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Borg-McEnroe’s Ancient Art
When Tennis Wasn’t a Bore

Grand masters

There he is, looking not a day over fifty: Bjorn Borg, sitting in one of Center Court’s nobility boxes at Wimbledon while Venus Williams, her oaken thigh wrapped tight from a ghost cramp (they like their drama, the Williams sisters), makes cold presses of France’s Marion Bartoli, who herself made goat cheese of Justine Henin the day before. Two sets, a fourth championship for Venus, a women’s final truncated by its own irrelevance. Nothing to get overly excited about on the court as much as off it. It’s Borg’s second return to Wimbledon in 26 years, since he lost against John McEnroe in 1981, ending his five-year reign. (He came back once before for a red-carpeted millennium celebration). He’s back this year to watch Sunday’s men’s final, a Federer-Nadal rematch, the closest thing to excitement tennis can offer these days: Federer can match Borg’s five straight championships with a victory. But is it the same as it was then? Is any of it really exciting?

Maybe to those who never knew the 1980s and early 90s, tennis’ golden age. The age of Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Becker, Lendl (the dour dullard who still managed to get us excited just to see him beaten) Evert and Navratilova, even the early Sampras-Agassi story before both came to take themselves more seriously than overrated zinfandels. Like McEnroe said: “Some people compare Sampras to Borg. In my mind, there’s no comparison. Even though Pete is one of the greatest players, maybe the greatest player, of all time, Borg, by his presence alone, gave a lot back to the game.” Borg is also the only player in tennis history whose absence, which managed to burnish his stature despite his richly documented affairs with women, drugs, poor fashion choices and bankruptcies, could be as charismatic as his presence if not, as with all Olympian gods, more so. “Even though he never won the United States Open,” George Vecsey wrote in 1983, when rumors were still flying about that Borg would quit playing silly exhibitions and Thailand and return to the circuit, “he will be judged with the Joe DiMaggios and the Joe Louises, the strong, silent types who looked even better after they had left the arena.”

The myth wouldn’t have burned as enduringly without McEnroe’s contribution. The Borg-McEnroe matches on any surface weren’t mere tennis. They were modern-day epics, part Homer, part Scandinavian sagas, part Pollock (as in Jackson, for those times when McEnroe, who never dared lose his temper with Borg on the court, fulminated beneath his breath while channeling every spit of anger into splashes of brilliance). What a pleasure to revisit their game, especially as a counterpoint to today’s tenebrous tennis.

A couple of years ago I discovered a DVD of the complete Borg-McEnroe 1980 final at Wimbledon, the one with the astounding fourth-set tie-breaker that McEnroe won 18-16, fighting off some half dozen championship points along the way. Borg went on to win the match in the fifth, 8-6 (“funny,” McEnroe wrote, “people usually think I won that match”), but it’s the fourth set that had all the pyrotechnics we could ask for, a level of play unmatched in the four other sets and in most matches anywhere. I’m watching it now. The court looks identical. Same worn grass, same brown spots, same hesitant sun. Borg and McEnroe look oddly Lilliputian compared to contemporary players, who sometimes hulk over the grass like NBA players stomping the paint. Their rackets, slim, wooden, small-headed, make a measured pop unlike the emphatic, uni-caliber gunshot rackets make today. Rallies last. Deftness isn’t a strange word. Here’s McEnroe serving with his characteristic rear-back, a fabulous first serve down the middle to set up his volley. Borg drills it past him down the right side, cool as an Alpine gust in midsummer. The quality of play in this fourth set is as good as it got all match. The first two sets were actually dull, Borg looking almost bored and overmatched as he lost the first set 6-1, evening it in the second on the strength of a few less unforced errors than McEnroe did, when McEnroe tightened up toward the set’s end, thinking he had Borg in the bag. But the quality surely asserted itself, the rallies lengthened, the winners piled up. Here’s Borg serving at 1-2 in the fourth: the first serve in the net, the second a rising top-spinner into McEnroe’s body, McEnroe back to Borg’s forehand, not deep, a couple of cross-court exchanges then a delicate backhand chip-drop from McEnroe rushing the net, Borg rushing to catch it just in time, a back-hand lob down the line but McEnroe is there, lunging to slice it back cross-court. Somehow Borg returns it past McEnroe for the winner: we don’t see very many points like that on grass anymore.

