High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalryby Stephen Tignor
The golden age of tennis came crashing down suddenly at the 1981 U.S. Open. Bjorn Borg, the stoical Swede who had become the richest and most famous player in the sport's history, had just lost to his brash young rival, John McEnroe, in the final at Flushing Meadows. After his last shot floated out, Borg walked to the net, shook McEnroe's hand in silence, and… See more details below
The golden age of tennis came crashing down suddenly at the 1981 U.S. Open. Bjorn Borg, the stoical Swede who had become the richest and most famous player in the sport's history, had just lost to his brash young rival, John McEnroe, in the final at Flushing Meadows. After his last shot floated out, Borg walked to the net, shook McEnroe's hand in silence, and disappeared from the game he had dominated for the last decade.
No one realized it at the time, but the era that Borg and the three other semifinalists at that year's OpenMcEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Vitas Gerulaitishad helped define had also ended. For nearly a century, the lawns of tennis had been reserved for wealthy amateursgentlemen, in the original British parlancebut in 1968, the game was opened to professionals and was forever changed. The 1970s were boom years for tennis. Thanks to charismatic young players and dramatic matches, participation skyrocketed in the United States and brought the game to a new peak of global popularity. In the ensuing decade, the sport would be taken further from its genteel roots than anyone thought possible.
Through the lens of that era's final tournament, the 1981 U.S. Open, High Strung chronicles the lives and careers of the men who made those Wild West days of tennis so memorable. The Swede known as "Ice Borg," who secretly harbored an inner madman. McEnroe, the tortured, bratty genius who was destined to slay his idol. Connors, the blue-collar kid who tore the cover off the balland the game itselfbecoming a beloved antihero. Ilie Nastase, the Romanian clown who tested the outer limits of acceptable behavior and taste. Gerulaitis, the New York charmer and Studio 54 regular who was friend to them all. And Ivan Lendl, the robotic Czech who became a harbinger of tennis's high-powered future.
The struggles these men shared were as compelling off the court as they were on. Some thrived, some survived, some were destroyed, but none has ever been forgotten.
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High StrungBjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalry
By Stephen Tignor
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 Stephen Tignor
All right reserved.
Chapter One"It's what I live with, you know, that I lose someday."
In the minds of most tennis fans, when Bjorn Borg took his first
rolling, measured strides onto Centre Court for the 1980 Wimbledon
final, he might have been stepping down from the clouds. The
myth of the divine Swede had been growing in London since 1973,
when he'd made his debut as a 17-year-old. That year, Borg's wavy
blond hair and shy, smooth-cheeked smile earned him the nick name
Teen Angel. They also earned him the attention of hordes of
shrieking, hopping, giggling, weeping, and uncontrollably aggressive
English schoolgirls. After his first match, 300 of them attacked
Borg and dragged him to the ground. Thus began a phenomenon
previously unseen on the lawns of the All England Club, one that
would take a variety of forms over the ensuing years: the "Borgasm."
(Asked later if he'd been scared by the experience, Borg replied with
the equanimity that would become his trademark: "Well, yes, I was
a little scared, as I lay there in the dust on the street with girls all
over me. But it was fun, too.")
The following year, Wimbledon officials put out the word to 60
neighboring schools: Keep the girls under control. They couldn't
do it, and neither could the police. "The Viking God was mobbed,"
one club member reported in 1974, "and in the scuffle a policeman's
helmet was knocked off and an officer knocked to the ground."
As the decade progressed and Borg evolved from a young
heart throb to a grizzled world champion, his myth and his nickname
evolved with him. By 1980 he had been rechristened the Angelic
Assassin. A silent man with a headband for a halo, Borg was
renowned for his icy precision and improbable, back-from-the-brink
victories. He was, by all appearances, invincible in the paramount
test of tennis nerve, the five-set match. He had won 10 straight
dating back to 1976. With his seemingly inhuman consistency and
his impenetrable reserve on court, there was an air of mystery,
of the uncanny, surrounding everything Borg did. Urban legends
sprouted around him. His heart rate was 35 (it was between 50
and 60). He slept 10 hours a night in freezing cold hotel rooms (he
did). His racquets were strung so tightly they popped in his hotel
room while he was sleeping (they did). He had ice in his veins
(probably not true). Fellow player Ilie Nastase referred to him as
The mythmaking was understandable because Borg was one
of those rare athletes who changed the nature of his sport
single handedlyor, in his case, double-handedly. For 30 years the
accepted style of play in men's tennis had been to follow the serve
forward, to attack, to pressure the opponent and create winning
angles by hitting your shots from as close to the net as possible. It
was known as the Big Game, and it seemed to be the final word
in strategy. But Borg, legendary from a young age for his stub
stubbornness, turned the textbookand the sport's geometryupside
down. Believing that the Big Game was as much about machismo
as it was tactics, he stayed back, and won by outlasting his
opponents. He hit his forehand with an extreme grip that had rarely
been seen before, and he popularized the two-handed backhand,
an equally rare shot before him, but one that would become
virtually universal after him.
