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Borg-McEnroe: 40 years on. The greatest game ever played

July 7, 2020

Borg-McEnroe: 40 years on. A modern-day assessment of what still many believe to be the greatest game ever played.

In July 1980 my dad, 22 at the time, was still living in my grandparents’ house in Worcestershire and my Somerset-born mum had just finished her penultimate year at school. They would not meet until the end of the decade so it’s safe to say I was not anywhere close to being on the agenda when Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe met at Wimbledon for the first time.

I was reared in the image of my dad to be something of a fanatical sports fan. Cricket, rugby, football, golf and almost any sport you can name became, and in some respect continue to be, an overwhelming preoccupation.

Tennis figured as strongly as any in that mix and while my own talents on court were, to put it lightly, limited I have always been bewitched by the game, especially in its most beautiful and dramatic guise on the grass at Wimbledon.

The likes of Pete Sampras, Tim Henman, Justine Henin and Serena Williams were the stars that shone brightest as my appreciation for the game grew, while latterly Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have done more than any to keep the game’s light illuminated in my mind.

My own fandom has, through my 27 years, involved as much a fascination with tennis history as it has with what is happening in the present. But it was not until I sat down on a drizzly June afternoon at my flat in London to watch the 1980 Wimbledon final – which celebrates its 40th anniversary next month – in its entirety that I realised I knew little about what many still consider to be the greatest match ever played.

Of course I was aware of the match and of Borg’s eventual victory, but in reality for people of my age it has been reduced to something of a reference point in debates about whether Nadal and Federer’s titanic Wimbledon final in 2008 bettered it.

For me McEnroe was more familiar as one of tennis’s finest talking heads, a voice of authority to guide me through the game’s nuances and subtleties while Borg was someone I associated with looking effortlessly cool in Centre Court’s Royal Box. I was aware of their exploits, of their famous matches and even of their diametrically opposed styles on court but awareness was all it amounted to.

I figured I knew what I needed to know about them and the 1980 final but 18 points into their legendary 22 minute fourth-set tiebreak, won 18-16 by McEnroe to draw himself level with Borg at two sets a piece, I realised my previous appreciation for the match had come up woefully short.

What became apparent at that most dramatic of moments was a sudden realisation that at no point in the previous two hours and 52 minutes had I even considered the action anything other than utterly compelling, fiercely competitive and, while undeniably less brutish than the modern power game, exquisitely skilful. The reality of being surrounded by a global pandemic was suddenly relieved.

A reductive notion often levelled at sports from a bygone era is that they are boring, slow and simply not as exciting as the offerings of the present day. As a millennial myself, I humbly present this Borg-McEnroe final as an example proving this to be a falsehood. If you gave this one a five-star review you’d be doing it a serious disservice

I was having reactions akin to those that come with the most dramatic live sport. I experienced sweating palms, an elevated heart rate and audible cries of amazement as I sat alone in my house on what was ironically one of this summer’s wettest days so far.

Throughout I found myself drawn to both. McEnroe, his heart as clearly visible on his sleeve as the headband penning in his mane of curly locks, married looks of anguish after a backhand slice into the net with shrieks of joy after a cross court winner.

In contrast Borg, who at the time already boasted four Wimbledon titles to supplement his astonishing five French Opens, seemed utterly unfazed, outwardly at least, by any occurrence. Not a bead of sweat apparent on his unquestionably stylish Fila get-up as he metronomically met every McEnroe challenge with one of his own.

What they both possessed was an easy grace of play almost absent from the modern men’s game, where a premium on heavy hitting often trumps all else. Lithe and fleet of foot, McEnroe and Borg hailed from another era of tennis which, at Wimbledon at least, involved endless attacking forays to net and shots demanding delicacy over destruction.

Perhaps the most prominent parallel to be drawn from that famous afternoon to the modern day is the undeniably unique atmosphere produced by Centre Court. Very few sports venues can lay claim to matching it during moments of pure sporting theatre, silence followed by eruptions of noise. There really is nowhere quite like it.

One sad reality of passing time is its tendency to sentence great moments of sporting history to nostalgia. In the moments before, during and after seismic clashes it is easy to think that the significance of what has occurred will continue to be felt for lifetimes, weaving itself into the fabric of the sporting consciousness.

In many cases this fails to materialise as last year’s memories become last decade’s, muscled out by a recency bias that imbues what is happening now with the utmost relevance. However, there is a hallowed rung of immortality reserved for games, matches and performances that abate this undeniable process of sporting atrophy, instead becoming the benchmarks by which similarly historic moments are judged.

The 1980 Wimbledon final will forever be the standard of excellence in tennis and remain entrenched as one of the finest athletic achievements of all time. And so, on its 40th birthday put down your strawberries and cream, raise your Pimms and pay homage to greatness.

Article written by Tom Ward