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Curry Kirkpatrick
July 13, 1981
John McEnroe drew censure—but also gained admiration—as he stopped Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon
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July 13, 1981

His Earth, His Realm, His England

John McEnroe drew censure—but also gained admiration—as he stopped Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon

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When it finally ended in the gathering greens and grays of a long Fourth of July afternoon, he was alone. Just he and his racket and the ball coming shoulder high on the left. There were no more "incompetent fools" or "disgraces to mankind" in the chair. There were no more "cheats" on the lines. There were no "vultures" in the stands, no "trash" or "liars" in the press box and none of the other abominable demons at this place he called the "the pits of the world," which had visited upon him persecutions, both real and imagined, for an entire fortnight. Now it was only he, reaching out on the forehand and jabbing a volley. When the ball landed smack in the corner, clean and clear where nobody could overrule the call or replay the point or "screw" him or even touch the bounding white rabbit he had so artfully slashed into posterity, he had beaten them all. Most of all, John McEnroe had finally beaten the great Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon. For that he will be remembered long after his outrageous behavior and guttersnipe quotations are forgotten.

It had taken a thoroughly preposterous six Wimbledons, with Borg winning 41 straight matches, for this moment to arrive. It had taken nearly a lifetime out of Jimmy Connors, who had come oh-so-close to overthrowing the champion in a thrilling semifinal two days earlier. But for the brilliant McEnroe it required merely the experience of contesting last year's final against Borg, with its magnificent 34-point tiebreak—the ultimate warmup—as well as another three hours and 20 minutes last Saturday.

The scores were 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4, the American lefthander pitching positively Valenzuelan in the clutch tie-breaks, which he won 7-1 and 7-4. When the Centre Court clock struck 5:30 p.m. at the instant the championship changed hands, McEnroe looked to the sky for a moment, transfixed by what he had accomplished. Then he whirled to salute his family in the visitors' box. Brother Mark already had the champagne out.

Along with his unexpected equanimity in the heat of several questionable line calls, the difference in this year's final was the effectiveness of McEnroe's huge sidewinding southpaw first delivery. He connected on 104 of 167 first serves. He won 82—or 79%—of those 104 points but barely half of those that started with his second serve. On the critical points he almost always nailed what Borg called "the big one"—12 times to ward off 13 of 15 break points, nine times out of 10 in the tiebreakers.

"I was surprised that I served so well," McEnroe said. "I wanted to show that Bjorn's not the only one who can come from behind and win. But I can't say if I was mentally tougher."

In fact, on this day McEnroe was indeed tougher. Which might have been the biggest surprise of all considering the commotion of the previous two weeks, during which he exploded at officials, berated spectators, cursed the media, was warned, penalized and fined, more or less confirming the Fleet Street headlines: SHAME OF SUPER BRAT. If the Wimbledon tournament committee has its way, McEnroe will pay a total of $14,750 in fines. He also could face a one-year suspension from tournaments, although punishment of such severity seems unlikely.

McEnroe has disdained Wimbledon since 1977, when, at 18, he reached the semis as a qualifier. Back then he was simply "McNasty." Even before this year's tournament began, McEnroe was grousing that the All England Club meant nothing to him but rain, cold, lousy unrolled courts, unfair scheduling and stuffy people. "The only thing 'championship' about Wimbledon is its prestige," he said. After the tournament started, he took the gloves off.

In a first-round match against Tom Gullikson, McEnroe got into a row—a McEnrow, of course—with the umpire, demanded to see tournament referee Fred Hoyles and then four-lettered Hoyles up and down the baseline. Forsooth, the tournament committee was on the verge of defaulting McEnroe. "Eve never seen Wimbledon so mad, I mean burning," said Arthur Ashe. "Not even when Connors insulted the Queen by not showing up for the centenary celebration in 1977."

Now we're talkin' mad.

The subsequent warnings and a $1,500 fine were thought to have tamed McEnroe, but in later appearances on Centre Court he was heard to bellow, "This place stinks, it reeks."

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