I hated McEnroe then, hated his stupid outbursts, his New Yorker’s rage, his ability to dominate Borg at Flushing Meadows’ hard surfaces and deny him that U.S. Open that eludes Borg to this day (I leave open the possibility that Borg will make a comeback and finally get it, when he’s sixty or seventy). My hatred of McEnroe was of course wrapped up in my adolescent prejudices. Out of allegiance to Borg and haughty respect for the well behaved presumptions of my childhood (I’m a product of a Catholic up-raising), I refused to see McEnroe’s game for the visual art it was (I don’t mean this as an exaggeration or a metaphor, nor do I see an aesthetic difference between, say, a great Rothko and a great moment in tennis or football; beauty can become artistry regardless of the medium), for how dependant on it Borg’s was. Borg knew. “Maybe that’s why,” McEnroe wrote in “You Cannot Be Serious,” his 2002 memoir, “Borg and I never had a problem, on or off the court: He understood. He thought I was a little crazy, but it didn’t seem to bother him. The way I saw it, he even went out of his way to show me respect.” He goes on:

The second or third time we ever played, in new Orleans in early 1979, it was 5-all in the third set and I was getting all worked up and nutty, and Bjorn motioned me to the net. I thought, “Oh, God, what’s he going to do? Is he going to gtell me I’m the biggest jerk of all time?” And he just put his arm around my shoulders and said, “It’s okay. Just relax.” This was at 5-all in the third set! But he was amused by the whole thing. “It’s okay,” he told me. “It’s a great match.” It made me feel really special. He didn’t look at what I was doing as something I’d done to affect him. It was just my own nuttiness. Plus—and maybe this was the main point—he was still number one.

They were in a world of their own, and they took us along.

When they were kings

Another fabulous point in that fourth set: Borg serving at 30-30. First serve down the middle, wide. Second serve pushes McEnroe past the doubles line, he punches back a forehand crosscourt, Borg returns it crosscourt, McEnroe chips a backhand down the line, Borg is there in plenty of time, backhands it crosscourt, a foot inside the baseline, McEnroe hits the approach shot nicely down the line, Borg not even half-way there when it bounces but somehow manages to get his guts on it and flick it down the line, freezing a disbelieving McEnroe on his diagonal way to the net. McEnroe stares at Borg for a second then puts his hand to his mouth and mutters something to himself, probably remembering why he’d once had Borg’s poster in his room, right next to Farrah Fawcett’s. Amazingly, Borg goes on to break McEnroe for a 5-4 lead, has McEnroe down two championship points, serving at 40-15, and McEnroe manages to pull off his first break of the match right then, on two unbelievably gutsy plays, including a half-volley he snagged out of nowhere to force a deuce and eventually the legendary tiebreaker. ( Wimbledon instituted the tiebreaker in 1971, but it kicked in only when games were tied at 8. In 1979, it kicked in at 6, except for the final set: no tie-breaker in case of tie. That’s still the case, but not at the US Open.)

There was a tempo to the game, a certain deliberateness, an unhurriedness, that has disappeared from today’s tennis. I don’t know how to define it exactly. Maybe it’s the certainty of never hearing an errant cell phone ring or seeing someone in the crowd chattering off on a mobile, the sense that 24-hour news isn’t madly scrolling on every other television screen even though this was July 1980, the 52 American hostages in Iran still had the United States on high anxiety, gas wasn’t cheap, malaise was hip, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were threatening and Mt. St. Helens had blown its top. Maybe it’s the telecast: I’m watching the BBC’s broadcast, no commercials, no endless replays, no graphics, not even the score at any point, as if all those things have no importance. What mattered, what matters still between these two men, is the game. What they created on the court transcended anything that might attempt to enhance it. Analysis is superfluous, entirely forgettable, including (and especially) that of Bud Collins. That’s not likely to be the case Sunday at Wimbledon. McEnroe, the smartest tennis commentator the game’s ever had, will be in NBC booth slogging through Nadal-Federer, Borg and Connors will be in the stands, the camera surely will match them up a couple of times, but even silent and placid they’ll be more charismatic than, barring a miracle, whatever happens on court. (I don’t mean to be gloomy about Sunday’s final: I’m rooting for a five-setter homage to the old days. The atmosphere and the players are ripe for it, so why not?)

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