Sport’s great rivalries | Four decades since the greatest Wimbledon men’s final ever

Spectators dressed to resemble former champion tennis players Bjorn Borg (L) and John McEnroe (R) pose for a photograph at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London on the first day of the Wimbledon Championships.
Spectators dressed to resemble former champion tennis players Bjorn Borg (L) and John McEnroe (R) pose for a photograph at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London on the first day of the Wimbledon Championships.
Image: GLYN KIRK / AFP

This weekend marks 40 years since what is widely considered the greatest Wimbledon men’s final ever.

When Bjorn Borg triumphed 1-6‚ 7-5‚ 6-3‚ 6-7‚ 8-6 over John McEnroe after five thoroughly absorbing sets‚ he sank to his knees from physical exhaustion‚ as much as sheer relief.

The undisputed King of Wimbledon had just completed a fifth successive championship against the man who had clearly established himself as the most obvious pretender to his throne.

Playing each other just 14 times‚ they didn’t have the most enduring rivalry.

It was'‚ however‚ one of the most captivatingly intense. It was in the realm of the yin and the yang.

Simply put‚ the rivalry transcended tennis.

To capture the essence of their battle at the apex of the sport‚ the pair‚ in one photo shoot was dressed as gentlemen in frilly white shirts standing back-to-back as if they were drawing pistols at dawn.

Stylistically and in demeanour they were poles apart.

Borg was the cool‚ calculated iceman from Sweden‚ while McEnroe was the brash‚ no nonsense hard rocking American partial to volcanic eruptions on court.

Borg was deeply superstitious and a creature of habit.

He would stay in the same hotel and follow the same routines like not shaving for the duration of the tournament.

The Swede principally operated from the baseline but he was no slouch at the net.

He would not have won Wimbledon five times had he not had the nerve and finesse to volley.

McEnroe possessed a serve of pace and guile which allowed him to routinely charge and take command of the net.

That also made him a redoubtable doubles practitioner alongside Peter Fleming.

Unlike the taciturn and unflappable Borg‚ McEnroe’s on court tantrums and brushes with officialdom were grabbing the headlines ahead of his tennis.

In the final Borg made a characteristically sluggish start‚ conceding the first set 1-6.

He‚ however‚ found his groove in the second and third winning those 7-5 and 6-3 before the intensity was cranked up a notch.

The pair could not be separated in the fourth.

The set was on an inexorable course to a tie-break before McEnroe lost his serve allowing Borg the opportunity to close out the match.

Borg went 40-15 up but proceeded to lose his nerve and his serve.

What followed was a tiebreaker for the ages.

Those who witnessed it could barely stand the tension.

As for Borg and McEnroe‚ they raised their game to another realm‚ one seeking to prolong the contest‚ the other to end it.

Borg saved five set points‚ while McEnroe saved as many match points.

Eventually the surprisingly well behaved American‚ by then with some crowd support‚ won the tiebreak 18-16 to take the match into a decider.

The momentum was expected to be with McEnroe.

Borg would later describe losing the tiebreak as the worst minute of his life and admitted that he expected to lose the match.

McEnroe expected Borg to crumble in the fifth but instead found an adversary that had another gear and who had summoned more will.

McEnroe lost the fifth set and the match but took the lessons of that day to heart.

Exactly a year later they would meet on the same court with McEnroe triumphing‚ thus breaking Borg’s 41-match unbeaten run at Wimbledon.

McEnroe had come of age and his arrival brought Borg to the conviction there was room only for one of them on the sport’s highest peak.

A year later aged 26‚ Borg walked away from tennis and arguably one of sport’s greatest rivalry.


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