Borg vs McEnroe Head to Head Record – A Rivalry Of Opposites

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John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg Head to Head record: 7-7

Not just a tennis rivalry, theirs was one of the great sporting rivalries ever.  Borg (Player Profile) was ‘Ice’ and McEnroe (Player Profile) was ‘Fire’, as a subsequent HBO  documentary defined the two – a rivalry of opposites.  So elemental was their rivalry that the analogy of the opposition of two natural elements seems appropriate.  Yet, despite that intense rivalry on court, a healthy respect was always maintained between the two.  McEnroe, known for his on-court histrionics against other opponents, never lost his temper while playing against Borg in any of the 14 encounters during their professional careers.  Both remain good friends to this day.

The rivalry, which lasted a relatively short period of time (1978-1981, owing to Borg’s surprise and premature retirement) was one of several in a world of sport that encourages the gladiatorial.  The 1970’s had seen the Ali/Frazier and Ali/Foreman contests hyped worldwide.  Around the time of the Borg/McEnroe era, the British public could also be divided between those who supported Coe and those in favour of Ovett.  Golf had the long-running Nicklaus/Watson rivalry. Lining up behind either the ice-cool Swede or the brash, ebullient kid from Queen’s was natural for a public weaned on the adversarial.

A measure of their competitiveness, their record against one another, stands at a fitting 7-7.  McEnroe dominated on hard courts, while Borg was superior on carpet surfaces.  Their record on grass was evenly-divided.   McEnroe holds the advantage of having led 3-1 in their encounters in Grand Slam finals and also, having won the last three of their professional contests against one another.   Yet, Borg won more Grand Slam singles finals than McEnroe (11-7) and managed to win the Wimbledon singles title a magical 5 times in a row, a record in the modern era only surpassed by Federer.  As the rivalry took place towards the end of Borg’s and during the rise of McEnroe’s career, one might be tempted to surmise that, had Borg not retired prematurely, McEnroe would have gone on to dominate – perhaps.  That says nothing about who was the better player, however – a separate issue that will remain moot.

Before McEnroe truly came on the scene in 1977 when, as a qualifier at Wimbledon, he made a spectacular progress to the semi-final only to lose to Connors, it was, however, the rivalry between Borg and Connors that captivated the tennis public at the time.  Borg and Connors confronted on another in the 1977 and 1978 Wimbledon finals and no one at the time was talking about any other serious rivalry at the top of the men’s game.  The 1980 Wimbledon Men’s Singles final was to change all that.

Hailed by many as the greatest Wimbledon final of all time (many argue, however, that it was surpassed by the Federer v Nadal final of 2008), the 1980 Borg/McEnroe final had everything a tennis and non-tennis public would want.  The cool and controlled Swede, a four-in-a-row winner was facing the brash new kid on the block eager to usurp his throne.  Borg was adored by the teeny-bopper contingent and the establishment who liked its heroes to be respectful and unobtrusive.  McEnroe had just emerged from a semi-final against Connors during which many sparks flew and much ‘chalk flew up’. He was the pariah of the tennis establishment reviled in the tabloid press.  The encounter was eagerly awaited in an atmosphere of great media hype.

Borg won the first set easily 6-1 while McEnroe responded to win the second 7-5.  Borg then won the third 6-3 to put him in pole position.  What happened in the fourth set has gone down in tennis history, the subject of many You Tube videos.  The set went to a tie-break which involved McEnroe saving 6 match points and Borg saving 5 set points.  McEnroe eventually won the epic tie-break 18-16.  Surely, Borg losing it on the cusp of victory would be so deflated as to leave the door open to McEnroe in the fifth?  Borg had other things in mind and came back to win in the fifth 8-6.  Few will forget the scenes of Borg falling to his knees on court in relief and supplication – having provided the Centre Court crowd with perhaps, its greatest spectacle ever.

