The sport of tennis was arguably at its most popular in the late 1970s and early 80s. At the forefront of that popularity boom was Bjorn Borg. The Swede, nicknamed the Ice Man for his calm demeanour and an aura that exuded sheer invincibility, had legions of adoring fans worldwide. In short, he was a rock star, a superhero. From 1978 to 1980, he thoroughly dominated the tennis world on slow and fast surfaces alike in a display of versatility that has not been seen since. However, every hero has his foil, so enter John Patrick McEnroe.
McEnroe, in every way, was the polar opposite of Borg. He was a cocky kid from Queens with a big mouth and an even bigger temper. Whereas Borg rarely showed emotion, McEnroe’s whole being on the tennis court was a swirling vortex of unpredictable emotion. Borg was right-handed, McEnroe was left-handed. Borg liked to play from the baseline. McEnroe played a serve and volley game, the quality of which had not been seen since Rod Laver.
All in all, these two embarked on a rivalry that routinely produced tennis of supremely high quality. However, one match they played stands above all – the 1980 Wimbledon final. McEnroe was no stranger to Wimbledon, having reached the semifinals at eighteen years of age with a game tailor-made for grass. Still, Wimbledon was Borg’s playground, as the Swede had won four consecutive titles at the All England Club. The upstart challenger and the incumbent King waged war for three hours and fifty-three minutes that day, with the Swede prevailing in a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7(16), 8-6 contest that is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional tennis matches the world has ever seen. Ice flowed through the veins of one man while fire coursed through the veins of the other, but these men both had the heart of a lion, and the fourth set – quite possibly the greatest display of tennis ever – showed the depths to which both were willing to go to win this match. In the end, Borg would win narrowly in the fifth, as he made 23 of 31 first serves and added a series of marvellous returns in the final game to finally breakthrough. All in all, Borg got his fifth straight Wimbledon, a mark which would stand for 27 years until Roger Federer equalled it, McEnroe proved his worth as a champion of the highest order, and generations of fans got a match whose greatness will stand the test of time. Allow me the honour of taking you through it.
High-quality highlights can be found here.
McEnroe opened the match with a straightforward hold of serve, following his deliveries into the net each time. The first moment of magic occurred at 15-0 in the next game. Borg followed a forehand into the net, and an enthralling cat and mouse exchange followed, with McEnroe’s feel getting the better of Borg with a backhand pass from around the service line, as could be expected. McEnroe pushed on in that game, with another backhand pass getting him a breakpoint and a perfectly timed lob securing the break. The young American now led the four-time defending champion 2-0 in the first set. This meant very little as surely the battle-hardened Borg, by far the best player in the world, would claw his way back. That would indeed happen, just not in this set.
McEnroe continued to land his first serve with metronomic consistency, and Borg was unable to track his deft volleys. Borg finally got on the board in the fourth game of the match, but that would be the last game he would win in the first set. McEnroe continued to make it look insultingly easy, and Borg added fuel to the fire with several nervous and uncharacteristic misses. On set point, McEnroe coaxed a backhand drop half volley off a Borg net cord, and in the blink of an eye, the set was his, six games to one. It was a thoroughly forgettable set for Borg, as the Ice Man seemed to be frozen, not moving or serving with any conviction. However, as you may have guessed, I wouldn’t be writing about this match here today if this trend had continued. Instead, what was to follow was tennis of transcendent quality, tennis that is held up in the pantheon of the sport to the present day.
Borg started the second set with a hold to 30, and a series of strong returns and a passing shot winner got him to deuce in McEnroe’s first service game. However, two strong first serves warded off any danger, and routine holds were then traded for 2-2. When McEnroe’s serve was going in, with all that spin and disguise, he was so hard to return against – perhaps the foremost example of how placement and variation over raw power can still produce an elite serve. Borg was no slouch either on his serve, as it was perhaps the most underrated part of his complete game. True to form, he opened the next game with an ace right off the line as ‘chalk flew up’. However, the game would not go smoothly. A double fault, stinging backhand pass, and a forehand pass up the line would give the American a breakpoint and a chance to take control of the match given how well he’d been serving. However, Borg landed two first deliveries, and McEnroe missed two returns, much to his dismay. The game saw several more deuces, but Borg held with an ace and a missed McEnroe backhand, the first signs that he had put the first set well and truly in the rearview mirror. Nonetheless, McEnroe was unfazed and produced another clinical hold, including a ridiculous angled backhand drop volley off a return right at his feet, the first of several genuinely incredible shots in this match.
The John McEnroe school of volleying: stick your racket out and let the best hands tennis has ever seen do the rest.
