However many more tennis matches Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe are fated to play against each other, surely their names will be linked forever by the memories from a single summer. The summer of 1980. The summer of the tennis bookends. The summer that Borg started by defeating McEnroe in a glorious final at Wimbledon on July 5 and that McEnroe ended by checkmating Borg right back in a glorious final at New York's Flushing Meadow on Sunday.
By the time the two had thrashed at each other through four sets and two tie-breaks, through 45 games and through the very changes of nature's seasons—dazzling late afternoon summer sunlight ending in cool autumn evening breezes—to arrive at still another gut-wrenching fifth set at Louis Armstrong Stadium, it no longer mattered that this was the U.S. Open, McEnroe's Defense, Borg's Jinx. Or even that in the balance hung Borg's quest of the Grand Slam. By that time the significance of the occasion lay in the fact that here again were the two best players in the sport testing each other; here again was the rivalry; here again, oh, what a lovely war.
The battle was joined placidly enough before Borg served for the first set twice. But he wasn't serving well. Not then, not all day or night. McEnroe broke back twice, and at 4-5 in the tie-break he attacked two of Borg's short second serves with deep backhand returns and then volleyed away the points with that marvelous rapier of a left hand. It was 7-6 (7-4) on the scoreboard.
Then a phenomenal thing happened. With the Open and the Slam and everything else slipping away, Borg gave up. It was still early, but he really did. He said he had no feel. He said he "didn't know what was happening." McEnroe said his opponent looked "distant." But, missing 14 of 22 first serves, looping backhand errors into the courtside flower boxes and slogging along like a lonely basset searching for shelter, Borg was quitting. He surrendered the second set at 6-1.
Right then it should have been over. It would have been, too, if McEnroe, who at one point won 18 out of 24 points, had reacted to the scent and jumped on Borg in the third set when he had him 0-30 in the second game or teetering at 15-40 in the fourth. But Borg, in the midst of a streak of 12 straight missed first serves, survived off the ground. He started to put pressure on McEnroe's service, and he got back in the match, drilling five clean winners in a tie-break, then winning the fourth set 7-5.
Certainly now the tide had turned. Borg had won 13 fifth-set encounters in a row dating back to 1976. Such a record of invincibility in the clutch! McEnroe had battled Jimmy Connors for more than four hours the night before, and he would be going 4:13 this time. "I wasn't exactly on the doorstep of winning," Junior said later. "I felt my body would fall off. I figured I was just another victim, though, so I had nothing to lose."
How well McEnroe's brave stand at Wimbledon served him at Flushing Meadow is moot, but he wasn't about to collapse under the weight of what the unfriendly crowd in his hometown screamed were "Borgasms."
The foreigner, the favorite, looked fresher, more eager. But with Borg serving at 3—all, he allowed McEnroe's floating approach to drop free in the corner. When it was called good, he looked stunned. "But the point didn't make me lose," he said. No, McEnroe's Stinging serve and Borg's own again-disappearing delivery did that. Still upset, Borg double-faulted twice before fighting off a break point. But McEnroe kept attacking with dartlike returns, and he seized the moment, gaining the crucial break for 4-3 on a crosscourt backhand that caught Borg lunging too late at the tape.
It was McEnroe's championship to defend merely by holding serve now, and he was hot at just the right time. The kid won his second straight Open, 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4, by giving up only two points in his last two service games, completing a run in which he held 17 of his 20 service points.
"The level of play, the intensity, was higher at Wimbledon," Borg said afterward. "We both can play better. You will see the best matches, the best tennis, from us in the future."