Revenge for McEnroe was to come not long after with a win against Borg in the final of the US Open just over two months later.  Burning with the same zeal for victory, McEnroe once again encountered Borg in the Wimbledon final in 1981.  This time, he won in four sets and in the process ending Borg’s 41 match winning streak at Wimbledon.  It seemed the beginnings of the end of the Borg era as the Young Turk took the honours on that day.

Their last professional encounter was at the 1981 US Open final, a couple of months later.  McEnroe won in four sets, yet it was Borg untypically who provided the drama on the occasion.  Not waiting for the awards ceremony, Borg stormed out of Flushing Meadow and headed straight to JFK airport.  Having his crown usurped by McEnroe was too much to bear – subsequently, he explained his recognition that there could only be one World No.1 and no one wanted to know who was No.2.  Borg faltered along for a little over a year and eventually retired in 1983, seemingly marked by his earlier toppling by McEnroe.  Despite entreaties even by McEnroe not to retire, Borg had made up his mind.  The world tennis public was stunned, but at the same time, they had a new hero in McEnroe to revere.

Who was the greatest of the two?  Their record shows an even 7-7 split.  Borg met McEnroe when he was at his peak while McEnroe’s star was in the ascendant.  Borg had more Grand Slam singles wins, yet McEnroe had the versatility to add many doubles titles to his resume.  Intriguingly, their very first encounter was on Borg’s home soil at the Stockholm Open final in 1978, an encounter in which McEnroe (never one inclined to show undue deference on other people’s territories!) prevailed.

Interestingly, two Grand Slam singles titles evaded the grasp of both players.  In the case of Borg, he never won the US Open or the Australian.  In McEnroe’s case, he never won the French or the Australian.  Despite their dominance of the top of the game for a period, put beside Budge, Laver and Federer, their records are not quite as stellar.

Part of the magic of the Borg/McEnroe dynamic was the series of inter-personal differences.  The public likes its rivalries full of flesh and blood characters and the tabloid media in particular, pandered to this.  Borg was a traditional right-handed player, while McEnroe was the ‘sinister’ left-hander.  Borg, however, played with (at that time) a rare double-handed backhand, while McEnroe went for the traditional single-handed backhand.  Borg was the quiet, unassuming type unlikely to ‘rock the boat’, beloved by tennis administrators.  McEnroe was angry, aggressive and in his youth, no respecter of the niceties of the game.  Many forget, however, that Borg, as a very young player in Sweden, was notorious for throwing tantrums himself and was no stranger to throwing his racquet around the court, until the wise counsel of Lennart Bergelin and others prevailed. I know that in my home growing up (like many others), opinion was divided between Borg and McEnroe, such was the appeal of their rivalry at the top of the game.  People tended to identify with one or the other.

Their rivalry is up there with the greatest: Federer/Nadal; Sampras/Agassi; Court/King; Evert/Navratilova.  Some have said that there are parallels in particular, with the Federer/Nadal match-up.

After overcoming some difficulties in life, Borg has now settled into benign middle-age.  McEnroe, once the ‘enfant terrible’ is now the respected ‘elder statesman’ of international tennis, resident pundit of the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage.  They remain great friends and the mutual respect between the two is palpable.    While McEnroe maintained intense rivalries with Connors and Lendl during his career, these never developed into anything remotely resembling friendships (to put it mildly).  Borg, always a private individual, himself had few close friendships on the tour.

McEnroe had a longer career than Borg at the top of the game, lasting on until the early 1990’s.  Borg attempted a comeback in the early 1990’s which proved unsuccessful.  In his prime, he was known for his single-minded mental toughness, his fitness and agility.  A winner of the Wimbledon juniors title at tender age of 15, he was clearly destined for great things.  McEnroe, known for his explosive talent and zeal to win was also a prolific junior who also was always going to be a great player.

Borg came on the scene, a unique talent with a unique style.  McEnroe harked back to his boyhood hero, fellow southpaw Rod Laver, but was unconventional in a myriad of ways.  Like two comets, their paths crossed at a certain point in time and we the public, were fortunate to have witnessed their crossing.   The game of tennis was stronger and more appealing for having witnessed their intense rivalry.

Paul McElhinney


30 September, 2012

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