Why A Millennial Says Borg-McEnroe Final Remains The Greatest
Brilliance of 1980 Wimbledon final holds its own against more recent epic championship matches at SW19
In July 1980, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe met at Wimbledon for the first time. Any and all who were lucky enough to watch the encounter live will swear the match was and continues to be the greatest that tennis has ever seen. Being 27, I was one with the misfortune of never having seen it. I thought it time that changed.
My own fandom has involved as much a fascination with tennis history as it has with what is happening in the present. But it was not until I sat down on a drizzly June afternoon at my flat in London to watch in its entirety the 1980 Wimbledon final - which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month - that I realised in reality I knew little, if anything, of substance about it.
Of course I was aware of the match and of Borg's eventual victory, but in reality for people of my age it has been reduced to something of a reference point in debates about whether Nadal and Federer's titanic Wimbledon final in 2008 topped it.
For me, McEnroe was more familiar as one of tennis's finest talking heads, a voice of authority to guide me through the game's nuances and subtleties, while Borg was someone I associated with looking effortlessly cool in Centre Court's Royal Box. I was aware of their exploits, of their famous matches and even of their diametrically opposed styles on court, but awareness was all it amounted to.
I figured that I knew what I needed to know about them and the 1980 final but 18 points into their legendary 22 minute fourth-set tiebreak, won 18-16 by McEnroe to draw himself level with Borg at two sets apiece, I realised my previous appreciation for the match had come up woefully short.
What became apparent at that most dramatic of moments was a sudden realisation that at no point in the previous two hours and 52 minutes had I even considered the action anything other than utterly compelling, fiercely competitive and, while undeniably less brutish than the modern power game, exquisitely skillful.
A reductive notion often levelled at sports from a bygone era is that they are boring, slow and simply not as exciting as the offerings of the present day. As a millennial myself, I humbly present this Borg-McEnroe final as an example proving this to be a falsehood. If you gave this one a five-star review, you'd be doing it a serious disservice.
I was having reactions akin to those that come with the most dramatic live sport. I experienced sweating palms, an elevated heart rate and audible cries of amazement as I sat alone in my house on what was ironically one of this summer's wettest days so far.
Throughout, I found myself drawn to both. McEnroe, his heart as clearly visible on his sleeve as the headband penning in his mane of curly locks, married looks of anguish after a backhand slice into the net with shrieks of joy after a cross-court winner.
In contrast Borg, who at the time already boasted four Wimbledon titles to supplement his astonishing five Roland Garros crowns, seemed utterly unfazed, outwardly at least, by any occurrence. Not a bead of sweat apparent on his unquestionably stylish Fila get-up as he metronomically met every McEnroe challenge with one of his own.
What they both possessed was an easy grace of play almost absent from the modern men's game, where a premium on heavy hitting often trumps all else. Lithe and fleet of foot, McEnroe and Borg hailed from another era of tennis which, at Wimbledon at least, involved endless attacking forays to net and shots demanding delicacy over destruction.
Perhaps the most prominent parallel to be drawn from that famous afternoon to the modern day is the undeniably unique atmosphere produced by Centre Court. Very few sports venues can lay claim to matching it during moments of pure sporting theatre, silence followed by eruptions of noise. There really is nowhere quite like it.
One sad reality of passing time is its tendency to sentence great moments of sporting history to nostalgia. In the moments before, during and after seismic clashes, it is easy to think that the significance of what has occurred will continue to be felt for lifetimes, weaving itself into the fabric of the sporting consciousness.
The 1980 Wimbledon final will forever be the standard of excellence in tennis and remain entrenched as one of the finest athletic achievements of all time. And so, on its 40th birthday, put down your strawberries and cream, raise your Pimms and pay homage to greatness.