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No sport does nostalgia better than tennis; it wallows in the stuff. True, tennis has a rich history but, judging by the amount of time most tennis buffs spend gazing in the rear view mirror, you might well think history is the only thing the game has going for it. The future is rarely regarded as bright but the past is seen as shining, and growing more luminous the more distant it becomes.

Of course, some moments from the past deserve a long, retrospective gaze, and this year’s Wimbledon affords one such opportunity, marking as it does the 25th anniversary of what ought to be known at this point simply as The Match.

It was a quarter-century ago that John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg met in what is considered by many to have been the greatest match ever played at Wimbledon, possibly the greatest ever played on any court, anywhere.

The particulars: Borg won in five sets, taking the final stanza 8-6 to notch up his fifth consecutive Wimbledon crown. But what stands out in most minds, of course, is the fourth-set tiebreaker, won by McEnroe. It was a tiebreaker that required 34 points and 22 minutes of play and held everyone who saw it spellbound.

It was hard enough as a spectator to carry on to a fifth set; how Borg and McEnroe managed to do so, and keep up the quality, still makes the head reel.

Of course, the numbers hardly begin to tell the story and words are not much better. If you have never seen a tape of the match, do yourself the favour.

It was simply a day on which two of the game’s greatest players happened to play what can fairly be called the matches of their lives, and happened to do so while playing one another. The result was the most brilliant tennis imaginable.
Tennis that only got better as the match got tighter.

The match was an instant classic, of course, and as the years have gone by it has loomed ever larger in the sport’s collective memory-and not just because it was such a thrill to watch.

It is also because that kind of artful tennis just does not get played any more. Wooden racquets have given way to graphite ones, soft, rally-friendly balls have given way to fuzzy hand grenades, and players drawn on a human scale have given way to goliaths. Back in 1980, finesse was still the coin of the realm in tennis and that is certainly no longer the case.

Memories of the Borg-McEnroe match also have a bittersweet edge because their rivalry proved to be such a fleeting one. Indeed, they met only three more times in grand slam finals: at the 1980 US Open, at Wimbledon again in 1981, and at the US Open again in 1981.

McEnroe won all three matches and it was his five-set victory at the 1981 Open, a tournament that had bedevilled Borg throughout his career, that drove the Swedish star into early retirement.

With five Wimbledon titles and six French Open crowns, Borg had already secured himself a place among the all-time greats. Yet he was still just 25, presumably with more sublime tennis to be played. It is hard not feel a tinge of regret over his hasty departure from the game, particularly in light of the impact it had on McEnroe.

In retrospect, it is clear Borg’s retirement was a severe blow for McEnroe. It is often been noted that when Borg was on the opposite side of the net, the normally combustive McEnroe behaved like a choirboy.

Indeed, Borg was the only opponent consistently spared his histrionics. McEnroe respected Borg in a way that he respected no one else, but there may have been more to it than that; perhaps, in some subconscious way, McEnroe also knew that he needed Borg – that Borg was the only opponent who could truly motivate him and coax the best out of his game.

McEnroe went on to win only three more grand slam titles, which is something of a minor tragedy when you consider the talent he possessed (it is hardly going out on a ledge to say that he may have been the single most naturally gifted player ever to pick up a racquet).

True, the game changed on McEnroe in the mid-1980s, with the arrival of Ivan Lendl and the advent of power tennis, but had Borg stuck around a little longer, McEnroe might have written an even bigger place for himself in the history books.

Compelling stories will be written at this year’s Wimbledon; the tournament seldom lacks for drama – but never anything quite as dramatic as what was seen on Centre Court 25 years ago. It is one memory that is certainly worth wallowing in.

Simon Kuper is away

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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