However many more tennis matches Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe are fated to play against each other, surely their names will be linked forever by the memories from a single summer. The summer of 1980. The summer of the tennis bookends. The summer that Borg started by defeating McEnroe in a glorious final at Wimbledon on July 5 and that McEnroe ended by checkmating Borg right back in a glorious final at New York's Flushing Meadow on Sunday.
By the time the two had thrashed at each other through four sets and two tie-breaks, through 45 games and through the very changes of nature's seasons—dazzling late afternoon summer sunlight ending in cool autumn evening breezes—to arrive at still another gut-wrenching fifth set at Louis Armstrong Stadium, it no longer mattered that this was the U.S. Open, McEnroe's Defense, Borg's Jinx. Or even that in the balance hung Borg's quest of the Grand Slam. By that time the significance of the occasion lay in the fact that here again were the two best players in the sport testing each other; here again was the rivalry; here again, oh, what a lovely war.
The battle was joined placidly enough before Borg served for the first set twice. But he wasn't serving well. Not then, not all day or night. McEnroe broke back twice, and at 4-5 in the tie-break he attacked two of Borg's short second serves with deep backhand returns and then volleyed away the points with that marvelous rapier of a left hand. It was 7-6 (7-4) on the scoreboard.
Then a phenomenal thing happened. With the Open and the Slam and everything else slipping away, Borg gave up. It was still early, but he really did. He said he had no feel. He said he "didn't know what was happening." McEnroe said his opponent looked "distant." But, missing 14 of 22 first serves, looping backhand errors into the courtside flower boxes and slogging along like a lonely basset searching for shelter, Borg was quitting. He surrendered the second set at 6-1.
September 14, 1980
Right then it should have been over. It would have been, too, if McEnroe, who at one point won 18 out of 24 points, had reacted to the scent and jumped on Borg in the third set when he had him 0-30 in the second game or teetering at 15-40 in the fourth. But Borg, in the midst of a streak of 12 straight missed first serves, survived off the ground. He started to put pressure on McEnroe's service, and he got back in the match, drilling five clean winners in a tie-break, then winning the fourth set 7-5.
Certainly now the tide had turned. Borg had won 13 fifth-set encounters in a row dating back to 1976. Such a record of invincibility in the clutch! McEnroe had battled Jimmy Connors for more than four hours the night before, and he would be going 4:13 this time. "I wasn't exactly on the doorstep of winning," Junior said later. "I felt my body would fall off. I figured I was just another victim, though, so I had nothing to lose."
How well McEnroe's brave stand at Wimbledon served him at Flushing Meadow is moot, but he wasn't about to collapse under the weight of what the unfriendly crowd in his hometown screamed were "Borgasms."
The foreigner, the favorite, looked fresher, more eager. But with Borg serving at 3—all, he allowed McEnroe's floating approach to drop free in the corner. When it was called good, he looked stunned. "But the point didn't make me lose," he said. No, McEnroe's Stinging serve and Borg's own again-disappearing delivery did that. Still upset, Borg double-faulted twice before fighting off a break point. But McEnroe kept attacking with dartlike returns, and he seized the moment, gaining the crucial break for 4-3 on a crosscourt backhand that caught Borg lunging too late at the tape.
It was McEnroe's championship to defend merely by holding serve now, and he was hot at just the right time. The kid won his second straight Open, 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4, by giving up only two points in his last two service games, completing a run in which he held 17 of his 20 service points.
"The level of play, the intensity, was higher at Wimbledon," Borg said afterward. "We both can play better. You will see the best matches, the best tennis, from us in the future."
The rematch was previewed by that bearded oracle Jimmy Connors as "Two gimps battling it out there," a joshing reference to pretournament medical reports that sounded as if the only way Borg and McEnroe could meet in New York was if their stretchers were rolling down the same hospital corridor.