The men then traded holds for 4-4, and Borg opened the ninth game of the set with a double fault, a potentially troubling sign. A backhand return winner followed to get McEnroe to 0-30, but Borg produced two gutsy first serves to draw level in the game. However, a chip and charge play then produced a breakpoint for McEnroe, erased by another serve right on the line from Borg. This trend continued as a stinging backhand pass, and backhand return winner would produce two more breakpoints for McEnroe in that game, but both were saved with strong first serves off the Swede’s Donnay. A drop volley and then a missed forehand gave Borg the game and a 5-4 lead. His passing shots were nowhere near as crisp as usual, but Borg’s serve had saved him in this set. A laser of a backhand return gave Borg some life in the next game, but McEnroe continued to play with dazzling efficiency, and an ace and a sharp backhand volley drew him level at 5-5. Borg held comfortably, and after McEnroe put away a forehand volley to open the next game, a tiebreak looked imminent. However, Mac then got too cute on a forehand volley, dumping it into the net, and Borg, all of a sudden, looked like a changed man. A volley winner and a backhand return winner right down the line got him two set points. Borg missed a return on the first one, but then connected on a return on the second, causing McEnroe to send a backhand volley into the net. The crowd erupted; their favourite had stolen the second set 7-5 and levelled this final.
If you had just seen the first two sets, you might have wondered how Bjorn Borg had won four consecutive Wimbledons at this stage. His opponent looked like the far more natural grass-courter, and he was, but in a traditional sense. Borg’s whole game was built around counteracting tradition and neutering the serve and volley game that had ruled Wimbledon’s lawns before his reign. Wimbledon at this time was played on 70% ryegrass and 30% red fescue, leading to a very uneven bounce, especially as the tournament went on. Add to that the rackets and strings of the day, which had about as much spin potential as a frying pan, and playing with consistency from the back of the court on grass was nearly impossible for most people.
However, Borg, blessed with supernatural hand/eye coordination and quickness, was able to play a grass game that no one else could even fathom. That was the genius of Bjorn Borg; his ability to generate a consistent depth and spin-off the return and the pass, as well as pairing those elements with a strong serve and respectable volleys made him the best grass-court player of his era, despite him lacking the free-flowing serve and volley game of a Rod Laver, or now the latest challenger, McEnroe. The third set showed how Borg was able to rule grass by putting relentless pressure on opponents from the return and off the pass, while also possessing a strong serve game. After a routine hold, Borg upped the ante on the return, connecting on several with interest and forcing McEnroe into some misses. Borg then rocketed a forehand return past McEnroe, who didn’t even move, and the champ was back in business, up a break in the third set.
Again, how Borg was able to generate such pace, and net clearance on a shot like this with a wooden racket truly boggles the mind. Borg continued to play with purpose, and the relentless pressure he generated on both the serve and return got to McEnroe. The American was goaded into several easy misses, and Borg got out to a 4-2 lead. McEnroe then found his game and generated three breakpoints. However, now it was time for Borg to show how good his attacking game was. Some big serves and a deftly placed backhand volley saved all three breakpoints. Still, the game was far from over. A couple of McEnroe backhand passes led to several deuces, and a backhand volley got him another breakpoint. Borg produced yet another first serve to save it, and eventually, a sharp forehand pass and McEnroe backhand miss saw Borg through this epic seventh game to give himself a 5-2 lead. McEnroe had mounted his last resistance of this set, and two games later, some healthy serving saw Borg hold to 15 and take the third set 6-3. At this point, Borg was a set away from a fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, and the first set was but a distant memory. However, what would follow in the final two sets of this match would produce memories that would last for thirty-seven years (and counting) as an emblem of tennis’ golden era.
McEnroe breezed through the first game of the set, holding to 15 despite a backhand return winner. From there, the quality of play would see a marked increase, reaching dizzying heights later in the set. A golden forehand lob winner touched by the tennis gods got McEnroe to 40-30 in the next game, but Borg then replied by clocking a forehand winner from behind the baseline, a rare sight in those days owing to the precision required to hit such a shot with a wooden racket. These two points, neither lasting more than three strokes, perfectly encapsulated what made these two men among the most unique and gifted individuals ever to pick up a racket.
The next game featured a backhand pass and an overhead of considerable difficulty by Borg to get him to 0-30. McEnroe then replied with a forehand volley winner, a body serve right off the service line, and an ace. Borg then followed by thumping a forehand return winner to get to deuce, but a brilliantly angled forehand volley winner and then a more routine forehand volley winner off McEnroe’s racket sealed the game and gave him a 2-1 lead. Borg and McEnroe then exchanged holds to 30 in the next two games to continue the superb back and forth play between both men in this set. Borg opened the next game with an angled running backhand pass, and an ace would give him an easy hold. A service winner from McEnroe negated a Borg return winner, and Mac replied to gold for 4-3. McEnroe received a stroke of luck in the next game, as one of his returns sat on the net cord and then tumbled over, but Borg would hold with two volley winners and a running forehand pass that defied belief.