Borg's style elevated physicality and athleticism to a higher
degree of importance in tennis. He kept his weight at 160 at all times
and didn't worry much about his technique; what he cared about
most was arriving at the ball in time to hit itand then never missing
it. He was also a minimalist when it came to tactics. Asked how
he approached an important point, Borg said he "made sure I got
the ball over the net." His game was taxing on mind and body, yet
by the end of the 1970s his approach had wiped away three decades
of the Big Game and established itself as the new orthodoxy.
No one could argue with its success: Borg entered the 1980
Wimbledon final having won four straight titles there, a record
unmatched by any man in the 20th century. He was at the peak of
his powers. A June 1980 Time cover story on Borg, which began
by asking, "Is he the greatest of all time?," called him an "incredible
tennis machine, an inexorable force that is one part speed, one
part topspin, and two parts iron will." His victories weren't merely
inevitable. They seemed to be ordained from above.
So it might have come as a disappointment to many to find out
that the Angelic Assassin, rather than descending from Valhalla, or
Mars, or Big Ben's tower, had ridden in for the final that day from
a local Holiday Inn. Located next to the grass court club where he
practiced in the Hampstead section of London, the hotel was where
Borg always stayed during the tournament. It took 45 minutes by
car to get to the All England Club, and Borg had made the trip the
same way for the better part of four years. He rode up front in
the passenger seat. His fiancée, Mariana Simionescu, a Romanian
tennis pro two years his senior who trimmed his hair and cooked
his meals, sat in the back. Lennart Bergelin, his 55-year-old coach,
who also served as his secretary, masseur, racquet keeper, and
second father, was at the wheel. This three-person cocoon"home"
to Borghad been threading its peaceful way through the tennis
world undisturbed since 1976.
The car was always a Saab, which was one of Borg's sponsors, and
Bergelin always drove, for the same reason that he answered Borg's
phone calls and kept his 50 racquets precisely tuned at all times: so
his player wouldn't waste a moment of concentration on anything
other than batting a tennis ball over a net. The route Bergelin took
through London's leafy suburbs never varied. It wasn't necessarily
the shortest path, but it minimized the chance that Borg would be
confronted with something "new" along the way.
Superstition is a guiding faith among professional tennis players.
They'll do whatever it takes not to step on a line as they walk around
the court. In the midst of a winning streak, they've been known to
eat nothing but McDonald's or wear the same pair of shorts for 10
days running. But it was more than just an occupational hazard for
Bjorn Borg; the trait ran in his family. His parents, Rune and
Margarethe, first saw their son win at the All England Club in 1977. The
last digit of that year was taken as a sign. From then on, they would
attend Wimbledon only in odd-numbered years, while traveling to
the French Open, which Borg would eventually win six times, in
even-numbered years. As of 1980, their record was unblemished,
though there had been more than a few close calls.
In the 1979 Wimbledon final, Borg played an intense five
set match with Roscoe Tanner, an American whose erratic,
go-for-broke style and machine-gun lefty serve always rattled him.
Margarethe ate candy throughout the match, for luck, as she did
during many of her son's matches. After more than three hours,
Borg served for the title at 5-4 in the fifth set. He went up 40-0,
triple match point. His mother thought she was safe at last, so she
spit the well-chewed candy on the floor of the player's guest box.
Borg proceeded to lose the next three points. Margarethe picked
up the candy and popped it back in her mouth. Borg won the next
two points and the match.
