Deja Vu, All Over Again

by: Steve Tignor | May 18, 2011

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Highstrungjpg-d6f5163aabe747fa Something I learned yesterday: There are a lot of different accents in the United States. I spent the day roaming the country by radio, doing 10-minute interviews everywhere from Ocean City, Maryland, to Asheville, North Carolina, to Chattanooga, Tennesee, to Seattle to promote my book, High Strung, which came out yesterday. There were other topics of discussion as well. Down on the Eastern shore, they wanted to talk about a grass-eating rat that was destroying their land, and out in Illinois they wanted to talk about French politicians. Everyone wanted to know who this guy Djokovic was and where the heck did he come from, as well as, naturally, what tennis needs to do to get back “to where it was.” I didn’t have an answer, except to say that right now it’s probably just about where it belongs.

The other recurring subject was the title of the book I was plugging. Its full name is High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry. Besides being very difficult to say (a couple of the radio hosts gave up midway through), it’s way too narrow. The publisher wanted to play up the conflict angle, but the original subtitle, “Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Last Days of Tennis’s Golden Age,” was much more accurate, and sounded better as well. As anyone who flips through the book's photos or peruses the chapter titles can see, it’s about tennis's wild west 1970s, an era that came to an end at the 1981 U.S. Open, which was Borg’s last major. The story is told through the four semifinalists at that tournament—Borg, Mac, Jimmy Connors, and Vitas Gerulaitis—as well as one man who was on the way down at that point, Ilie Nastase, and another who was on the rise, and who would represent the game's future, Ivan Lendl. Admittedly, it's not an easy premise to summarize in one line.

I’ve felt a sense of déjà vu watching men’s tennis in the last few months while putting the finishing touches on the book. Every time a rivalry starts to build, or the sport gets any attention at all, the first thing anyone says is: “Maybe tennis can get back to its Borg-McEnroe days.” And we’ve heard that a lot in the era of Federer and Nadal; their 2008 Wimbledon final was immediately paired with the 1980 final between the Angel and the Superbrat. Now, with the rise of a third party, Djokovic, the eras seem even more closely tied. Back then it was really Borg, Connors, and McEnroe who formed a triumvirate at the top. Borg took over from Jimbo, and then Mac from Borg. Is that type of progression repeating itself this spring? It might seem accelerated this time around, but it didn’t take long in the late 70s, either. Borg finally broke free of Connors in 1979, only to meet up with a rising Johnny Mac one year later. By ’81, the Ice Man had played his last major.

Nd Anyway, I’m happy that some reviewers so far have blamed the title and not the book, seeing the story for what it was supposed to be, an account of the brilliance and blunders of the sport’s first group of Open era superstars, and how they dealt with an entirely new tennis landscape, when the game went from amateur to pro, elite to mass, country club to arena, all-white to multicolored, Anglo to polyglot, British Empire to American Empire, ITF to IMG, wood to graphite, grass to asphalt, clean cut to scruffy, gentlemanly to . . .  not as gentlemanly. There’s excitement and fun and lunacy and triumph in the book’s pages, as well as the dark side of the times.

With that, I’ll return to today’s game later in the week, when I get to Paris. I’m doing the two weeks this time, and we’ll start with a preview whenever the draw is available. As very few of you noted after Rome, I am now on a roll with my predictions.

Check out the book here.

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