A difficult enough shot with the services of a 100 square inch racket and Mr. Luxilon, but with a wooden racket? Forget it. Yet, Borg made this type of shot seem almost routine, and he reaffirmed that in the next game. A series of dipped passes and returns got him two breakpoints. On the second, the Swede was pulled wide by a swinging McEnroe serve that appeared to hit two lines, but Borg then hit a miraculous backhand return right past McEnroe to give him the seemingly decisive break.
Another genius piece of ball striking, and five consecutive titles at tennis’ most hallowed ground was a hold of serve away for Bjorn Borg. All seemed well when Borg jumped out to a 30-0 lead. McEnroe replied with a gorgeous drop volley winner, but Borg then clocked a forehand pass right by him to give him two match points. At this point, it seemed that nothing less than sheer brilliance could save the kid from Queens; it appeared he, like so many others before him, would be overwhelmed by Borg’s relentlessness. Fortunately for him and us, John Patrick McEnroe was a shotmaker unlike any other and gifted beyond belief, matched only by perhaps three others in the history of the sport. You may know them by their nicknames – Rocket, Pistol, and Maestro. On the first match point, Borg narrowly missed an ace, and Mac took advantage by rifling a backhand passing shot winner inches beyond the reach of Borg and inches from the sideline. Then, on the second, McEnroe somehow connected on a running forehand swinging volley winner after Borg had dug out a tough volley. It was a moment of sheer improvisational brilliance from McEnroe on the most significant point of his life, a shot that no one would have the audacity even to attempt. Sorry Mr Djokovic, but this may be the gutsiest save of consecutive match points that I’ve seen. I mean, can it get any more clutch than this?
However, there was still work to be done for the American. A chip and charge play forced Borg into an error, and then a backhand return winner by McEnroe evened the set at five games apiece. McEnroe bellowed a “C’mon!” and would buoy his emotions by hitting two aces, one-off a second serve, to hold to love. In the blink of an eye, McEnroe now led 6-5, after facing two match points just minutes before. However, Borg recovered with some high-quality volleying to send the set into a tiebreak. Would a set of simply great quality receive a proper sendoff in this tiebreaker? As you may already know, the answer was a resounding yes.
Both men opened the breaker with efficient serve and volley play, and the tiebreak was on serve until 4-4, when Borg cold-cocked a forehand return, causing McEnroe to hit a half volley upon which Borg rifled a backhand pass just beyond the reach of his frame. Once again, the finish line was well within Borg’s sights, but once again McEnroe’s backhand saved him. An excellent backhand return at Borg’s feet followed by a passing winner levelled the breaker at 5-5. However, a backhand that McEnroe was unable to track down got Borg his third match point. A gorgeous drop forehand volley saved it, but then Borg hit another backhand pass just beyond McEnroe’s reach to get another match point, this time on his serve at 7-6. Another quality pass off the backhand from McEnroe saved it, as Borg lunged for the volley and hit it into the net. Yet another backhand pass, this one an absolute missile with a little jump from Mac for visual effect, got the American his first set point.
However, now it was Borg’s time to come up clutch, and a rocket of a forehand return had McEnroe diving into the grass face first. Four match points and a set point saved, all with winners. Another followed, this time a backhand volley off McEnroe’s racket, but then it was Borg’s turn, as he saved McEnroe’s second set point with a backhand volley winner of his own. A rare non-winner followed, a missed backhand return from McEnroe, and Borg had his fifth match point. In another moment of beautiful symmetry, Borg then missed a backhand return, and we were tied at 10/10. Usual service was restored in the next point as Borg hit a forehand pass that McEnroe’s strings could not reach. McEnroe responded with another backhand winner, saving a match point with a slice off the net cord that barely got over. Talk about drama. McEnroe was then unable to run down a backhand volley, and Borg had his seventh match point. Backhand volley winner, twelve all, forehand volley winner, 13-12 McEnroe. I’d say this McEnroe guy was a decent volleyer.
The American then put a backhand pass into the net, but Borg missed a backhand volley to give McEnroe another set point. The heart-stopping drama continued as McEnroe missed a forehand volley by inches, followed by a forehand drop volley winner, and then a missed backhand return. Fifteen all. After the change of ends, McEnroe pulled off a running forehand pass off a quality Borg backhand volley, and he had another set point. McEnroe badly missed a backhand volley, but that would be the last point Borg would get in this epic war between not only two contrasting tennis geniuses, but also two competitors and fighters of the absolute highest degree who had repeatedly produced tough shot after tough shot on points of monumental importance late in this fourth set. Borg missed a backhand return by inches and then dumped an easy forehand volley into the net, and McEnroe had won the set 18-16 in the tiebreak. If you’ve never seen this set, please watch it above, it’s a must-see for any fan of the game. I’d like to keep waxing poetic about this set, but I’ll leave it at this – that was the best damn tennis I’ve seen in my life.
