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Fire & Ice: The Borg/McEnroe Rivalry

Updated on April 18, 2012

John McEnroe (left) and Bjorn Borg

Two very different men; One Great tennis rivalry

Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe are two of the all-time greats in the sport of tennis. They were at the top of the sport during the Tennis Boom, during the first decade of the Open Era (When professional players were allowed to compete against amateurs in Grand Slam tournaments) and met 14 times between 1978-1982. They had some classic matches against each other, including the 1980 Wimbledon finals, which is considered one of the great matches in tennis history.

One of the things which made their rivalry so interesting to fans was the total contrast in their personalities. You would be hard pressed to find more contrasting natures. Borg was known as the "iceman" because of his inperturbable nature. He showed as little emotion as Mr. Spock. No matter how intense the competition, you could never tell what Borg was thinking by his face. He was always a mask of zen-like calm.

McEnroe, on the other hand, had a firey temper, and was well-known for his on-court tantrums and arguments with umpires. His repeated refrain of "You cannot be serious!" became his catchphrase. McEnroe's often unprofessional behavior earned him the nickname "Superbrat".
This is why their rivalry was called 'Fire & Ice'.

Their styles were very different, too. Borg was more power-oriented, with sledge-hammer ground strokes and a double-handed backhand. McEnroe was known for his stylish artistry and exceptional vollying. In almost every way, they were complete opposites.

Bjorn Borg was born in Sweden, joining the professional circuit as age 14, in 1972. He was the youngest player ever to represent his country in the Davis cup, at 15. He won in five sets. The same year, he won the Wimbledon junior singles title. He won his first top level tournament in 1974 when he was victorious in the Italian Open, just before his 18th birthday. He was the youngest ever winner. Two weeks later, he similarly became the youngest-ever winner of the French Open. He would continue his winning streak over the next few years, including defending his French Open title and gathering 19 consecutive Davis cup match wins. In 1976, Borg won Wimbledon for the first time, becoming the youngest winner at the time, at age 20. In all, Borg would win 11 Grand Slam titles, including 5 consecutive Wimbledon titles (He's one of only two people to accomplish this) and six French Open titles (He's also one of only two people to do this, too.) He was one of only a handful of people to win both titles in the same year. (He did this three times.) Borg won 89% of all Grand Slam tournament matches he entered and is ranked as one of the top five tennis players of all time.

John McEnroe came on the scene as an amateur doubles player in 1977, winning the mixed doubles tournament at the French open. In the same tournament he played a singles match against Jimmy Conners, and even though he lost, he was lauded as giving the finest performance as a qualifier and an amateur in any Grand Slam tournament since the Open Era began. He turned pro in 1978, and scored his first Grand Slam victory in 1979 when he won the US Open. That year, McEnroe would win 10 singles titles and 17 doubles titles, which was an Open Era record. He would continue to win many more tournaments, ultimately winning 7 Grand Slam singles titles (3 at Wimbledon and 4 at the US Open) and 9 Grand Slam doubles titles. McEnroe is not only one of the great singles players, he's been called the greatest doubles player of all time.

Borg and McEnroe first met on the court in 1978, just after McEnroe had turned pro. They played in the Stockholm Open, in Borg's home country. McEnroe was considered the underdog because Borg was already a two-time Wimbledon champion, and considered the Number 1 player in the world. McEnroe scored a big upset, beating the heavily favored Borg. Borg would later say he saw the potential greatness in the young McEnroe and knew he had a rival in the making.

The following year, the two would face each other five times, in Richmond, New Orleans, Rotterdam, Dallas and Montreal, with Borg winning three-out-of-five of the matches. This left the opponents at three victories each. Despite McEnroe's temper and their differing personalities, the two men developed a mutual respect. Borg even surprised McEnroe by giving him advice about staying calm during a match. For all their competitiveness, neither ever had anything bad to say about the other.

They would meet several times in 1980, starting with a match in New York, where Borg was victorious. After that, came the match that would define their rivalry.

The 1980 Wimbledon singles championship was a legendary match, considered one of the best tennis battles ever. It was McEnroe's first shot at a Wimbledon title, while Borg was going for a record 5th consecutive victory there. McEnroe was initially booed by the crowd, mostly because of his antics and heated exchanges with umpires during his semi-final match against Jimmy Conners the previous day. His reputation as the "superbrat" preceeded him.

However, McEnroe would win the crowd's respect with his skill and determination, facing his seemingly unbeatable opponent. Borg started off strong but McEnroe reversed the trend and started pressing Borg hard. In the tense 20 minute long, fourth set tie-breaker, McEnroe repeatedly denied Borg victory by saving five match points and ultimately winning the set 18-16. (This is when the crowd started to cheer him.) McEnroe seemed poised to win but Borg came back with his powerful serves and ultimately won Wimbleton 1980 by 8-6. The match was a classic and a defining moment for McEnroe. It was also a big day for Borg who netted this 5th Wimbledon win.

McEnroe would get his revenge soon after, defeating Borg at the US Open. (Borg never managed to win a US Open title in his career.) Following that, Borg would beat McEnroe in Stockholm and New York, while McEnroe would triumph in Milan.

The eagerly anticipated Wimbledon rematch between Borg and McEnroe took place in 1981, one year after their already legendary clash. Borg was going for his sixth title, but McEnroe had other ideas. He wanted that Wimbledon championship and he was focused on getting it. McEnroe had an answer for everything Borg did. At the end of the day, McEnroe would end Borg's winning streak and win his first Wimbledon title.

