from Steve Tignor

The YouTube videos are grainy, and the sound goes in and out. The film switches from black-and-white to color, and you may hear a different commentator from one set to the next. You’re never sure which parts of a match might have been skipped over. The tennis and the officiating can seem startlingly casual, compared to the ritual-filled, expensively-produced version of the game we see today. The two title winners look impossibly young.

For most fans, these jagged, dream-like clips offer the only glimpses we can get of the 1974 Roland Garros finals, and the two-player coup that was staged during those matches 50 years ago this spring. This teenage revolt may be the least-celebrated transformational event in any sport, but in a way that makes sense, because the budding superstars who pulled it off—Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg—did it with the shy ruthlessness for which they were already famous.

The former was known as the Ice Maiden. The latter was known as Ice Borg. By winning their first Grand Slam titles over the same weekend, they turned the ’74 edition of Roland Garros into tennis’ version of an ice storm. While their revolt may have been cool and quiet, it never melted away. Five decades later, tennis, in the way it’s played and marketed and watched, is still feeling the effects of that fortnight in Paris.

Evert was 19 at Roland Garros that year. Borg turned 18 during the tournament. Despite their youth, each was fulfilling a potential that had been obvious years earlier. Both had kicked off their careers by creating scenes of unprecedented fan hysteria at a Grand Slam event.

Evert’s came at the 1971 US Open, when she made the semifinals as a petite, unflappable 16-year-old, and became an instant front-page sensation known as Chris America. Borg’s breakout happened at Wimbledon in 1973, when the sight of his long legs and long blonde hair flashing across Centre Court inspired gaggles of teenage girls to chase him across that hallowed lawn.

Evert and Borg, along with their fellow early-’70s newcomers, Jimmy Connors and Evonne Goolagong, were a new phenomenon. They were the first stars to debut during the Open era.

That brave, new, overdue world had begun in 1968, when prize money was finally offered at the major events, and professionals were allowed on their courts. At first, the champions continued to be players who had started as amateurs and helped make Open tennis a reality—Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Margaret Court and others. Borg and Evert were too young to be part of that struggle, or to be off-court leaders at first.

A 16-year-old Chris Evert, in 1972, with her sister Jeanne.

A 16-year-old Chris Evert, in 1972, with her sister Jeanne.

Like the vast majority of their successors, neither went to college. Evert graduated from high school, but Borg dropped out at 15. When a teacher denounced him as “lazy and stupid” in front of his class, he didn’t disagree. What did either of them need with higher education? Unlike the players who came before them, they were already earning hundreds of thousands of dollars before they turned 20. Chris America and the “Teen Dream”—Bud Collins’ nickname for the young Borg—had the sex appeal and mass appeal that Open tennis needed, and that was sparking a boom in its popularity.

Did they also have the games to win Grand Slam titles? Connors and Goolagong, both slightly older, had broken that barrier by the spring of ’74, but Evert and Borg hadn’t. Evert lost two Slam finals in 1973, at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and another at the Australian Open in ’74, to Goolagong. Borg had yet to reach a major semifinal. Traditionalists of the time may still have wondered whether their radical playing styles could succeed at the highest level.

Besides being a new type of tennis star, Evert and Borg represented a new type of player. At a time when serve-and-volley was the norm, they played from the baseline. At a time when attacking was considered the only viable tactic, they won with consistency and defense. Along with Connors, they were among the only top-level players ever to use a two-handed backhand. In the 100-year history of tennis to that point, only two Australian men of the 1930s, Vivien McGrath and John Bromwich, had won major singles titles with a two-hander. Suddenly, in the 70s, Connors, Borg, and Evert had all arrived wielding that most unorthodox of strokes.

A painting of Evert, hitting a two-handed backhand, from 1974.

A painting of Evert, hitting a two-handed backhand, from 1974.

Evert learned the game from her father, Jimmy, who was the head pro at the Holiday Park tennis facility, five blocks from the family’s house in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Jimmy didn’t think she “had the aggressive temperament to be a net player,” so he encouraged her to hone her ground strokes. That suited the precociously-focused Chrissie just fine.

“My attention span was longer than most children,” Evert said. “The more balls that cleared the net, the prouder I became.”

But Jimmy Evert wasn’t a dictator with his daughter, and he didn’t demand that she do the usual thing and drop the second hand off her backhand. When she was 9, he spent a week trying to teach her a one-hander. When he saw that she went back to using two hands whenever she was on her own, “he said the heck with it,” Chris said.

But as reserved as Evert could be, she also understood the cold-blooded power of her consistency.

“If you just got the balls back,” she realized, “you would eventually induce your opponent into errors, and destroy his or her confidence.”

