In a match that is widely regarded as arguably the greatest-ever to be played at Wimbledon, Bjorn Borg took on John McEnroe for a chance at earning his fifth-straight win.
It was a contest between so many contrasting strands. It was the reigning champion versus the pretender to the throne. It was defender versus attacker. It was cool versus how-to-lose-your-cool. In short, it was a battle between two guys so opposed to each other they were always bound to cause fireworks.
And, boy did they achieve that.
In a thrilling five-set contest that also included a legendary tie-breaker, the pair battled ferociously to wrest control over to their side, the watching spectators, court-side and on television, mesmerised by their tenacity, skill and outstanding showmanship.
Of course, Borg went on to win, overcoming McEnroe to appease the fans who had come to accept the American as the bad-boy of the tennis world, although Mac surely picked up a few extra fans along the way after such a phenomenal display.
Indeed, even the press had conjured a suitable nickname for McEnroe ahead of the tournament, labelling him ‘Superbrat’ which gives you a fairly good idea of how widely disliked he was. Coming into the arena, a lesser player would have crumbled under the intense pressure – how dare a challenger refuse to bow to the king; McEnroe’s bullish defiance was not well-liked, but even now it is difficult not to admire it.
Borg, on the other hand, could do no wrong in many people’s eyes.
Long considered the darling of the tennis world ever since he had burst onto the scene, his good looks and swaying blonde hair made him a teen heartthrob and, later, a sex symbol.
Both men injected a pizzazz into the world of tennis that had not often been seen before, and so it is little wonder their rivalry, and this match in particular, is so fondly remembered.
Primarily, though, it is recalled for the marvellous tennis they displayed that day. Producing a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6 to-and-fro tug-of-war, the pair imbued a natural drama to proceedings that had the crowd exclaiming at every shift in momentum, right up until the final game.
Including a series of 34 points that have collectively come to be referred to in popular lore as the ‘War of 18-16’ in a fourth-set tiebreaker that Mac won, many have described those series of minutes as the greatest example of tennis that has ever been seen. Want to turn someone onto tennis? Show them that tiebreaker.
Borg started slowly that day, losing the opening set before claiming the second. The Swede’s elegant stylings, including a number of pinpoint passing winners that whooshed past the curly-haired yank, proved to be his biggest strength on the day. While McEnroe combatted these well from time to time, the otherworldliness of Borg’s genius eventually shone through.
Mac finally wilted under the superior service and return game of Borg in the end, and although it was the Swede who claimed victory, it really turned out to be a win for the sport because a match like that, occurring in the golden age with their wooden rackets, technicolour broadcast, supreme skill and retro style, has arguably never been seen since – will it ever again?
This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 05/07/17