Tuesday, 27 August 2013

1980 US Open: Borg v McEnroe

Think of the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe duels and generally the mind instantly shoots back to 1980, that classic Wimbledon final, containing that magical tie-break, with the cool Swede eventually coming out on top in five thrilling sets that seemed to define the pair and their rivalry. But barely two months later came another encounter which, as Dennis Norden would have no doubt stated, could have been filed under the category of all-time great matches. The 1980 US Open final may not receive the same plaudits and recognition as the preceding major, certainly not in Britain at least, yet for both men it would mark a significant moment in their respective careers.

For the third successive year, Borg arrived at Flushing Meadows having won both the French Open and Wimbledon titles, and was on track for the calendar year grand slam - the Australian Open was played in December/January of 1980/81 - and despite having given Australia a miss since 1974, it was assumed that the Swede would make the trip if he could scoop his third major of the season. However, the one title to elude him hitherto in his career was the US Open. In his seven attempts, the closest Borg had got to ending his drought was twice losing to Jimmy Connors in the final (1976 and 1978), and despite his success in 1980, in retrospect the Swede seemed strangely vulnerable to both the threat of McEnroe and his own state of mind.

Borg's doubts began to creep into his game at the end of that pulsating 22 minute tie-break against McEnroe on Centre Court in July. After seeing five match points slip through his fingers (plus two earlier in the set), Borg returned to his chair with fear as his companion. Speaking to the Observer's Tim Adams in 2007, Borg recalled his unusual mental state: "That was the toughest moment in my tennis career, that walk. I knew John thought he would win the match. I thought he would win the match". Borg somehow gathered himself together, winning 8-6 in the decider, but the seeds of doubt had been planted in Borg's head, and McEnroe was a man ready to take advantage of any chink in the armour.

Aged just 20, McEnroe had won his first grand slam event in 1979, his US Open triumph making him the youngest winner of the tournament since 1948. Whereas the American seemed to thrive in his home conditions, Borg struggled, his apparent dislike of the heat and humidity of New York, as well as the general noise, and even the floodlights of Flushing Meadows, at complete odds with his high regard for Wimbledon. Neither player would enter the tournament in ideal physical condition - McEnroe had twisted an ankle and been forced to withdraw from the second round of the Canadian Open, with Borg's knee injury forcing him to quit in the final - but nevertheless, the top two seeds (Borg 1, McEnroe 2) were, along with Jimmy Connors, the men to beat.

After a comfortable straight sets win over Argentina's Guillermo Aubone in the first round, Borg did drop a set against both John Sadri and Peter McNamara, before a clinical demolition of Yannick Noah in the last sixteen, a win made that much more sweeter due to accusations made by the Frenchman that Borg had been guilty of recreational drug abuse. McEnroe too would march comfortably to the fourth round, only dropping a single set in beating Christophe Roger-Vasselin, Steve Krulevitz, Richard Meyer and Pascal Portes. For both, sterner tests awaited, Borg in particular given a thorough examination of his skill and determination in the next two rounds.

Trailing 2-1 in sets and 4-2 down in the fourth, Borg looked to be departing the tournament at the hands of big-serving American Roscoe Tanner, the man who had ended Borg's US Open hopes at the same quarter final stage the year before. But Borg dug deep, breaking Tanner twice to take the set, and surviving an early scare in the decider, to book a semi-final spot against an extremely confident Johan Kriek (then representing South Africa) who claimed prior to their match that "Borg can't hurt me. I'm fast and can handle any ball he can send over. He will have to kill me to beat me". Big words indeed.

Kriek's bravado seemed well placed, as he immediately raced into a two set lead, meaning Borg would again have to do things the hard way. Luckily for Borg, Kriek's had already run his race, and the number one seed easily won the last three sets, conceding only three games in the process, to make it into his third US Open final and to keep the grand slam dream alive.

McEnroe would also have his struggles in a four set win over a 20-year-old Czechoslovakian called Ivan Lendl - I wonder what became of him? - before a marathon four hours 16 minute battle against Jimmy Connors in a gripping semi-final. Things appeared to be going swimmingly for McEnroe, as he took the first set and eased to a 4-1 lead in the second. But Connors was as tough as they came, winning eleven games in a row to send McEnroe into self-destruction mode. Petulantly stomping around the court, and unsurprisingly getting tetchy with officials, McEnroe looked on his way out as he fell 3-1 behind in the fourth.

