A Match Goes Down in History

It was Bjorn Borg's fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, but the five-set final will be remembered as much for its heroic loser, John McEnroe, who won the fans' plaudits
It was Bjorn Borg's fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, but the five-set final will be remembered as much for its heroic loser, John McEnroe, who won the fans' plaudits
July 13, 1980

There were two entirely different tournaments at Wimbledon this year. The first extended for all but the last singles match of the fortnight and consisted of a series of bogs, separated by drizzle and joined by bad bounces. In this first tournament, the men's play was especially predictable, and what grace and tension there were came almost entirely from the ladies.

The other Wimbledon took three hours and 53 minutes last Saturday and grew into one of the most extraordinary contests in the annals of sport—or any endeavor in which two men test their wills against one another. For Bjorn Borg to win his 35th-straight match at Wimbledon and his fifth-straight title and to reach a place above all men who have ever played tennis, he had to beat John McEnroe, and he did that by the astounding score of 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18 in the tie-breaker), 8-6.

Though he is barely 24, no one has ever approached Borg's mark in the championships. Had he won in four sets—as he nearly did—Borg would be remembered as the juggernaut of the ages, the unbeatable. But by winning the match as he did, he enhanced his reputation, because the character of his performance surpassed the achievement itself. Borg lost seven championship points in the fourth set and finally the set itself. More than that, he lost another seven break points in the deciding set. Fourteen times the greatest, coolest player ever to tread the courts failed, and failed when it counted most. The last man to lose the Wimbledon final after having a match point in his favor was John Bromwich of Australia in 1948, and those who played against Bromwich thereafter say he was never again the same player. One point did him in. And this man Borg blew many such chances. And still he triumphed.

As he took his position for the fifth set, he thought, "This is terrible. I'm going to lose." Borg admits he thought that. And he thought, "If you lose a match like this, the Wimbledon final, after all those chances, you will not forget it for a long, long time. That could be very, very hard." It was his serve to start the last set. He lost the first two points. "But then," Borg recalls, "I say to myself, I have to forget. I have to keep trying, try to win.' " He served the next point and won. And again and again. He closed out the game at 30.

After those first two losing points, he was to serve 29 more times in the match, and he was to win 28 points, the only loser coming at 40-love in Game 9. He was inhuman again, "playing on another planet," as Ilie Nastase has said of him. But he had been human, so very mortal, and that is important. We already knew the great Borg could beat any opponent. We knew that. In fact, how much does it really matter, five Wimbledons or four? But this afternoon we found that Borg could not possibly be beaten by himself, either. That is why this victory matters so.

"He's won Wimbledon four straight times, he's just lost an 18-16 tie-breaker," a reverent McEnroe mused afterward. "You'd think maybe just once he'd let up and just say forget it. No. What he does out there, the way he is, the way he thinks...." McEnroe shook his head. "I know I couldn't do it."

Ah, yes, McEnroe. Let us pause now for him. All those championship points were not merely lost by Borg. They were won, too, every one of them, by as gallant a loser—and sportsman, too, this particular day—as ever came to Wimbledon. McEnroe swaggered onto the court to boos and slumped off it to cheers, and with that metamorphosis he can never be the same.

McEnroe did not only lose, either. Borg had to defeat him. Thus, McEnroe made Borg greater, elevated him for posterity. Louis needed his Schmeling more than the bums-of-the-month, as Ali did his Frazier, Tilden his Johnston. What McEnroe did for Borg with this one match was to lift him above the record books and enroll him among the legendary.

Such was the climax of this match that already the mind plays tricks, refuses to believe how ordinary it really was until it exploded in the ninth game of the fourth set. Indeed, everything leading up to this greatest of 94 finals was mundane. Borg had run through the field at his leisure, losing but two sets. For his part, McEnroe struggled, nearly falling to one Terry Rocavert, ranked 112th in the world, in the second round. But by the time he met Jimmy Connors, in what was then presumed to be the Runner-Up Bowl, there were flashes of top form. However, they were obscured by McEnroe's inconsistency and by a breakout of his on-court irascibility, which he had subdued till now. Put off by an insignificant line call, McEnroe bellowed 14 times at the umpire that he wanted to see the tournament referee, a display that drew the first public warning ever issued on Centre Court, and jammed the BBC switchboard with anti-American diatribes. It was an unpleasant and interminable match of four sets, dragged out because both these lefthanders take forever to serve, Connors with all his ball-bouncing and string-gazing, McEnroe with his bizarre service posture in which he stands sideways to the baseline, rocking back and forth like a broken toy, finally unwinding—who knows when?—as if someone, somewhere has at last pushed a remote-control button. Seeing this Connors vs. McEnroe match was like watching grass die.