The addition of Bergelin to the Borg team didn't help. If anything,
he outdid the family when it came to superstitions. In 1975
he coached the Swedish Davis Cup team to its first title. Throughout
the season, Bergelin refused to take off his lucky long underwear,
which was festooned with cartoon tigers. He kept it on despite
100-degree temperatures over a weekend in Spain. When the team
won, Bergelin pulled down his pants and danced on a table in his
Rune and Margarethe's only child turned the family predilection
into a way of life at Wimbledon. Each year, Borg put away
whatever Fila outfit he'd been dressed in that season and pulled out
the skintight green-pinstriped shirt he'd worn on his way to his first
title there, in 1976. Each year he asked for the same chair he used
the year before. On court, he demanded exactly two towels. Borg
also brought the "playoff beard" to tennis. He stopped shaving once
certain tournaments, including Wimbledon, began. By the end of
the fortnight, a dark, scraggly patch of hair would be spread across
the bottom of his face. (On occasion, the beard would be
accompanied by a breakout of pimples on his chin that would also vanish
once the tournament was over. But this rare outward sign of anxiety
from Borg was not, as far as anyone knows, part of his system of
Simionescu believed that her fiancé's habits were an elaborate
"search for order" and a "source of energy and concentration." But
on the day of the 1980 Wimbledon final, Borg's routine was
altered just slightly. Sitting next to Mariana in the backseat of the
Saab was a gregarious English friend named Tommie who ran a
restaurant at the club where Borg practiced. He had been invited to
sit with Bergelin and Simionescu in the player's box that day.
Unable to contain his excitement about traveling to the final with the
champion, he cheerfully predicted a win for Borg. Bergelin flashed
Mariana a sharp look in the rearview mirror. She told Tommie to
keep quiet. Borg sat placidly in the front seat, his blond hair curling
at his shoulders, as the car traced its familiar course through the
narrowing lanes of suburban London. He had won 34 straight matches
at Wimbledon. He didn't need to hear talk of a 35th.
While his run to the final that year had been relatively routine
none of his traditional Houdini acts had been requiredBorg knew
better than to tempt fate. In the first round he had drawn an Egyptian,
Ismail El Shafei. During a game of cards at the hotel, Simionescu
innocently assured him that it was an "easy match." Borg did
the equivalent of hitting the roof for him: He stood up and walked
silently out of the room. An hour later he was reading the paper.
Out of nowhere, he put it down and said, "I just want to remind
you, Mariana, there's no such thing as an easy match. A player who
thinks like that might as well give up, and I have no intention of
As a tennis player, Borg knew that nothing was ordained.
While the Viking God's trips around the city had been soothing
and predictable, those of his opponent in the final, John McEnroe,
had become a source of rising agitation. The 21-year-old New
Yorker could never get away from himself in London. More
accurately, he couldn't get away from the obnoxious cartoon alter
ego the city's tabloids had saddled him with: Superbrat. Headline
writers used it as if it were his real name: "Disgrace of Superbrat!";
"Superbrat Out in the Coldand He Blames the British Weather!"
Something about John McEnroe inspired the London tabloids.
While he wouldn't become the all-time Wimbledon champion, no
tennis player could touch him when it came to nicknames: At various
times he was McBrat, McNasty, McTantrum, the Mouth That
Roared, the Merchant of Menace, and, this author's personal favorite,
the Incredible Sulk.
The words and the images followed him everywhere. McEnroe
often shared a taxi with his friend and doubles partner Peter
Fleming. On those rides, a song by the Police that had been released
two years earlier, "I Can't Stand Losing You," was in suspiciously
heavy rotation on the radio. Over a hammering New Wave beat,
the lead singer, Sting, robotically repeated the phrase I can't . . . I
can't . . . I can't stand losing, I can't . . . I can't . . . I can't stand losing
dozens of times. When the song finally ended, the DJ's next words
had come to seem inevitable: "Sounds like a song for Superbrat!"
That's how it had been for McEnroe at Wimbledon ever since,
fueled on pizza grease and candy bars, he'd made his debut run to
the semifinals as an 18-year-old qualifier three years earlier. He had
skipped his high school graduation to play the French Open and
Wimbledon; his headmaster at the Trinity School in Manhattan
had called the trip McEnroe's "Senior Year Project." McEnroe's
parents thought that simply entering the event would be a great
learning experience for Johnny, something akin to the recent excursion
she had made to Washington, D.C., with his fellow seniors. A
few weeks later McEnroe was world famous and threatening to win
the sport's biggest tournament. In the words of Tennis magazine,
McEnroe "wandered through the draw like a child half-stumbling
toward the throne room in a strange, Labyrinthine castle."
But while his success may have seemed unlikely to others, the
high schooler was hardly awed by his august surroundings and
the men who walked through them. "I remember seeing him in the
locker room before one of his matches," Fleming says, "and he was
talking about his opponent: 'If I lose to this guy, I'm quitting tennis!'
The guy was a pretty good pro, too. John had that confidence
Excerpted from High Strung by Stephen Tignor Copyright © 2011 by Stephen Tignor. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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