In an epic tussle, described by the Times' Rex Bellamy as a "cold-eyed, bitterly resolute clash of will and skill", McEnroe channelled his anger effectively, refusing to let his fierce rival get one over on him. Staging a fightback worthy of Connors himself, McEnroe dragged himself through to the final, and a date of potential redemption against Borg awaited less than 24 hours later.

Such was the relatively quick turnaround between the semis and the final, that there was barely any time for the kind of hype to build that a contest of this magnitude would no doubt see today. In truth though this was a match that needed little promotion. The injuries of both players, combined with the number of hours played in sapping conditions - on one day, court temperatures of 120°F were recorded - meant that in all probability a repeat of their Wimbledon final was unlikely. Yet what was to transpire was another classic chapter in the Borg-McEnroe story.

Despite Borg's serve not working to his usual standard, the Swede put himself into a situation in which he was twice serving for the opening set. But just at the wrong time, Borg failed to up his game, allowing McEnroe to force the first set into a tie-break. Again it would be Borg's service points that would let him down; at 4-5 in the tie-break, two weak second serves were charged by McEnroe, and then volleyed for winners at the net, to put the American a set up.

Borg must have felt aggrieved at having thrown away a position of strength, and unfortunately for his supporters, the hangover rolled into the second set. Astonishingly it appeared to onlookers that mentally the iceman had gone completely. The fight in Borg looked over.

McEnroe took the set 6-1, although that statistic is a mere footnote to Borg's nightmare. "But, missing 14 of 22 first serves, looping backhand errors into the courtside flower boxes and slogging along like a lonely basset searching for shelter, Borg was quitting," stated Curry Kirkpatrick in a Sports Illustrated Vault article, and the assessment seemed sadly accurate. McEnroe had one hand on the trophy.

Borg may have been trying to save himself for the third set, but his woes appeared to continue, and at 15-40 and 1-2 down on his own serve, he had reached the point of no return. In truth, the Borg serve was still abysmal - he would miss twelve first serves on the bounce during the set - but slowly the champion revealed his true colours.

Gradually McEnroe's serve was examined by Borg, who broke the American to lead 5-3. Unsurprisingly perhaps given Borg's travails, he was unable to serve out the set, leading to another tie-break. McEnroe led 3-1 with a serve still to come, until Borg, driven on by a desire lacking in the previous set, hit five winners to bring himself back into the final.

The ebb and flow of a sporting battle, the psychology that accompanies this, is one of the many components which makes sport so special. From being down and out, Borg now had momentum with him, and when he took the fourth set 7-5, the odds were seemingly in his favour.

Writing in his autobiography, Serious, McEnroe revealed his thoughts were very much on the recent Wimbledon final: "Bjorn, once again capitalizing on my fatigue and his superior conditioning, started inching his way back into the match. I’m positive he had our Wimbledon match in mind – I know I did. He must have been thinking that I would wilt again, and the king of five-setters would once more prevail."

The final part of McEnroe's comment related to Borg's fine record in matches that went the distance. In thirteen straight matches since 1976, the Swede had won every one of his five-setters, and with McEnroe feeling the strain of his past efforts, Borg's comeback looked on.

But in his own words, McEnroe's solid start to the final set helped him "to grab a second wind, a last shot of adrenaline". At 3-3, Borg's poor serve came back to haunt him, two double faults gifting McEnroe two break points. Borg saved the first, but McEnroe forced the error to give him the crucial break in the decider. It was the opening McEnroe needed, as he easily held his serve to win the final set 6-4.

"When we shook hands, I could see that he was devastated," noted McEnroe, as Borg had once again failed in his US Open and grand slam quest. If Wimbledon 1980 had been the very beginning of the end, then the US Open of the same year was another leg of a journey towards Borg's retirement. Within a year, McEnroe took Borg's Wimbledon crown and again defeated the Swede in the US Open final. So disillusioned was Borg, that he would never again appear in a grand slam event. The king was dead.

"McEnroe and Borg did not quite make the pulse race as they did at Wimbledon. But yesterday's match was in many ways more significant". The words of Rex Bellamy summed up the 1980 US Open final concisely and accurately. Their four hour 10 minute clash was dramatic, and for both men marked a key match in their careers. One would go from strength to strength, whilst the other would never be the same again. Shame really, as several more instalments of the Borg-McEnroe story would have been very welcome.

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