It was 1980. It was Wimbledon, and a Scandinavian iceman was taking on a hothead from New York.
The composed man was Björn Borg, who’d already won the title four times. The more animated man was John McEnroe, out to prove that he could be tournament champion. And when the American tore Borg to pieces 6-1 to claim the opening set, an upset certainly looked on the cards. He won the set easily. Borg turned it around, though, winning the next sets 7-5, 6-3.
The fourth set was a classic. It went to a tie-break that, at more than 20 minutes, would become the longest ever for a Wimbledon final. Borg had a couple of Championship points but just couldn’t finish them off, it was a 34-point tie-break and McEnroe ended up stealing it 18-16.
McEnroe had a pretty chequered past with the British crowd and due to problems with the umpire in his semi-final win against Jimmy Connors, the fans were all with Borg. And they let him know that. A crowd being on your side can drain the confidence from an opponent, so it must’ve been tough for McEnroe to win the fourth set — it was an amazing effort.
The fifth, final set was equally as tightly fought until Borg gained a couple of Championship points with the match at 7-6. McEnroe was serving to stay in the final. After a few shots Borg hit a deft passing shot and even before the crowd were sure he’d won the point, he dropped to his knees safe in knowledge that he’d won it for the fifth time in a row [pictured], showing the trophy hadn’t lost its value.
His win also emphasised why Wimbledon is the best tournament in the world. It’s the history, the tradition and the grass court. And that’s why it remains the premier tennis competition. McEnroe must have been hugely disappointed, but he was able to win it three times after. I was too young to remember the match at the time, but I’ve watched the video of it many times since.
Given the contrasting styles of their play, the only other final I could compare it to in the modern era is the one that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played at Wimbledon in 2008. Federer, like McEnroe, is always trying to attack, while Nadal, like Borg, always looks to play from the baseline. They share the same story: two of the game’s greats having to divide the spoils of the same generation.
Borg was my favourite — he was an idol, in fact. That mild-mannered approach was something that I always tried to instil in my own tennis. Watching the pair recreate the magic at exhibitions is quite a sight — the skill is still there. But it’s never quite the same as that final.