Wimbledon throwback: Borg’s crowning glory

The most prestigious event on the tennis calendar, Wimbledon, was supposed to begin on June 29. But the major, known for its manicured lawns and crisp white attire, has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Through the fortnight, we will feature some of the most memorable Wimbledon finals. Today, we look back Bjorn Borg winning his fifth successive Wimbledon title in 1980, in what for, at least 28 years, was rated the greatest final…

Bjorn Borg celebrates after winning his fifth Wimbledon title

1980: Bjorn Borg beat John McEnroe 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7(16), 8-6

One of the most prominent things that Bjorn Borg remembers about the 1980 final, is walking, with his head down, back to his chair after the fourth set. It was the first time in his career, he recalled, that he felt the fear of losing a match.

“Watching myself losing that last point, 18-16 (in the tiebreak),” he told The Guardian in an interview in 2007, “I can feel that walk back to the chair now as if it was yesterday. That was the toughest moment in my tennis career, that walk. I knew John (McEnroe) thought he would win the match. I thought he would win the match.”

But it wouldn’t pan out that way.

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In a remarkable display of mental strength, and aided by an unbreakable serve in the fifth set, the Iceman won his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title in what was considered the greatest final at the hallowed Centre Court (that was until Rafael Nadal’s triumph over Roger Federer 28 years later).

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Storm before the match

When 21-year-old John McEnroe stepped out on Centre Court for his first ever Wimbledon final, he was greeted by an unprecedented wave of jeering.

‘Superbrat,’ ‘The Incredible Sulk,’ ‘McTantrum,’ all monikers the southpaw from the United States had been given by the British press, had actually been on his best behaviour the entire tournament. Until he met his also-brash compatriot Jimmy Connors in the semi-final.

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McEnroe had let loose a tirade against the umpire after questioning line-calls, and then argued with his opponent as well, much to the irritation of the Wimbledon faithful.

Borg, though, 24, was the overwhelming favourite. The top seed was gunning for a fifth consecutive crown that would make him the first player since Great Britain’s Laurence Doherty won five in a row from 1902 to 1906.

At that stage, Borg had already won four French Open titles to go with his four Wimbledon triumphs, but in McEnroe, who was the reigning US Open champion, the Swede would find an opponent who would rattle his nerves like never before.

Bjorn Borg (left) and John McEnroe in action

‘Fire and Ice’

They had contrasting personalities. Borg was the calm campaigner and McEnroe the feisty entertainer, whose outburst at the venue a year later would become one of the most infamous yet immortal dialogues on a tennis court.

Their game styles were different as well.

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The Swede was baseliner with the ability to play precise passing shots at will, McEnroe had a slingshot serve to go with his impeccable serve and volley style.

It was such differences that led their rivalry being dubbed ‘Fire and Ice.’

When the world’s top two players entered the final, Borg led the head-to-head count 4-3, but it looked like McEnroe would level the stat the way he stormed through to win the first set 6-1.

Borg though, was not to be outdone easily on a court he had claimed as his own in the past four editions, and came back to win the next two sets to take the lead.

In the fourth, the pair grappled without managing to find a breakthrough. Thus enforcing a tie-breaker that would go on 34-points and 22 minutes.

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It was here, arguably, that the crowd had started to warm up to McEnroe’s spirit. He had walked out on court to a hostile reception, but in saving five match points, and then winning the tiebreak 18-16 after Borg’s forehand volley crashed into the net, the audience started to applaud him.

Rattled but not out

While at his chair, Borg went over the loss of such a tight tiebreaker in his head. On the other side of the court, McEnroe had the momentum with him. But there was a lot at stake, and Borg needed to keep himself in the match, and perhaps do more.

When he started proceedings in the fifth set, there was more zing in his serves. There was more purpose in his shots, and greater intent in his retrieving.

The Swede made an astonishing 80 percent first serves in the fifth set and lost just three points on serve.

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Finally, he was on his seventh Championship Point when McEnroe rushed to the net after his serve. Borg measured his opponent’s placement and struck a precise backhand cross court passing shot to seal the win.

He sank to his knees in that moment of triumph, closing out the match that lasted three hours and 53 minutes.

It was a match rated the best ever final at Wimbledon at the time. And 37 years later, it would become the subject of a motion picture film. Such was its legend.

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