Borg also grew up a few blocks from his local tennis club, in Södertälje, Sweden. When he first visited the facility, the junior program was full, so he spent hours hitting against a parking garage wall. He imported his unusual ground strokes from his other favorite sports: His flicky forehand came from ping-pong, and his two-handed backhand was his version of a slap shot in hockey. Like Evert, focus was his forte. Against the wall, he staged imaginary matches between Sweden and the United States. Only when he made 10 straight shots did he allow Sweden to earn a point.

“Every member of my club wanted me to switch to a one-handed backhand,” Borg said, to the point where they became angry with him. None of them had seen a top player use two.

But, as Borg later said of his teenage self, “my obstinacy knew no bounds.” He stuck with what he liked, and what was working. How could you argue with a 15-year-old who was already winning (non-imaginary) Davis Cup matches for his country?

“I’ve broken every rule recommended by instruction books over the past 50 years,” he said.

“Borg was a new breed, a superb, fleet-footed athlete who could run all day, and needed to, because his weapons were stamina, speed, concentration and topspin,” tennis journalist Richard Evans wrote.

Evert and Borg were born dirt-ballers, and each came to Paris in ’74 having just won the Italian Open. While the Open era was six years old by then, a new divide in tennis had developed, between Philippe Chatrier, tournament director at Roland Garros, and World Team Tennis, the new pro league in the United States. Chatrier feared that WTT would take the game’s stars away from his event (which it did at times), so in ’74 he barred any player who had signed a contract with the league.

That included two of the favorites, Connors and Goolagong. From a competitive standpoint, this wasn’t bad news for Evert and Borg. Connors went 99-3 in 1974 and won the other three majors; Goolagong won the Australian Open and had a 4-2 record against Evert that season.

Evert came in as the No. 1 seed, while Borg was No. 3. Both proceeded through the draw in their customary way: Evert in straightforward, straight-set fashion; Borg in roundabout, back-from-the-brink fashion. Borg barely escaped his opening match against qualifier Jean-Francois Caujolle, 6-4 in the third (Roland Garros was best-of-three in the first two rounds then). In the fourth round, he beat Eric Van Dillen 6-3 in the fifth. In the quarterfinals, he went down two sets to one to Raul Ramirez before winning 6-3 in the fifth again. In the semis, he wore down another of the era’s great grinders, Harold Solomon, in four.

Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg transformed their sport with the shy ruthlessness for which they were already famous.

On the final weekend, June 15th and 16th, Evert would face her friend and doubles partner, Olga Morozova of the Soviet Union, while Borg would play Spain’s Manuel Orantes. Both wanted to prove they were champions as well as stars.

“I was very determined to win,” said Evert, who had blown a 5-3 lead in the third set to Margaret Court in the previous year’s final in Paris.

“I don’t know what happened to me—spaced out,” Evert said of that defeat in her first trip to Roland Garros. “I was determined to come back and redeem myself.”


Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, the creator of tennis.

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, the creator of tennis.

Watching Evert and Borg rise to the top together in that late spring of ’74, a tennis historian might have wondered what the sport’s inventor, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, would have made of these two upstarts.

The way they played, and the money they made doing it, surely would have puzzled and dazzled him.

The question wouldn’t have been a random one that year, because 1974 marked the 100th anniversary of Wingfield’s creation. The Major received his patent for the backyard sport he called lawn tennis on February 23, 1874. Three weeks later, an announcement appeared in London’s aristocratic paper, the Court Journal: “We hear of a new and interesting game coming out, which is likely to attract public notice, now blasé with croquet.”

Wingfield came from an ancient and distinguished family, and was a friend of the future King Edward VII. But that inheritance had run out somewhere along the way, and he needed money. Returning from service in China, he saw an English upper class gone bonkers for sports. By 1873, they were bored with croquet, and the newest craze, badminton, was hard to play on windy days. Enter Wingfield, who began selling a box that contained racquets, balls and a portable court and net that could be laid down anywhere. To Wingfield, “lawn tennis,” a reference to the old indoor game of kings and monks, sounded equally royal and democratic.

Wingfield’s game wasn’t exactly like the one we know today. The court was shorter and shaped like an hourglass, instead of a rectangle. The server had to stand in a single spot. The net was higher. The scoring was like volleyball or badminton—games to 15, where only the server could win points. “Hit your ball gently,” Wingfield advised his country-house players.