Something shifted for Borg after this. People were saying that the era of Borg was over and the era of McEnroe had begun. Borg seemed to be losing his magic. When he and McEnroe met again at the US Open, McEnroe dominated, and won a decisive victory over Borg. (In a surprising move, after the match, Borg walked out on the closing ceremonies. It was an uncharacteristic fit of pique for the normally cool Borg.) McEnroe had established himself as the new king of the court.

Although Borg would defeat McEnroe in tournaments in Sydny and Japan, he would never win a Grand Slam match again. While McEnroe was on top of the world as the Number One ranked player, Borg seemed to be a spent force in the tennis world. Borg shocked the world by abruptly quitting the sport at the young age of 25, only ten years after coming on the scene with so much impact. McEnroe was shocked by the announcement and would try to convince Borg to change his mind but to no avail. Borg stepped out of the limelight and left the stage to McEnroe.

A few years later, McEnroe himself would take a sabatical from tennis. (He was also 25.) Some people who know him say he missed the challenge and rivalry with Borg because he needed an opposite-number to push him to excel. When McEnroe returned to Tennis 8-months later, he wasn't quite the same, and never won another Grand Slam title. Neither Borg nor McEnroe would win a Gran Slam tournament after age 25.

In the 1990s, Borg (now in his mid thirties) would try to make a come-back, because he needed money after the financial disaster of his clothing line. But 10 years of court rust was too much for the 30-something Borg to overcome and his comeback as a disaster. He was Bjorn Borg in name only.

In the late 1990s, McEnroe and Borg would play each other again in the Seniors tour. The two of them had become good friends over the years and they enjoyed playing against each other again. Borg would become rich once again when his new clothing line became a success. McEnroe became a commentator for Tennis matches.

At the end of the day, the final result was that they split the results of their rivalry. Borg won seven times and McEnroe seven times. They were very equal opposites. Their friendly rivalry was one of the highlights in tennis history.

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    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Micki; they really did respect each other, from everything I've heard. They brought out the best in each other on the court.

      Thanks for the correction,

      Rob

    • MickiS profile image

      MickiS 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Borg was the only player where McEnroe would hold his temper and be a good boy. In his autobiography, Mac explained that Borg was the only player that he respected as his equal.

      By the way, you have a typo on Mac's name in the paragraph that begins, "John McCenroe came on the scene as an amateur doubles player in 1977..."

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hello Eiddwen; Glad I could take you on an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Rob

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Colin; I'm honored by another link to your facebook page. Thank you for your kind words. I remember you mentioning the George Chuvalo dinner on my hub about the Ali-Frazier feud.

      By the way (self promotion time) that Ali-Frazier hub just passed 10,000 views.

      Always a pleasure to hear from you,

      Rob

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 

      6 years ago from Wales

      Hi Robwrite,

      Thank you for this great hub back down Memory Lane.

      I have to award that up up and away here.

      Here's to many more to share.

      Take care and enjoy your weekend.

      Eddy.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 

      6 years ago

      ...well Rob - so glad I met you - you are a world class writer and gentleman - and you own my Facebook page - lol lol lol - with yet another grand posting and presentation of a ROBWRITE hub and a direct link back here - met another great rivalry one night in person and met both of these men and shook their hands with pictures - it was a night to remember and it was back in the late 90's at a dinner for our Canadian heavyweight champ George Chuvalo at the Michigan convention centre - have you ever heard of Ali and Frazier? (Frazier, no kidding, even tried to pull a punch on me - lol)

      lake erie time 2:10pm

      are you up for doing a hub on your favorite rock/rock concert films?

      The Last Waltz?

      Buena Vista Social Club?

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi; It would be hard to find a better match than that 1980 final. McEnroe was an interesting and colorful character, and a perfect foil for Borg.

      Thanks for reading,

      Rob

    • bjornborgboxers profile image

      bjornborgboxers 

      7 years ago from The Netherlands

      The 1980 Wimbledon final is still the greatest Wimbledon final ever. Fun to read more about McEnroe. :)

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Cogerson; I was a big Borg fan, too. The 1980 Wimbledon match was the peak of Borg's career. After that, the pendulum shifted and the magic started to fade. Who'd have thought the most dominant player in the world would hang up his racket as age 25.

      Rob

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 

      7 years ago from Virginia

      Very nicely done Rob, wow 31 years since that classic match...I am getting old...I remember that match very well, I was a huge Borg fan and really really disliked McEnroe....I always felt that the match was the beginning of the end for Borg....I liked Borg so much I started following Mats Wilander when Borg retired....keeping with the Sweden theme....voted up and useful.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi H.H., glad you enjoyed it.

      Rob

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      A wonderful and splendid hub. Very interesting to read.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Silver Poet. Always glad to inform and entertain.

      Rob

    • Silver Poet profile image

      Silver Poet 

      7 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

      I knew about McEnroe's bratty reputation, but I hadn't heard anything at all about Borg, so this was very interesting reading. Thank you very much.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi dahoglund; I used to play tennis once upon a time, and won a tournament in high school. It's definitely not an easy game.

      Thanks for reading;

      Rob

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I never really followed the sports but I did like to play tennis.It is a tougher sport than most people give it credit to be.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi JF; It was an incredible match, wasn't it? Who would have thought two such great players would be washed up by 25. Life is strange.

      Thanks for reading,

      Rob

    • profile image

      JFCost 

      7 years ago

      Thanks Robwrite for a fun look back at these two classic players. Funny to think that they were both over the hill at 25! Their matches were truly classics, and I don't think anyone of our era will ever forget that 1980 match! I remember being amazed that either man had any energy left, yet would somehow dig down a little deeper and find some! Thanks for the memory!

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Alastar; Glad I could bring back some memories. Thanks for commenting;

      Rob

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Remember those well back in the day. Thanks Robwrite for writing their rivalry up with info I never knew..brought back the sports memories too.

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