Injuries aside, the two may be the only people in tennis who hadn't talked to one another about their Wimbledon final. Since that glorious day, not a word. They aren't close, Borg and McEnroe, and in the two months since Wimbledon they had entered the same tournament only once, that being the Canadian Open. In Toronto, McEnroe saw Borg in the locker room. He congratulated him on his marriage. Borg said thank you. That was it. Then both of them went out and got hurt, McEnroe twisting an ankle and defaulting in the second round, Borg injuring a knee and defaulting in the final to Ivan Lendl.
Even as Borg warmed up for the U.S. championships in his usual fashion, practicing at Chez Gerulaitis at Kings Point on Long Island, and as McEnroe entered a tune-up in Atlanta and lost to an Austin without a dress (an Austin ranked 134th on the computer; yes, that Austin, Tracy's brother John), the speculation was that Borg wouldn't be able to sprint and change direction on the rubberized asphalt of Flushing Meadow, that McEnroe wouldn't be able to lift off or maneuver laterally for the overheads and volleys that are the foundation of his slashing net game.
Came the suffocating heat of the Open's first week—courtside temperatures reached nearly 120°—and the fears concerning McEnroe seemed genuine. Against a couple of early pushovers he kept hacking overheads into the bottom of the net. Worse, he kept hearing boos and jeers. "I figure I'm about 10 Wimbledon finals exactly like the last one away from getting those people on my side," he said. Worse, he wasn't keenly tested until the quarterfinals, when he survived a shaky start against Lendl, quit serving to his instant-suicide backhand and prevailed 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.
Meanwhile, Borg was facing Roscoe Tanner in his quarterfinal. Last year Tanner took Borg downtown in the same round on a cool, eerie night during which Tanner actually tore apart the net with one vicious delivery. But this time in the glare of the afternoon sun, Borg was able to see Tanner's rockets coming. And going. To Tanner's immense satisfaction—"I can play in daylight, too," he said—he hammered 19 aces and 26 service winners, many of them in the process of building a lead of 2-1 in sets, 4-2 in games. He only had to hold twice to humble Borg at the Open again.
Quite suddenly, like a soft summer breeze, Tanner's first serve wafted. And was gone. So Borg, who had been receiving from somewhere around the 50-yard line in nearby Shea Stadium, moved in closer and drilled three returns off second serves to break back to 4—all. Bjorn broke again to win the fourth set 7-5, then closed out the match 6-3. "Always the guy who is ahead gets tight at the end," said Bjorn. "I know I'm more relaxed playing from 2-4 behind."
Or from two sets behind, which is where Borg was in his subsequent peculiar match against Johan Christiaan Kriek, who could have been Abbie Hoffman for all anybody recognized him. Even after two previous quarterfinal appearances, he was the phantom of the Open. An expatriate South African who now lives in Naples, Fla., Kriek was bold off the ground and brash from the lip. "Borg knows how fast I am," he said. "He can't hurt me with his top spin. He'll have to kill me to beat me."
Indeed, Kriek won the first two sets 6-4, 6-4 during which Borg lazed about as if still on his honeymoon, or in catatonia, but when the wake-up call arrived, Bjorn swept away, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.
McEnroe's 6-4, 5-7, 0-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) marathon victory over Connors in the other semifinal was a different story. While not exactly concealing their dislike of one another, each appeared to have won the match at least twice. McEnroe had a point for a two-set lead but he harpooned a loose return wide. Then Connors won 11 straight games for a lead of 2-1 in sets, 2-0 in games; he was two points from a break for 3-0 when McEnroe stopped worrying about a bad call from the previous set—"I was losing my mind," he said—stopped demanding that the umpire (Mr. Incompetent, Junior called him) be replaced and started saving himself by playing tennis again.
In the final set, while McEnroe twice pulled ahead on breaks, he flailed his racket once too often and lost control of it. The racket hurtled crazily the length of the court, barely missing Connors' newly bristled face. It was a small-potatoes Brian Oldfield heave, but it cost McEnroe $250 in fines.