Lawn tennis took off just as Wingfield foresaw. The All England Croquet Club laid down courts soon after, added Lawn Tennis to its name, put a white felt cover on the ball, and took charge of the rules, the court dimensions, and the scoring—all of which stand nearly unchanged to this day. In 1877, the AELTC held the first edition of Wimbledon, for male amateurs only. “Amateur” at the time was a synonym for “gentleman.” The word “professional,” as tennis historian Heiner Gillmeister writes, “had the stigma of the manual laborer.” Lawn tennis was for the upper classes. Amateur rule would last all the way until 1968.

Attacking tennis ruled for even longer. The winner of the first Wimbledon was Spencer Gore, who shocked his opponents by moving to the front of the court and blocking the ball into the open court. In 1881, William Renshaw won the first of six straight titles. William and his brother Ernest have been called the sport’s first superstars, and perhaps its first power players. They mastered the overhand serve and turned it into a weapon, and basically invented the overhead, which was first called the “Renshaw smash.” Not every player over the next century used a serve-and-volley attack, but it would gradually become the strategic standard, especially on grass, and remain so until the 1970s.

The Renshaws were masters of the grass game in England, but legend has it that they also had a hand in inventing the clay court in France. While staying in Cannes, they discovered that the Mediterranean climate wilted the grass on the court at their hotel. So they covered it with terra cotta, and eventually crushed brick. Voilà, dirtball.

France, of course, had a tennis history of its own. The original game, jeu de paume, now known as real tennis in English, was first played in monasteries in France during the Middle Ages. The French Revolution kicked off with the Oath of the Tennis Court. Terms like “love” and “deuce” are French imports. And after 1880, the country and its Continent became synonymous with the clay-court game.

Which takes us back to Roland Garros in 1974.


The Open era began six years earlier, but the game changed in '74.

The Open era began six years earlier, but the game changed in '74.

Evert and Borg were dressed for the Open era on the weekend of their finals.

The American wore a light-orange dress, and the Swede wore a canary yellow kit. Gone, finally, was the cricket-club-inspired all-white uniform that had been been mandatory at every major event until 1968. That year, Arthur Ashe caused a stir when he wore yellow and blue shirts at the US Championships. By ’74, loud, expressive colors were part of the sport’s new image.

While Evert and Borg are legendary for being icy baseliners, the clips of the ’74 finals show that they didn’t always adhere to that description.

The 18-year-old Borg did come to the net behind his forehand, and he wasn’t able to mask his emotions as flawlessly as he would in the future. He spent a fair amount of the first two sets against Orantes with his hands on his hips in frustration. When he was losing, there was a teen sulk to his famous hunched, ambling walk.

Evert, in her match with Morozova, wasn’t just a baseline machine. She showed off her deft drop shot, won points at net with a better-than-competent forehand volley, and hit the ball harder than you might expect. As the British commentator Dan Maskell said, she was in “ruthless form.”

“I went into the match, and I knew I was going to win,” Evert said, “because I was a clay-court player and she was a grass-court player. She served and volleyed, and I could pass her.”

Evert and Borg, as they had all tournament, won the finals in their trademark ways. Evert beat Morozova with maximum efficiency and minimal fuss, 6-1, 6-2. Borg, meanwhile, spotted Orantes the first two sets; after the second one, a commentator says, “It doesn’t look like Borg can come back now.” Little did he know the man soon to be known as the Angelic Assassin. In the final three sets, Borg demolished Orantes and created a scoreline that would seem bizarre for anyone else, 2-6, 6-7 (4), 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.

The two teen idols were on the Grand Slam board, and their followers would prove to be legion. Over the next 50 years, the baseline game they pioneered would gradually, in fits and starts, push serve-and-volley to near-extinction. The same went for their backhands. With Roger Federer’s retirement, the two-hander reigns supreme at the top of the sport.

While their revolt may have been cool and quiet, it never melted away.

Evert and Borg were also pioneering stars. Over the past five decades, only a few players—maybe John McEnroe, Roger Federer and Serena Williams—have matched them as celebrities and fan favorites.

One hundred years after tennis was invented on grass in England, Evert and Borg reinvented it on clay in France. But not everything could be foreseen that weekend in Paris, in particular the Grand Slam victory reaction, which has become ever-more-theatrical over time.

When Evert won the final point over Morozova, she jogged to the net, shook her friend’s hand a little apologetically, walked to the sideline, and zipped her racquet cover over her racquet. When Orantes’ final pass flew wide, Borg tossed his racquet straight in the air, watched it land in front of him, and shook his opponent’s hand without changing expression.

These reactions were part of the old, understated, amateur-tennis approach to winning. It would be four more years before Borg would drop to his knees after winning Wimbledon, and create a new, more joyful and expressive victory celebration for the Open era.

In ’74, everything was ahead for Evert and Borg, and for us.