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Wimbledon’s best rivalries

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-06-2017 Dileep Premachandran

It was a very long time ago, but it remains the benchmark for all the tennis rivalries that we have seen since. Roger Federer was five weeks old the last time Björn Borg and John McEnroe met in a Grand Slam final, at the US Open in September 1981. After his four-set defeat, Borg would skip the presentation ceremony and the press conference, taking a ride to the airport instead, and Grand Slam tennis would never see him again.

All these years later, however, the memories of the rivalry remain undimmed. In much the same way that the mystique and skill of the Brazilian football team of Pelé, Garrincha and Didi made football a truly global sport, and the bouts between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman seared boxing into the collective sporting consciousness, Borg and McEnroe took tennis out of the private clubs and into the mainstream.

Borg vs McEnroe

Long before he wanted to win world cups and score centuries, little tousle-haired Sachin Tendulkar was donning a headband and pretending to be McEnroe. The generation of tennis players that followed tended to be from the ice-cool Borg school, or the tempestuous McEnroe one, though the original brat insisted in a Daily Telegraph column that the way he and the Swede he played four times in Grand Slam finals was far more alike than anybody would have imagined.

“People think we had our differences, but we didn’t really, and off-court our personalities were more similar than people realized,” he wrote. “We had similar senses of humour, we looked at things in the same way and we were bemused by a lot that was going on.”

Wimbledon has always had a special place at the core of the tennis narrative, but what the two Borg-McEnroe finals did was to elevate it to another plane altogether. Borg may have enjoyed more success at the French Open, where he won six times, and McEnroe at the US Open, where he prevailed on four occasions, but the 1980 and 1981 Wimbledon finals came to define their careers.

The first still plays on a loop each time the tournament approaches. In the summer of 1980, when another blond genius, Bernd Schuster, inspired West Germany to European Championship glory on the football pitch, Borg was 24 years old, and already the winner of nine Grand Slam titles. The 21-year-old McEnroe had won the US Open the previous autumn, but this was his first final at SW19.

McEnroe breezed through the first set, before Borg found his serving groove and the metronomic groundstrokes started to paint the lines. McEnroe needed to win the fourth-set tie-break to stay in the match. It lasted 22 minutes, with the pendulum swinging back and forth so often as to leave the spectators hypnotized. Finally, a topspin return from McEnroe drew an errant volley from Borg. The score? 18-16.

A quarter-century later, Borg told The Observer: “I can feel that walk back to the chair now as if it was yesterday. That was the toughest moment in my tennis career, that walk. I knew John thought he would win the match. I thought he would win the match. I don’t know how I regrouped.”

Having already battled for 3 hours, Borg took his game up a notch in the final set, losing just three points on serve. Astonishingly though, McEnroe stayed on pace, and twice held serve to save the match. Finally, at 7-6 to Borg, McEnroe, whose touch at the net was often sublime, couldn’t connect properly with a low volley. Match point to the Swede, who then finished it off with a dazzling passing shot off the two-handed backhand. “If he had broken me in the first game of the fifth set I would have lost, but I won from love-30 and then I played just unbelievably well, hardly lost a point on serve and won the match,” said Borg. “That was the strongest set, mentally, in my tennis career.”

The following year, McEnroe won in four sets. It was Borg’s first defeat at Wimbledon since Arthur Ashe had beaten him in 1975 and his feelings afterwards went a long way towards pushing him into retirement. “And when I lost, what shocked me was I wasn’t even upset,” Borg was to say in retrospect. “That was not me: losing a Wimbledon final and not upset. I hate to lose.”

Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Photo: Getty Images

Connors vs McEnroe

For McEnroe, there would have to be other rivals, none more so than fellow American Jimmy Connors. If McEnroe could be the raging inferno, Connors was the slow-burning charcoal fire. As much as the ferocity of his returns, what helped him win was his feistiness, an ability to get under his opponents’ skin. Just as we remember McEnroe with hands on hips, yelling “You cannot be serious!”, we also recall Connors scratching his nose with his middle finger cocked, all the while maintaining eye contact with the man across the net.

In 1982, the year when both Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan reached the third round, the two Americans played out an epic final that Connors won from two sets to one down. Two years later, Connors watched helplessly as McEnroe put on what could only be described as an exhibition of perfect grass-court tennis. The serves zinged off the strings and found the corners, the returns left Connors flailing, and volleys dropped across the net like falling autumn leaves. Power, placement and touch in perfect harmony, on a sunlit afternoon when even the peerless Dan Maskell of “Ooh-I-say” fame was often at a loss for words.

Stefan Edberg (left) and Boris Becker. Photo: Getty Images

Edberg vs Becker

The next great Wimbledon rivalry, which would take place in three consecutive finals at the end of that decade, featured two men who were temperamentally as far removed as Borg and McEnroe had been. Stefan Edberg possessed glacial calm and a game built for the faster courts. Few mastered serve-and-volley like he did, and his one-handed backhand was a thing of rare beauty.

