There were two entirely different tournaments at Wimbledon this year. The first extended for all but the last singles match of the fortnight and consisted of a series of bogs, separated by drizzle and joined by bad bounces. In this first tournament, the men's play was especially predictable, and what grace and tension there were came almost entirely from the ladies.
The other Wimbledon took three hours and 53 minutes last Saturday and grew into one of the most extraordinary contests in the annals of sport—or any endeavor in which two men test their wills against one another. For Bjorn Borg to win his 35th-straight match at Wimbledon and his fifth-straight title and to reach a place above all men who have ever played tennis, he had to beat John McEnroe, and he did that by the astounding score of 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18 in the tie-breaker), 8-6.
Though he is barely 24, no one has ever approached Borg's mark in the championships. Had he won in four sets—as he nearly did—Borg would be remembered as the juggernaut of the ages, the unbeatable. But by winning the match as he did, he enhanced his reputation, because the character of his performance surpassed the achievement itself. Borg lost seven championship points in the fourth set and finally the set itself. More than that, he lost another seven break points in the deciding set. Fourteen times the greatest, coolest player ever to tread the courts failed, and failed when it counted most. The last man to lose the Wimbledon final after having a match point in his favor was John Bromwich of Australia in 1948, and those who played against Bromwich thereafter say he was never again the same player. One point did him in. And this man Borg blew many such chances. And still he triumphed.
As he took his position for the fifth set, he thought, "This is terrible. I'm going to lose." Borg admits he thought that. And he thought, "If you lose a match like this, the Wimbledon final, after all those chances, you will not forget it for a long, long time. That could be very, very hard." It was his serve to start the last set. He lost the first two points. "But then," Borg recalls, "I say to myself, I have to forget. I have to keep trying, try to win.' " He served the next point and won. And again and again. He closed out the game at 30.
After those first two losing points, he was to serve 29 more times in the match, and he was to win 28 points, the only loser coming at 40-love in Game 9. He was inhuman again, "playing on another planet," as Ilie Nastase has said of him. But he had been human, so very mortal, and that is important. We already knew the great Borg could beat any opponent. We knew that. In fact, how much does it really matter, five Wimbledons or four? But this afternoon we found that Borg could not possibly be beaten by himself, either. That is why this victory matters so.
"He's won Wimbledon four straight times, he's just lost an 18-16 tie-breaker," a reverent McEnroe mused afterward. "You'd think maybe just once he'd let up and just say forget it. No. What he does out there, the way he is, the way he thinks...." McEnroe shook his head. "I know I couldn't do it."
Ah, yes, McEnroe. Let us pause now for him. All those championship points were not merely lost by Borg. They were won, too, every one of them, by as gallant a loser—and sportsman, too, this particular day—as ever came to Wimbledon. McEnroe swaggered onto the court to boos and slumped off it to cheers, and with that metamorphosis he can never be the same.
McEnroe did not only lose, either. Borg had to defeat him. Thus, McEnroe made Borg greater, elevated him for posterity. Louis needed his Schmeling more than the bums-of-the-month, as Ali did his Frazier, Tilden his Johnston. What McEnroe did for Borg with this one match was to lift him above the record books and enroll him among the legendary.
Such was the climax of this match that already the mind plays tricks, refuses to believe how ordinary it really was until it exploded in the ninth game of the fourth set. Indeed, everything leading up to this greatest of 94 finals was mundane. Borg had run through the field at his leisure, losing but two sets. For his part, McEnroe struggled, nearly falling to one Terry Rocavert, ranked 112th in the world, in the second round. But by the time he met Jimmy Connors, in what was then presumed to be the Runner-Up Bowl, there were flashes of top form. However, they were obscured by McEnroe's inconsistency and by a breakout of his on-court irascibility, which he had subdued till now. Put off by an insignificant line call, McEnroe bellowed 14 times at the umpire that he wanted to see the tournament referee, a display that drew the first public warning ever issued on Centre Court, and jammed the BBC switchboard with anti-American diatribes. It was an unpleasant and interminable match of four sets, dragged out because both these lefthanders take forever to serve, Connors with all his ball-bouncing and string-gazing, McEnroe with his bizarre service posture in which he stands sideways to the baseline, rocking back and forth like a broken toy, finally unwinding—who knows when?—as if someone, somewhere has at last pushed a remote-control button. Seeing this Connors vs. McEnroe match was like watching grass die.
Indeed, at the start of the final, when Borg shuffled about in a daze, it appeared more than anything that McEnroe had command of the pace of the play, and as long as he could keep that he could rule the match. Usually Borg steps about briskly between points, rump out, his thin legs with the great-muscled thighs driving like pistons, but now the champion sagged and clomped around, drifting to McEnroe's slow meter. Borg lost his first service game and his third, too, and the set was all the challenger's, 6-1.