At this point, Borg had squandered seven championship points, although undoubtedly McEnroe had saved those match points far more than Borg had wasted them, but a champion’s resolve is not shaken that easily. While McEnroe jumped out to a 0-30 lead in the first game, Borg replied with a strong serve, an overhead winner, and a volley winner to hold. Borg missed two first serves in that game, but he would miss just six more for the rest of the set. It was then Borg’s turn to jump out to a lead on return, as a return right at McEnroe’s feet, a forehand pass that had the American spinning in circles, and a double fault gave Borg three breakpoints. However, clutch shot after clutch show flowed from McEnroe’s racket, and two aces and another quality first serve later, it was deuce. McEnroe would double fault yet again, but then he somehow dug out a backhand volley and put it far enough away from Borg so that the speedy Swede could not run it down. Another moment of pure magic from McEnroe on yet another monumental occasion. More would follow, as a drop volley and strong first serve gave McEnroe a crucial hold of serve early in the fifth.
McEnroe narrowly missed two passes to open the next game, and Borg followed with an ace and a strong first serve down the middle to hold for 2-1. Two aces and two other strong first serves would give McEnroe a lightning-fast hold for 2-2. The strong serving from both men continued, and they traded relatively straightforward holds until 4-3. Then, on McEnroe’s serve, a missed forehand volley from Mac and a backhand pass got Borg to 0-30. McEnroe then flubbed an easy backhand volley, sending it long, and responded with an “oh no”. It was yet another moment of pressure for McEnroe, especially after he missed his next first serve, but Borg would ease some of it by missing a second serve return on the first breakpoint. From there, McEnroe’s instinctual serve and volley play took over, and he crisply struck two volley winners to get to deuce. An ace would follow, but Borg then hooked a forehand return inside the sideline, and it was deuce once more. From there, Mac responded with two more strong serve and volley points to level the fifth set at 4-4. Borg responded in turn, as two volley winners and an ace saw him safely through the next game. Strong serving helped McEnroe overcome an angled Borg backhand return winner, and it was now 5-5. Borg’s ridiculously efficient serving continued, as he landed four first serves to pull ahead 6-5. As they changed ends and the last remnants of daylight started to fade from Centre Court, these two marvellous athletes had the full attention of the tennis and sporting world. How would this epic encounter, this outpouring of talent and heart in equal parts, conclude? With style, of course.
McEnroe held to 30 in the next game, procuring another jaw-dropping volley in the process. Borg would again hold to love, his serve continuing to carry him in this fifth set. However, as I said earlier, what made him so good on grass was the combination of his serve and return, and now it was time for his return to take over. McEnroe stepped to the line to serve down 6-7, and Borg set the tone for that game with a return at his feet on the very first point. Two points later, he would rip a forehand return winner right down the line, and victory was two points away. Another return at McEnroe’s feet would follow, and while the American would dig this one out, Borg’s passing shot was too much for him to handle. Borg now had two more match points. He would need only one. McEnroe served, Borg returned, McEnroe volleyed, and Borg tucked a backhand pass beyond the reach of McEnroe and right inside the service line. The King of Wimbledon fell to his knees; he had survived his toughest ever battle and retained his throne once more.
As McEnroe walked to the net, swallowing the bitter disappointment of a loss, he had gained one thing – respect. McEnroe had heard boos raining down on him as he walked onto Center Court some four hours earlier, but now and as he received his consolation plate, he heard only cheers. McEnroe was no longer the bratty kid throwing temper tantrums. Although he would throw plenty more of those in the coming years, the shots he had pulled off in this match time and time again, on big point after big point while keeping his composure, had established him as a true champion and the worthy successor to Borg. This transition laid its seeds a few months later as McEnroe, on his home turf of Queens, got the better of Borg in another classic five-set match in the final of the US Open. The transition formally happened just one year later as McEnroe would beat Borg in four sets in the finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open to start his reign over the tennis world.
In those matches, the serve that had carried Borg in the fifth set of this match was nowhere to be found, as repeated mistakes on serve caused him to capitulate from winning positions in both matches. The ice in his veins was slowly melting, the fire in his belly was slowly fading, and his passion for the game had eroded. For an athlete so transcendental, there was only one way this situation could resolve itself – Bjorn Borg would walk away from the sport that he had embodied and redefined at the young age of 26. However, on this Sunday evening, as he sank to his knees with the sweet feeling of triumph washing over him, he was a man on top of the world, and this moment will forever be frozen in time as a tribute to this awe-inspiring champion.