Matched against him was Boris Becker, a lumbering hunk who, next to Edberg’s balletic grace, often resembled a rugby forward in a tutu. Becker was no natural athlete, but possessed both immense power—the “Boom Boom” nickname was well earned—and immense pluck. He was a creature of adrenalin and instinct, who could salvage points others might have given up simply by flinging himself across the grass.

Edberg won the first fire-and-ice final in 1988, before Becker blew him away the following year. The two saved their best for last. On a July afternoon in 1990, a few hours before Lothar Matthäus and West Germany won the World Cup for the third time, Becker and Edberg went at each other like two prizefighters. Each time the German’s power threatened to overwhelm, Edberg would come up with a pass or a miraculously angled volley that redressed the balance. The match went into a fifth set, and Becker broke first, but it was Edberg’s composure that would prevail. Neither man would lift the trophy again.

By then, serve-and-volley, like grass-court tennis itself, was becoming an anachronism. A generation of players, who preferred to trade bazookas from the baseline, treating the net almost as if it were a quarantine zone, emerged. Some, like Goran Ivanišević, who swatted down aces like some of us would brush off a mosquito, would follow their massive serves to the net, but were never naturals in the way McEnroe and Edberg had been.

Pete Sampras (Left) Andre Agassi. Photo: Reuters

Sampras vs the rest

The shining exception was an American of Greek ancestry who played most of his tennis with a hangdog expression. Since he retired in 2002 with 14 Grand Slam titles, including seven at Wimbledon, Pete Sampras has been mocked by the likes of Andre Agassi for his monochrome personality on court, and the intensity of focus which made him “boring”.

On court, Sampras was anything but boring. He had the gifts of the big, powerful serve, deftness of touch and economy of movement that the much smaller McEnroe had in his prime. Over an eight-year stretch when only Richard Krajicek, the big-serving Dutchman, managed to beat him, Sampras thwarted the best efforts of those who came up against him—the baseline bullies such as Agassi and Jim Courier, and the howitzer servers such as Ivanišević, Becker and Pat Rafter.

Each man had his chances, but ultimately the combination of Sampras’ skills and serenity proved too much to handle. The closer the matches got, the more they lost control. They tried everything—the big serves, the baseline barrage, chip-and-charge—but he always had the answer. Tantrums and meltdowns were common, with Ivanišević reduced to tears by his inability to pierce the force field around the American.

A file photo of Switzerland’s Roger Federer (L) holding the trophy after winning against US Andy Roddick (R). Photo: AFP

Federer vs Roddick...

Roger Federer, whose dominance in the first decade of the new century matched the American’s, filled the space that Sampras vacated. He had two great rivals as he set about establishing his Wimbledon legacy. Andy Roddick looked and sometimes behaved like a frat boy, but he was a serious tennis player, with the tools to do immense damage on fast courts. Federer couldn’t match him for power, but what he had was finesse.

In another era, Roddick might have lifted the trophy at least once. Against Federer, he always fell a fraction short. As well as he served or as much as he crunched his returns, the Swiss player could always elevate his game to another dimension. Few will forget the broken expression on Roddick’s face after Federer won 16-14 in the final set in 2009, the last of the three finals they would contest.

A file photo of Roger Federer (L) and Spain’s Rafael Nadal. Photo: Reuters

...and Federer vs Nadal

By then, Federer and Rafael Nadal had already completed tennis’ answer to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy. Like Borg and McEnroe, this was the classic rivalry, between the natural and the counterpuncher unfazed by any crisis. Nadal covered the court like the roadrunner, making impossible saves, while Federer found wondrous angles. Their last two finals (2007 and 2008) were masterpieces of cut and thrust, feint and parry.

Almost a decade on, they remain a high watermark for tennis in the modern era, made extra special by the fact that the two protagonists respected each other as much as McEnroe and Borg had. Since Federer won his first title in 2003, only three other men have lifted the trophy—Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Each of the three is a prototype for modern tennis. Federer, who won his last Wimbledon crown in 2012, remains a glorious relic. For all his prowess from the baseline, he has also been an artist at the net. At his best, he possessed the best qualities of both McEnroe and Borg—the clever serving and touch at the net of one, and the precision groundstrokes and unflustered demeanour of the other. In a year that has seen a remarkable upswing in his fortunes, we may be in for one more unforgettable chapter.

Each of these rivalries, featuring men at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum and with vastly different skill sets, illuminated the English summer, and ensured that the Wimbledon fortnight was at the heart of the sporting landscape. The mutual regard between those who ceded no ground in their quest for excellence made the Wimbledon chronicle an epic tapestry that no other Grand Slam comes close to matching.

The final word should go to McEnroe. “We haven’t played for a few years, and who knows if we’ll ever play again, but it feels like we could almost do it blindfolded because we know each other’s games so well,” he wrote of Borg. “I play one way, he plays another.”

The contrast is tennis’ enduring legacy.

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