerves was to face the fiery volatility of John McEnroe, an uncouth brat with the mouth of a sailor and pure genius in his left hand.

Bill and I had spent the night before playing tennis under the lights. To be precise, what we did was hit balls back and forth with the kind of savage creativity that gets toddlers fingered for pre-school therapy. By the time morning rolled around to present the growingly-famous “Breakfast at Wimbledon,” I was spent, barely awake and rooting feebly for Borg.

The hell with patriotism: I liked the Swede better and he was ranked #1. Go with a winner!

The first sets were tight, with Borg firing rifle shots from the baseline while Mac darted to the net for putaways that defied logic. To my surprise, McEnroe took the first set with slashing volleys. The second set was a struggle, with Borg taking it on quick forays to the net. The third seemed closer, but once again Borg dominated with risky approaches and pinpoint passing shots. Borg led 2 sets to 1 and I drifted to sleep on the Student Union couch.

When I woke up, Borg was leading 5-4 in the fourth set. In that game, he had two match points, and despite superb play, McEnroe saved both with diving volleys that were the essence of genius and desperation. Winning that game, they remained tied so that at 6-6, they went to a tiebreak.

The players call it “lingering death.” Anyone who watched that fourth set tiebreak live knows exactly what that means. Borg, wide-shouldered, slumped, walking quickly on short steps. McEnroe, lithe, slouching, a petulant look on his face as he stalked the court. First to seven points, but must win by two. Before the tiebreak started I yelled out “Go, Borgie baby!” And then I forgot to breathe for the next 20 minutes.

What had been an excellent match turned into greatness then ascended into legendary. Borg fired cannon shot after cannon shot, hitting his strokes with a precision and power that had never been seen. McEnroe kept sprinting in, daring the Swedish sniper to find an opening that his strings couldn’t block. Time and again the crowd gasped as one magnificent shot was met with another, the cathedral-like silence imposed on such proceedings squeezing emotions into uncontrollable yips and squeaks.

Borg fought off seven set points that McEnroe achieved, but to the enormous credit of the brat, he fought off five Championship points, four of them with Borg serving. In the greatest cauldron of pressure on the greatest stage of their sport, both men danced like high-wire artists over a bottomless chasm.

It ended in a blazing slash, McEnroe winning an unbelievable set, 18-16. As the crowd rose to its feet in admiration and anticipation of a fifth set, I saw something in Borg’s eyes I hoped was not there: fear. His eyes were mirrors of fear. I whispered to myself that stamina would now be the difference and nobody was fitter than Borg.

Years later, I read that Borg admitted to feeling fear at that moment, between the fourth and fifth sets. He decided to go for broke, to simply chase down every ball in an effort to beat this unfathomable lefty.

And scramble he did, swooping like a falcon from corner to corner, firing shots that were inhuman in power and angles. Only to find that McEnroe was willing himself to stay in the match, flinging his body like a mistreated marionette in pursuit of a near-invisible ball.

Neither player gained an advantage, and the fifth set reached 6 games all. No tiebreak in the final set; winner has to win two games in a row. Borg won to go ahead 7-6. A close-up at that moment of each player gave a clue: Borg looked like a bank teller at 10:30 AM; McEnroe looked like a bank robber on the lam. Still striking shots only they could hit, the magnificent game ended, Borg fell to his knees releasing all the emotion he kept hidden every other day of the year and the greatest tennis match I’d ever seen ended in a “Borgie baby” victory.

But as I walked away on numb legs, I kept thinking about those mirrors of fear and what they meant to Borg. I sensed that Borg would never be the same, and he wasn’t, retiring a little over a year later at 26. I couldn’t help but wonder when I would see those mirrors in my eyes and how I would change after that.


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