The greatest tennis rivalry: Federer v Nadal or Borg v McEnroe?

by Jon Culley

Men’s tennis in 2011 may be unsurpassed in terms of technical brilliance and the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has every right to be called the greatest tennis match of all time.

But debate continues over whether Federer-Nadal is the supreme rivalry of the modern tennis era or whether that distinction still belongs to John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

Nostalgia clouds the argument, of course.  Stephen Tignor’s new book about the Borg-McEnroe era is therefore a welcome text, describing the revolutionary development of the game in the 1970s and 80s within a historical perspective.

High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalry is first and foremost Tignor’s attempt to evaluate the summers of 1980 and 1981, during which the ice-cool Swede and the combustible American collided in two Wimbledon and two US Open finals, culminating in the moment at which Borg, in an extraordinary breach of protocol, walked straight out of the Louis Armstrong Stadium at Flushing Meadows after losing to McEnroe in the 1981 US final, not stopping even to pick up the loser’s trophy.

With that gesture, the previously stoical Borg, a gentleman of the game when compared with the brash, mouthy, rebellious McEnroe, effectively brought down the curtain on his own career and marked the end of a golden era.

Tignor’s book narrates that period, beginning with their epic 1980 Wimbledon final, famous for the 22-minute fourth-set tie-break on which the match turned in Borg’s favour, and ends with the four-set McEnroe win in New York that prompted Borg’s dramatic exit, his fourth losing final in 10 failed attempts to conquer America.

But it is about more than two players.  Central to the story are the other great characters of the period, players such as Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis and Ilie Nastase, charismatic men to whom the sport owed a level of international popularity it had never previously enjoyed.

The book retraces the evolution of tennis between 1971 to 1981, as it left behind the age of amateurs and gentleman that still prevailed as late as 1968, and embraced a new culture involving agents and merchandise deals and self-centred professionalism.

It was an era that also introduced Pancho Gonzalez, Ivan Lendl, Roscoe Tanner and Arthur Ashe and accelerated the technical development of tennis to such an extent that Borg and McEnroe became dinosaurs, more or less, even before reaching a level of maturity which, by today’s markers, would put them in their prime.  McEnroe, the last player to win the US Open using a wooden racket, did not win a major beyond the age of 25, his transition to the new midsize metal-framed racquet favoured by Lendl coming too late for him to reclaim his pre-eminence.

Wearing his heart on his sleeve and prone to tantrums of a kind not previously witnessed on the well-mannered lawns of south-east London, McEnroe rocked the tennis establishment so violently that some would have had him barred from the All-England Club.

But he and Borg and their contemporaries gave tennis the popularity it enjoys today and Tignor, executive editor of Tennis magazine, sets their time in its proper context.

High Strung is published in the UK by Harper-Collins.

Buy High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalry direct from Amazon.

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