1980: The War of 18-16: Borg and McEnroe's Wimbledon Classic

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Borg won Wimbledon for the fifth straight year with a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7(16), 8-6 finish over McEnroe. (AP)

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The 1980 Wimbledon men’s final made tennis history even before a ball was hit. It was the first time that anyone at the All England Club could remember boos—a “cacophony” of them, according to one writer—raining down from the normally respectful Centre Court audience as the players walked out to play a championship match.

They were raining on one player, to be precise, and he was unlike any that Wimbledon had seen in its 104-year history. Twenty-one-year-old John McEnroe, the bellicose, frizzy-haired New Yorker known to the London tabloids as Superbrat, was making his debut in the final. There he would face the four-time defending champion, Bjorn Borg, the stoical, long-haired Swede who had once been known to those same tabloids as the Teen Angel. Their respective nicknames gave you a pretty good idea of who the fans at Wimbledon were rooting for that day. 

Borg and McEnroe—righty vs. lefty, defender vs. attacker, ice vs. fire, machine vs. mad genius, civilization vs. its discontents—was a rivalry made in tennis heaven. While the two would face each other just 14 times over the course of four seasons, splitting those matches 7-7, they became the standard by which the sport’s future duels would be measured. 

It was against Borg that McEnroe had made his impudent entrance onto the world tennis stage. In 1978, as an 18-year-old, he strode into Borg’s home arena, in Stockholm, and stunned the world’s best player in straight sets in front of the country's king; up to that point, Borg had never lost to a younger player. It was also against Borg that McEnroe would fulfill his vast promise for the first time, by raising his game to a place where even the Swede couldn’t follow in their Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals of 1981. McEnroe was so brilliant in those matches that Borg left the sport entirely rather than try to challenge him again. With his retirement from Grand Slam tennis in ’81, the first great period of the Open era would come to a sudden close.

But July 5, 1980, belonged to Borg, and this is the one match of theirs that tennis fans remember and celebrate to this day. That’s partly because it’s the one where the angel triumphed over the devil, and tennis fans got what they wanted. It’s also because, in its setting, its place in time, its wooden racquets, colorful headbands, short shorts, and wild hair, the 1980 Wimbledon final serves as a poignant reminder of a golden era now long past, when tennis reached a peak of popularity and cultural influence it would never reach again.

The match took place 12 years after the beginning of Open tennis, and in many ways its two protagonists could be seen as shining, wealthy examples of how successful the transition from amateur to professional had been. Borg, along with Jimmy Connors, was the first pure product of the pro game. After bolting school at 15, he signed with burgeoning U.S. talent agency IMG. The company moved the Swedish teen to tax-free Monte Carlo, then proceeded to make him the richest player, and one of the richest athletes, in history. From clothes to racquets to beer to breakfast cereal, Borg, an international symbol of gentlemanly excellence, with a playboy’s mystique to match, was the perfect pitchman for just about anything. He made tennis synonymous with the endorsement deal.

At Wimbledon in 1980, it appeared that McEnroe was no match for his more-popular rival when it came to endorsements potential. In reality, though, Superbrat was a step ahead in the sponsorship game. Three years earlier, McEnroe’s first appearance at Wimbledon had coincided with the All England Club debut of another ambitious young American, Phil Knight, founder of Nike. Knight watched as the 18-year-old tore through his opponents, and every official he encountered, on his way to the semifinals. The English may not have liked what they saw from Johnny Rotten, but Knight did. He would soon sign McEnroe to a shoe contract, and pioneer the concept of the athlete as countercultural rebel.

And then there was the tennis. This classic contrast in styles lasted for nearly four hours, and escalated in drama and quality with each passing game.

Borg was a notorious slow starter, but he outdid himself on this day, listlessly flipping easy balls into the net on his way to a 6-1 first-set loss—midway through, he could still be seen stretching his legs. But while McEnroe was confident of his chances against him on grass, he wasn’t quite free of the Angelic Assassin’s mystique just yet; Borg was, after all, a childhood hero of his, and someone who had taken the younger player under his wing in his early years on tour. The American left the door ajar at the end of the second set just long enough for Borg to knife his way through with a couple of pinpoint passing shots. 

His teeth into the match at last, Borg didn’t appear that he would let go. He won the third set quickly, and struck again for what looked like the final service break late in the fourth. But McEnroe produced a scintillating series of shots of his own to break back. While it wouldn’t be enough to win him this match, after that game he knew what he was capable of, and that one of the things he was capable of was beating Borg on a stage like this one.

Superbrat and the Assassin proceeded to a fourth-set tiebreaker. Wimbledon, after reluctantly installing Jimmy Van Alen’s match-shortening system a few years earlier when a set reached 8-8, had joined the rest of the world in 1979 and started using it at 6-6. If Borg were to win this one, he would become the first man to win Wimbledon in a tiebreaker (Evonne Goolagong had broken that barrier on the women’s side the previous day). The thought of it may have made the ghosts of Wimbledon balk: This would become the breaker that would never end, and which Borg couldn’t win.

It was also one of the greatest passages of tennis ever played. Over the first four sets, the two men hadn’t come up with their best at the same time: For the next 34 points, in what would become known as The War of 18-16, they did. McEnroe saved five match points, while Borg saved an equal number of set points. Every shot was tracked down, every stroke of brilliance topped by another, every superb approach beaten by a better pass.

Finally, with the tension as high as it had ever been inside the 58-year-old Centre Court, it ended in anti-climax. At 16-17, Borg plunked a drop shot into the bottom of the net. The Ice Man, it seemed, had finally cracked. McEnroe was sure that he would be the new Wimbledon champion.

Fourteen games and one more unthinkable reversal later, though, it was Borg who assumed his familiar victory pose—knees on the ground, hands held out prayerfully before him—for a fifth straight year, with a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6 win. Instead of melting, he had fired up his serve as never before; he lost just two points in his seven service games in the final set. McEnroe, so sure of a win a few minutes earlier, could only look on in awe at Borg’s psychological reserves. 

Yet in winning that fabled fourth-set tiebreaker, McEnroe had also learned something about his own potential that day, and he would soon show Borg and the world how far it could take him. Perhaps the fans at Wimbledon had an inkling of it already. The same people who had booed him as he walked on, gave him a rousing ovation as he walked off.

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