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#TBT, 1978 Stockholm: When Borg met McEnroe for the first time
On this day, the Swede was competing in the semis of his homeland’s tournament, the Stockholm Open. His opponent was a fiery American left-hander—not Connors, but a teenager who’d long idolized Borg.
November 12, 2020
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In the fall of 1978, the Bjorn Borg aura was at its zenith. He was near the end of what to that point was the finest year of his career. Summer had commenced with the Swede winning Roland Garros and Wimbledon—the first of three straight times he’d accomplish that remarkable feat. Wimbledon was Borg’s third consecutive title, making him the first man in more than 40 years to earn a three-peat at the All England Club. In September, Borg reached the final of the US Open, his campaign there only stymied by his biggest rival at the time, Jimmy Connors.
Nothing defined Borg’s charisma more vividly than his extraordinary tranquility under pressure. His coach, Lennart Bergelin, liked to say his charge had “ice in his veins.” Time after time, Borg came through with superb passing shots, big serves and deft volleys.
On this day in 1978, Borg was competing in the semifinals of his homeland’s tournament, the Stockholm Open. For all Borg’s accomplishments, he’d yet to win this title in six prior appearances. His opponent was a fiery American lefthander—not Connors, but a teenager who’d long idolized Borg, John McEnroe.
“I thought he was magical—like some kind of Viking god who’d landed on the tennis court,” McEnroe wrote in his autobiography. McEnroe also envied the way women regarded Borg not merely as an athlete, but as a rock star.
Less than six months earlier, McEnroe was finishing his one year of college tennis, leading Stanford to the ’78 NCAA title before turning pro near the end of spring. In the ensuing months, McEnroe hadn’t merely climbed up the ranks, he’d soared. Starting in September, McEnroe advanced to the semifinals of the US Open, made a successful Davis Cup debut, and won the first two singles tournaments of his career.
It would have been easy to feel intimidated taking on the great Borg for the first time, particularly in Sweden. But on this occasion, two significant factors worked in McEnroe’s favor. First, the match was played indoors, removed from such disruptive elements as the sun, wind and humidity that often aided Borg. Second, the surface was an exceptionally slick tile—difficult for Borg, perfect for McEnroe’s attacking game
McEnroe won 6-3, 6-4.
“There was little I could do,” Borg said. “John just played too well.”
It was the first time as a pro Borg had ever lost to someone younger. As longstanding journalist Richard Evans wrote, “one could almost hear television sets in Lapland freeze over and reindeer drop icy tears as the severity of the defeat became known… for Borg to lose in one hour and fourteen minutes without ever seeming capable of offering any resistance was almost humiliating.”
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The stage was set for what rapidly became tennis’ premier rivalry. In the spring of ’79, McEnroe won the highly prized WCT Dallas event, beating Connors in the semifinals and Borg in the finals. The summer of 1980 was bookended by two dazzling five-setters, Borg taking the first at Wimbledon, McEnroe in New York becoming the first man to win a fifth set against Borg in four years. But the next year, McEnroe took over the world No. 1 ranking from Borg. The rivalry was deadlocked at seven matches apiece. With Borg 25 years old and McEnroe only 22, the stage was set for many more battles to come.
Alas, that 1981 US Open proved to be the last Grand Slam Borg ever played. After sitting out much of 1982, amid expectations he would return in ’83, Borg suddenly announced in January ’83 that he was retiring. The grand Borg-McEnroe rivalry—ice versus fire, baseliner versus volleyer, righty versus lefty—had been stopped dead in its tracks. Borg’s absence haunted McEnroe.
“It took the wind out of my sails: I had a very tough time motivating myself and getting back on track,” he wrote.
McEnroe would often compare Borg’s early exit to the great basketball rivalry between Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers ending prematurely. Of course, McEnroe still had likes of Connors, Ivan Lendl and a host of others breathing down his neck. But none of that heat compared to the coolness McEnroe had felt whenever he’d played Borg.