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Thursday, July 5, 2012

A moment in time: July 5, 1980

"You cannot be serious"

 I was never a tennis player. My game was always baseball, and to some extent street hockey and ice hockey. Growing up in Montreal, I am sure there were many tennis courts in my neighborhood, but I don't remember any of them. Tennis was not a very popular sport. That all changed in the late 1970's. Along came Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and then John McEnroe. Tennis became interesting. By 1978.  when I moved to Ontario, I was now a big tennis fan and began playing quite a bit myself. As well, television began to show a lot more tennis. I was hooked.

John McEnroe burst onto the professional scene in 1977 at Wimbledon. At that point he didn't even consider himself a tennis player.

He had just graduated from a private high school in Manhattan (in 1977), where he was a top student and a gifted athlete who loved any team sport, particularly basketball and soccer. But even though he never trained or practiced regularly, his quick feet and soft hands made him a natural for tennis. He was the runner-up at the 18-under national junior championships in his senior year of high school and earned the chance to play at the Wimbledon qualifying tournament. He was one of a few players  who would win a wild card and advance to the main draw. Two weeks later, he found himself in the semifinals on Center Court opposite Jimmy Connors. His physical game was ready for the big time,  but his mental and emotional game was not.

"In his quarterfinal match against Phil Dent, MacEnroe had got angry with himself when he lost the first set and he began bending his wooden Dunlop racket under his foot. For the first time in his life, he was booed. “I thought it was hilarious,” he says. “I wanted to see what would happen so I kicked my racket across the court and they booed again. I loved it.” But he was shocked when he picked up the papers the next day. The London tabloids had christened a monster: “SUPERBRAT.”

 McEnroe was not the first tennis player who had acted like an angry out of control maniac on the court. Tennis had seen vile and rude players like Jimmy Connors and it had seen abusive players like Ilie Nastase but no one had ever quite witnessed McEnroe’s combination of raw athleticism and maniacal explosiveness. One moment, he would make an unbelievable athletic shot,  the next he would be screaming and smashing television equipment.

 The crowds at the beginning despised him. The sport’s organizers were bewildered as to what to do about him. He certainly didn't follow the rules and etiquette, but he made the sport much more popular than it had ever been. All of which had the effect of making McEnroe, a wise-guy kid who was known to jump over the subway turnstiles yelling “U.N. Delegate,” more determined to expose the “phonies” who ran the sport. They liked the attention and money he brought into the sport so they tolerated his antics, but they didn't like him and took any opportunity to fine and chastise him.

 If he would have been reprimanded more seriously early on, he may have been better off. The rules never applied to him. 

-Bud Collins

 Tennis had always had a decent following, and the Billie Jean King/ Bobby Riggs match in 1973 drew a big TV audience (over 50 million viewers), but for the most part tennis was a minor spectator sport in North America before McEnroe came along. At that time, the top player in the world was a young Swede named Bjorn Borg, who was everything McEnroe was not.
 The crowds were mostly on the side of Borg, the cool, calm, polite well mannered player. McEnroe, the young American upstart with the violent temper and foul language, who frequently berated the referee and the linesman,was hated by most of the tennis fans.

 They were the perfect rivals to make the perfect cinematic experience for the viewer.

"He may have become the bete noir of the tennis establishment, but people who never gave a crap about the sport before were suddenly mesmerized. Andy Warhol followed him around with a camera. Tom Hulce studied him for his role as the eccentric, half-crazed 18th century composer Mozart in the 1984 film Amadeus."

-Julian Rubenstien 
When McEnroe came along to rival Borg,  his abravise persona in combination with his shotmaking genius turned his matches into  gripping spectacles of sports cinema . It was true reality TV long before that became popular. You couldn't have staged it any better.

There are times in your life when you remember exactly where you were when something great or magical happened. On July 5th, 1980, exactly 32 years ago today, I remember exactly where I was when I saw the greatest tennis match I have ever seen. I was in my bed, eating breakfast. Borg versus McEnroe. Center court at Wimbledon. Breakfast at Wimbledon. That is really where the tradition started. Breakfast in my bedroom, like so many others in the world.

You see all the time where there is a big hype for an event and it is a big letdown. In this case, that didnt happen. It was everything you would want and then much more.
When my family moved to Toronto in 1979 to our new home I had my own room with my own color TV. That was a big deal for someone like me who loved to watch TV and more specifically sports. By the next summer I got the chance to take advantage of that. Televised sports on a larger scale had just begun to hit full swing in the years immediately previous to that, and by 1980 the weekends were packed with them. This was still long before 24 hour Sports superstations like ESPN were prominent, but when a big event like Wimbledon..or the US Open golf tournament was held, they made the exception and gave you maximum coverage.

By the time John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg met in the Wimbledon final in 1980 they were the two biggest stars in tennis. While Borg was still acknowledged as the King, McEnroe was actually the worlds number 1 ranked player. Jimmy Connors was still a very big star and would be for years to come, but McEnroe was the young, explosive tempered upstart that had taken the place of Connors, who had occupied that role up to that point.
They had met several times before that epic match on Wimbledon's center court, with Borg winning most of them. While McEnroe did win a few, at that point Borg was still considered the better player and was now aiming to win his 5th Wimbledon title in a row, something that had never been done, and McEnroe was looking to win his first. 

The fans, as mentioned before,  while intrigued by McEnroe were still very much on the side of Borg.
In fact, when McEnroe came onto the court that day, he was booed.

Relatively speaking, this pair didn't play too many times. But the fireworks when they did meet produced some of the most memorable occasions, with two Wimbledon finals as part of that. It was Ice Man v Crazy Guy. The quiet Swede with liquid nitrogen in his veins against the hot-head big mouth who told us "You cannot be serious," and made a catchphrase out of saying "Are you kidding?" to umpires.

McEnroe's temper, intensity and drive to win was legendary. Even his friends saw it in private.

 Martin Chambers, the drummer for the Pretenders and a longtime friend, remembers visiting him at his beach house in Malibu in 1986. They were shooting pool and McEnroe suggested they put some money down. With $50 on the table, they racked up another game in which Chambers went on a run to win. McEnroe was furious. “He threw his stick down on the floor and he meant it,” says Chambers, laughing at the memory. “He was angry. But that’s what made him so great. You’ve got to want it really bad.”

-Julian Rubenstien

McEnroe loves to remember that match and, oddly, isn’t bothered at all by the fact that he lost. “I’m just glad to have been a part of something that special,” he says. “It’s certainly one of the highlights of my career.” It was as if only when playing Borg — whom McEnroe considers, along with 1960s great Rod Laver, to be the best ever — did he remember how beautiful a game tennis could be. He forgot the trappings of being the mad artist and focused on the canvas.

-Julian Rubenstien 

The match lasted nearly four hours; more than one hour of it coming in the fourth set, a tie-breaker won by McEnroe, 18-16, to even the match at two sets apiece. In the tiebreaker, McEnroe fought off seven match points, one time running from end to end and somehow firing a crosscourt backhand winner from so far off the court he was almost in the stands.

  In the end though, Borg’s consistent, beautifully angled groundstrokes finally won out in the fifth, 8-6 (no tiebreak is played in the fifth set at Wimbledon). Of the 482 points played in the match, Borg won 242 to McEnroe’s 240. Not once did McEnroe lose his head.

 It was just pure tennis. The best against the best. No theatrics. At least not hysterics. The drama was in the play of the game, not the sideshow that McEnroe had become known for.
After that year, Breakfast at Wimbledon became the tradition that still endures to this day, but no Final since will be remembered like that match on that Saturday morning in July of 1980.

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