Indeed, at the start of the final, when Borg shuffled about in a daze, it appeared more than anything that McEnroe had command of the pace of the play, and as long as he could keep that he could rule the match. Usually Borg steps about briskly between points, rump out, his thin legs with the great-muscled thighs driving like pistons, but now the champion sagged and clomped around, drifting to McEnroe's slow meter. Borg lost his first service game and his third, too, and the set was all the challenger's, 6-1.

But there was more to it. True enough, Borg has developed a superb serve for fast courts, and he had been serving-and-volleying his way to victory more than ever this year. But however well directed his first volleys may be, they are not hit with authority. Especially with the forehand, where he is used to coming over the ball, topspin, not punching it, as one must a volley. While lesser, slower players might not have negotiated his short volleys, the speedy McEnroe could not only reach them but also cash them in.

McEnroe was a tiger on serve. He made no great percentage of first services—little more than half—but his second serve is probably the most effective in the sport, and Borg fared no better with it. In McEnroe's first nine service games, through five-all in the second set, Borg made only 13 points and led exactly once, that at a perfunctory love-15. But off Borg, McEnroe had no fewer than four break points in two games of the second set—only he could not quite crack his opponent.

Then, in a flash, the match turned upside down. At 6-5 Borg, McEnroe lapsed to 15-30, and with that, Borg knocked off two backhand returns for the set. Immediately the juice came back to Borg's stride, the rhythm was his, and before McEnroe could catch his breath, the champion had broken him again in the second game of the next set. That was enough: 6-3, two sets to one. And when, half an hour later, Borg finally broke again with an amazing backhand crosscourt off a perfect wide slicing chalk serve to go up 5-4 in the fourth, McEnroe's valiant quest seemed lost. Borg had only to serve out for the championship; promptly he rolled ahead to 40-15: two match points. But then we found at last that he too was weaned on mother's milk. McEnroe saved. McEnroe broke.

The tie-breaker that followed at six-all was as excruciating a battle as ever was staged in athletics. It lasted 22 minutes, as long as many sets. Borg had five championship points, McEnroe seven set points, and time and again the man staring down the barrel of the gun fired back a winner. There was no pussyfooting. At one stretch they made eight straight first serves between them. The pressure! They won serving, passing, volleying, off both sides, down the line, crosscourt. Neither would yield, neither would even swallow hard. The crowd would cry out and then absolutely hush, the alternating unnatural silences that tennis demands taking much more out of the place than unrestrained yelling ever could have. Finally, unaccountably, after serving the 34th point, Borg rushed in and tried to nip a drop volley off a hard McEnroe forehand return—"dumb shot," said McEnroe afterward—but the ball was hit topspin and it fell hard on the racket, tumbling off it like a cracked egg.

The moment was McEnroe's, and at 0-30 on Borg's serve in the first game of the final set he seemed to have grasped the whole day. But it was then, from whatever depths, that Borg summoned up those new resources of spirit, and ever after he was in command, even as the suspense built again. Borg had the advantage of always serving first. Each time McEnroe took the balls, he had to hold. It is possible, too, that the challenger may have been slightly more tired. Because of the rain delays, Borg had a day off before the final, while McEnroe not only played Connors those four sets on Friday but also went through the motions of 26 doubles games in which he and Peter Fleming lost in the semis to the eventual winners, Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee of Australia. Besides, the champion is so uncommonly strong. One can see Borg now in his last service game, reacting, running, stretching and nimbly bending low to reach a perfect winning forehand volley—precisely the kind of shot that tired men miss.

And then in the next, the final game, at 6-7, McEnroe could not get down for a return chipped to his feet. Nor could he reach quite far enough for a crosscourt forehand. Then, on his eighth championship point, Borg hit a solid backhand crosscourt off a good forehand volley. It whistled home clean. It was finished. The champion fell to his knees in exultation.

