High Strung: Björn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry, by Stephen Tignor, HarperCollins, RRP£14.99, 256 pages
Epic: John McEnroe, Björn Borg, and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever, by Matthew Cronin, John Wiley RRP£17.99, 312 pages
In Paris this month, Novak Djokovic fell just short of equalling the record for the longest undefeated run of tennis matches from the beginning of any given year. Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, overcame a tentative start to win his sixth French Open championships, a feat achieved only once before. The men in their sights were John McEnroe and Björn Borg.
These two players left behind a luminous legacy – and the records they set three decades ago were only part of it. Far more important was the drama of a rivalry whose defining moment came in the 1980 Wimbledon final, with its unforgettable fourth-set tie-breaker in which McEnroe fought back from championship point five times to prolong the match before succumbing to the Swede 8-6 in the decider. Both Stephen Tignor in High Strung and Matthew Cronin in Epic take it as a given that the sport has seen nothing like it before or since.
Now wait a minute, tennis fans of a younger generation might protest: what about the battles between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, especially their five-set marathon in the 2008 Wimbledon final? Living as we do in an age of the Greatest Sporting Superlatives Ever, that match was instantly pronounced the best final of all time, while many regard Federer as the greatest tennis player. Both claims seem a stretch. Nadal now leads Federer 17-8 in their matches; the quality is almost always terrific but this is increasingly a rout, not a rivalry. (Borg and McEnroe played one another 14 times at the highest level and ended their careers tied.) And the 1980 final, because of that tie-breaker that set the gold standard, had more tension than 2008.
For tennis journalists Tignor and Cronin, the magic of Borg v McEnroe went beyond the fact that they were great players with radically contrasting styles and temperament. Borg was a man around whom legends grew. One that Tignor recounts was that the Swede had a heart rate of 35 beats per minute (it was actually between 50 and 60). Borg had needed a police escort at Wimbledon since 1973, when 300 screeching schoolgirls knocked him to the ground, leading tabloids to refer to the phenomenon as “Borgasms”.
The tabloids also managed to do a pretty good imitation of hysterical outrage at every McEnroe outburst, calling him Superbrat, McNasty and the Incredible Sulk. “Together they introduced the seemingly unchanging lawns to two major elements of 1960s youth culture,” Tignor writes; sex and rebellion had come to Wimbledon. You cannot finish that chapter without reappraising the Federer-Nadal rivalry as merely one between two phenomenally talented sportsmen. Borg and McEnroe were that – and rock stars too.
Borg retired abruptly from the tennis tour after being beaten by McEnroe at the US Open in 1981. His more than occasionally bizarre behaviour since, including putting his five Wimbledon trophies up for auction for an expected $525,000 before withdrawing them, made him seem unpredictable, even irresponsible, and a far cry from the Ice Man image he had cultivated during his career. He made an ill-fated return to the fray in the early 1990s, during which he never won a match; this was a star who couldn’t wait to retire and then set about undoing many of the myths that surrounded him.
But, as Tignor points out, it was Borg who set the stage for baseliners with two-handed backhands (Federer excepted) to dominate today’s game. “Borg, legendary from a young age for his stubbornness, turned the textbook – and the sport’s geometry – upside down.”
McEnroe emerges in High Strung as a genius with a good heart beneath the occasionally demented exterior. As a junior, he had a reputation for “making line calls against himself, and an ingrained aversion to phoniness”. His immense respect for Borg made his tantrums a rarity when he played the Swede. On one occasion, when Borg started to argue about a line call at Madison Square Garden in New York, McEnroe gently asked him to continue playing. He then hit Borg’s next serve into the stands to give him back the disputed point.
Tignor applauds the New Yorker’s innate wit even when he boiled over. The target, as often as not, was McEnroe himself. On one occasion, he became so frustrated with his errors, he hollered: “I’m so disgusting, you shouldn’t watch. Everybody leave!” This and the legendary “You cannot be serious” became “the canonical texts of modern tennis literature”, writes Tignor. “But McEnroe would turn out to be the Rimbaud of tennis ranters; his best stuff came in the blinding heat of youth. The anger, the irrationality, the foul language, and the embarrassment afterward would all remain but the caustic creativity would fade.”
Cronin’s book is well researched and he gives us a more complete picture of the players’ lives after retirement than Tignor does but he is no poet. In fact, Cronin and his publisher Wiley ought to be fined for their crimes against the English language, paying several multiples of what McEnroe was docked for bad behaviour on court.
Cronin sets the stage for Borg and McEnroe’s 1980 Wimbledon final thus: “After nearly two weeks of play, Centre Court is badly beaten up, resembling the pockmarked face of an aging Central Park hot dog vendor who has just battled 12 hours of heat and crowds during a Billy Joel concert.” Then, there is the loopy Cronin claim that McEnroe and Ronald Reagan were somehow similar. “America needed a big-thinking cowboy carrying a big stick of knotted oak and Ronald Reagan was just the ticket … in the summer of 1980, Reagan and McEnroe were a couple of American cowboys bucking up for the blazing gunfight.”
By contrast, Tignor’s High Strung is a thing of rare beauty, a book that makes you fantasise about time travel and yearn to be courtside when Borg and McEnroe were at their best – even as he simulates that experience to near perfection. For today’s tennis fanatics, it is life-enhancing but somehow deflating as well. Many of us had thought we were living through a golden age.