Fire and Ice… Sergio Tacchini v Fila in the fashion stakes… those classic Wimbledon finals of 1980 and 1981. However you remember the rivalry between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, one of the most famous double acts in tennis history lock horns once again as respective captains of Team World and Team Europe in the prestigious Laver Cup tournament this week at London’s O2 Arena.
Roger Federer’s decision to announce his retirement and make the invitation tournament extravaganza his last hurrah will of course dominate the bulk of the headlines emerging from North Greenwich over the week, including the various media calls and pro-am practice matches.
At least Team Europe are getting a look-in, with Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic also in attendance making up the Dream Team of three, not to mention home favourite Andy Murray, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud. The unlucky Team World are struggling to make even a footnote in this circus – but that is not a problem McEnroe and Borg have ever experienced.
Roger Federer: The Tennis Legend That Proved Nice Guys Can Be Winners
The Sporting World Shows Its Appreciation As Roger Federer Retires
Roger Federer Transformed Tennis In His Pursuit Of Excellence
Sport revels in rivalries that pit against each other players or athletes of very different personalities and temperaments. Think middle-class ‘company man’ and now Lord Sebastian Coe battling it out with the blue-collar and far less media-savvy but equally talented Steve Ovett in their middle-distance running pomp in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
But that contrast was perhaps never more prevalent than when the brash and explosive young American McEnroe who seemed to thrive on often self-generated conflict with officials and the world emerged to challenge the Wimbledon hegemony of the Swedish ice-man Borg…who himself was barely heard to utter a word on court.
The duo, whose overall tour head to head record was to finish at 7-7, met in the final of Wimbledon in 1980 with Borg chasing a fifth consecutive title on the lawns of SW19. McEnroe, the natural serve and volleyer up against Borg’s baseline expertise, had served notice of his own ambitions in London with a run to the semi-finals three years earlier as an 18-year-old qualifier.
But by the time he reached the showpiece for the first time, McEnroe was making headlines as much for his ‘enfant terrible’ antics as for his sublime skills with a racket in hand. The left-hander had become the scourge of umpires, line judges, tournament directors and officials of every kind with his volatility and combustible behaviour on court – usually triggered by line calls he disagreed with.
McEnroe was booed walking onto Centre Court for the final after a series of confrontations with then umpire in his semi-final win over Jimmy Connors. Borg, by contrast, would not have said boo to a Scandinavian goose.
But when the pair met in that first final they brought out the absolute best in each other, and produced a match for the ages. McEnroe saved seven match points in the fourth set, including five in the epic tie-break that he won 18-16 to take it to a decider. But Borg characteristically held his nerve to take the fifth set 8-6.
McEnroe did not have to wait long for some revenge and they were to meet again for the title 12 months later. This was the year he made famous the ‘You cannot be serious!’ rant on his way to the final. And McEnroe was not to be denied a first Wimbledon singles success, winning in four sets. Borg was to finish his career with 11 grand slam titles – with six wins at the French – to McEnroe’s seven.
Things will be a little calmer – at least in theory, with both in their 60s – at the Laver Cup, where Borg’s Team Europe’s all-stars take on McEnroe’s Team World cast that may feel ever so slightly like third-tier guests at a Federer party. That cast list includes Felix Augur-Aliassime, Jack Sock, Alex De Minaur, Taylor Fritz, Diego Schwartzman and Frances Tiafoe.
But the tournament holds a special place in the hearts of both Borg and McEnroe, having been in post since the inaugural event in 2017. Borg said: “It has been wonderful to see the Laver Cup evolve – every year it is getting bigger and bigger. Reviving my rivalry with Team World captain John McEnroe has meant a lot. It feels as important to win today as it did when we were competing on tour. We both want to win the Laver Cup, but are still good friends.
“John and I are known as ‘fire and ice’ and my approach as Team Europe captain is that I am ice, just to support the team on court. Seeing rivals come together as team-mates is another part of the experience.”
McEnroe said: “This sort of Ryder Cup atmosphere is something that has brought players together that didn’t imagine they would be team-mates. My approach is trying to get to know them a little better and trying to understand in a short space of time what makes them tick. Having me and Bjorn does I think add a little flavour. Just having him there on the other side brings back some great memories.”