Only then did he show any signs of fatigue. If not in his step, it began to show in his face, in his eyes. He looked drained, frightened in some way, so different from all those about him who clamored with joy at what they had just seen of him and of tennis. But Bjorn Borg was the only one who could have seen clearly within himself, and, my God, it must have scared even him to discover how much was really there.

If the women's tennis was to rule so much of this Wimbledon, it seems only right that the champion should be Evonne Goolagong, the most stylish player of either sex. That she beat her greatest rival, Chris Evert Lloyd, in the final made it all the more symbolic, and that she beat her in a final interrupted by rain was, for this aquacade of a tournament, as appropriate as it was cruel.

But though this final—6-1, 7-6—will be lost in memory, having been overshadowed by the men's, it was glorious by any other measure, and because Borg wins Wimbledon every year, 1980 can be ascribed to Goolagong. True, when yet a teen-ager in 1971, Evonne won another Wimbledon, but that was long ago, a lark, a bagatelle.

"I just happened to win," she recalls vaguely. "I didn't think much of it at the time." And thereafter she lost seven finals at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, so that for all of her fluid majesty of stroke and foot, this dusky, haunting beauty from the Outback of Australia has never been accepted as a player so much as a portrait.

The years passed by. Miss Goolagong became Mrs. Cawley, wife to a handsome and engaging Englishman named Roger Cawley. They had a baby girl, Kelly, and a nanny to travel with. But there were also many harsh injuries, and sometimes, as ever, woolgathering on the court. Evonne would think of starting a boutique in Hilton Head, S.C., where the family had settled. The Cawleys have a gorgeous house. They would sit in their hot tub with the one-way glass and watch the sea and the world roll by, while Billie Jean retired and returned, while Chris married and sabbaticaled, while Tracy and Pam and Andrea grew out of childhood.

Goolagong is almost 29 now, and this year especially has been made depressing by a succession of trying injuries and illnesses. Wimbledon was her first tournament victory of 1980. Before she came back to action in June, she literally had not hit a ball for seven weeks. Obviously, now, this can be diagnosed as a blessing in disguise. "I get stale if I play too much," she says. Sometimes too much has merely been a third set. "She's such a moody player," Evert Lloyd says. But now, for once, she was keen and hungry. Goolagong not only handed Evert Lloyd her first defeat in 26 matches since she returned from her exile, but in the semifinals she came from behind to edge Tracy Austin, who had won 35 of her last 36. In the third round Goolagong was down a set; in the fourth a set and a break. Few champions were ever so tested, and, of course, none was ever so lovely either. "I don't think Tracy can understand," said Austin's coach, Bob Lansdorp, after her defeat. "Evonne flows. It's misleading. She doesn't run like the rest of us. She flows."

It is also true that Goolagong's laissez-faire nature made her more attuned to accepting the exasperations of this Wimbledon, which was halted or disrupted almost every day by a disgruntled Mother Nature. By contrast, for best example, Martina Navratilova, the first seed, never found her rhythm under these circumstances, and, unsettled personally, nettled by a prying British press, she struggled at every turn. She was able only to bull her way through to the semifinals, where Evert Lloyd dispatched her in three sets.

Doomsaying old-timers proudly confirmed that it was fast becoming the most hideous Wimbledon ever ventured, and the weather bureau testified officially that this was the wettest June in Britain in 101 years. That bit of boasting done, the new month opened with what may well have been the coldest July day ever recorded in London. In the drafty hollow of Centre Court, the thermometer was well down in the 40s. The wind whistled about the eaves of the old doughnut enclosure, howling against the mean slate skies.

The on-again, off-again stop-and-go proceedings took the heart out of the tournament. Even the tabloids were knocked off stride and unable to fabricate their usual fever pitch of controversy. But the women, so often accused of sameness and predictability, coped better. They played the more interesting matches and offered up the more beguiling characters. Andrea Jaeger, the 15-year-old from Illinois, youngest seed ever (No. 14), was a natural curiosity, the focus magnifying tenfold when she met and conquered (6-2, 7-6) Virginia Wade, the '77 champion, Britain's last representative in singles play. It was no fun for Our Ginny, who had participated in three Wimbledons before Andrea had even entered this vale of tears. But the little teener, her long blonde tresses flying, was a wonder on the court, unafraid and resilient, and no less attractive off it, even after Evert Lloyd undressed her with drop shots in the quarterfinals, one and one.

For everyone—most of all Chrissie—there was some spooky feeling of going through the looking glass. Evert Lloyd was herself the first in this line of prepackaged American adolescent marvels, and moreover, in 1977, she had defeated her successor, Austin, by an identical score with identical tactics when first they met.

All of 25 now, Evert Lloyd walked down memory lane. Tracy hit harder at Andrea's age, she recollected, but Andrea has a more complete game. "She's so funny, such a nice little kid," Evert Lloyd said. "And they're very different people. You always knew that Tracy was determined to be the best. Andrea's more interested in other things. I was more like Tracy."

In the meantime, Austin has succeeded her in the British consciousness as surely as in style. Her tennis outfits do not help her. While she is still only 17, no grown woman, Tracy is a high school senior, and from the accounts of all those close to her, she has become considerably more adult in the past fast years. For example, it is Tracy Austin alone who determines Tracy Austin's tournament schedule.

After her match one day, she appeared, her blonde hair cascading down, attired in a shocking pink blouse and tight designer jeans tucked into white cowboy boots. Yet on the tennis court she still persists in wearing kiddy pigtails and formless frocks, as if she were trying out to be the Morton Salt girl. As hard as she hits, as old as she plays, the crowds find her incongruous, something of a put-on.

Of course, against Goolagong, ever precious, no one else wins the fans' affection—and especially when she is playing as gloriously as she began against Austin in their semifinal. Rallying from the baseline, running down everything, she swept Austin before her in a magnificent 6-3 set.

But Austin made her pay dearly for her efforts: a love second set. And when she won a seventh-straight game and had an ad on Goolagong for a 2-0 lead in the third, it was obvious that she had belled the cat. But Goolagong not only fought back for a 1-1 tie, but she also broke for 2-1 despite trailing 40-0. The one thing Austin lacks is a forcing serve: she must play every service point, and here she played too boldly. That was unwise, for the book on Goolagong is to give her the rope. But now Goolagong saw the crack and changed her tactics utterly, rushing the net. "I didn't have as much touch from the baseline, and, besides, I had to come up because I was too tired to play back there," she explained. Saving a break point at the end with a surprise spin serve down the middle, she held on for the set, 6-4.

The final on Friday began under lowering skies. In the competitors' stand, the two prince consorts, Roger Cawley and John Lloyd, shook hands and then watched the start of a rout. Chris was not to hold serve in the set. Evonne was picture perfect, gliding about, her gorgeous underslice backhand taking the corners, while her forehand, so often her b‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te noire, held firm.

But: distant thunder, and then rain, after Goolagong had held in the opening game of the second set. Play stopped. When the two finalists returned, showered and changed, an hour later, Goolagong was still on her game and ran to 3-0, but here Evert Lloyd joined her on the high road, and they played out to a glorious standard the rest of the way, the crowd enthralled.

Evert Lloyd, at the net volleying, then back lobbing, broke for 6-5 and was serving for the set, but at 15-0 Goolagong turned things around, volleying her way into the tie-break, during which two points would tell the tale.

First, at three-all, on serve, the two fell into a baseline rally. Evert Lloyd was born and bred in this briar patch, but on the 30th shot Goolagong sliced a long, classic backhand into the corner, and, unaccountably, Evert Lloyd hit a forehand wide. It was not the dreamer whose mind had wandered.

Then, on Goolagong's second serve at 5-3, Evert Lloyd returned with a drop shot. Oh, what sweet courage that took! All day, too, all tournament, she had kissed these risky shots over the net, but this time the ball hit the tape, held, and teetered back. Goolagong had triple match point and, presently, her second Wimbledon, her first in nine years, her first as a grownup.

It was the first time in history that a singles championship at Wimbledon had been decided by tie-break. It was the first time in 66 years a mother had won. In another 10 minutes it was raining again, but Evonne was safe now, wet only with her tears and the moist black curls that pressed against her forehead and framed her face as laurel.

PHOTOPHOTOIn trouble, McEnroe reached back for his high hard one.PHOTOAs is his habit, Borg made the impossible shots look easy.PHOTOInjury-free after two years, Goolagong was again floating to the ball with a grace that others lack.PHOTOEven in rain, Chris had lofty Wimbledon status.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)