Now he served for the match at 5-4. But Connors, screeching and pumped up by the partisan crowd, carried the game to 30—all, whereupon he unleashed four absolutely bloodcurdling blasts, three of them good. Forehand winner off a let cord. His ad. Forehand into the net. Deuce. Backhand winner. Again his ad. Backhand winner for the game. Then bedlam. It was 5-5, then 6-5 Connors as he held serve. At this moment who would have bet against the destiny of this amazing battler, who somehow always manages to win this tournament in even-numbered years?
McEnroe would, that's who. First he held serve for 6—all, forcing the tie-breaker, which in fact was anticlimactic. From 1-2 on serve, Connors slugged a setup volley into the net and then sailed a backhand deep off McEnroe's angled return. "Abortionated points. The two worst points of my life," Connors said. McEnroe served out the match a few minutes into its fifth hour, at once erasing the final Connors legacy at the Open and setting the stage for the confrontation everyone had been waiting for.
On the morrow, of course, Borg and McEnroe disappointed no one except the Australian travel agents lurking about the National Tennis Center. Down Under is where Borg would have journeyed in December for the last leg of the elusive Slam. Now he can stay home for Christmas. And so, too, can McEnroe.
These days the women's draw at the Open seems not so much a tournament as a teen-age slumber party. Two years ago there was 16-year-old Pam Shriver reaching the final. Last year there was 16-year-old Tracy Austin winning the championship. This time the Open had not one but two dumpling queens, Andrea Jaeger, 15, of the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire, and Hana Mandlikova, 18, of Prague. But most of all the 1980 Open had a sophisticated, slimmed-down, grown-up, married version of all these pixies. She was the original Open prodigy, she of the two-fisted backhand. The measuring stick. The one and only. Chris Evert Lloyd. And, girl, did Chris show everybody! At 25 she's not getting older, she's getting better.
In truth, when Evert Lloyd left the tour at the beginning of the year her game was a shambles, her confidence destroyed. Evert Lloyd knew she couldn't beat Tracy Austin. That talk last January of "needing a rest" didn't wash. Austin not only had stolen away Evert Lloyd's Open title after four straight winning years, but she had also defeated her in Germany and then routed her three times in 11 days on the indoor circuit in the U.S. That was the final blow. Pretty, sexy, well-adjusted, happily married ladies have their competitive fire, too. But this was unbearable. Austin had given up only 10 games in six sets to Evert Lloyd. She had picked apart Chris' game and stripped it bare.
Little wonder then that as Chris slowly began to lose weight and gain mobility by practicing with her husband, as she reentered the game on her turf, European clay, as she won four tournaments and 40 of 41 matches, losing only to Evonne Goolagong in a letdown final at Wimbledon after beating Navratilova—she dreamed of the day she would get another shot at Austin. To win the U.S. Open, Evert Lloyd thought to herself, I have to beat Tracy. To be No. 1 again, I have to beat Tracy.
On the eve of their looking-glass war in the semifinals Evert Lloyd was a "nervous wreck." She ate little. She was irritable. She told her husband, "I've never wanted a match more." The next day she lost the first four games of that match.
But growing up and hanging on to No. 1 has changed Austin as well; she hits the ball harder, she makes mistakes, she feels it in the throat.
As Evert Lloyd clawed back into the match she noticed Austin's tentative forehand, her proclivity to lob under stress and a notable impatience. "This wasn't the loose player I remembered," Evert Lloyd said.
So the champion bore in, hitting volleys on the run and clearing out the Austin lobs with deft overheads. She worked over Austin's lollipop second serves. She changed the pace and maneuvered her opponent around the court, mixing her up, wrong-footing her, confusing the issue. Then she plugged her machinelike stuff from the backcourt into the corners à la the old Chris.
Though Evert Lloyd lost the first set 4-6, she ran out the match by a stunning 6-1, 6-1, demonstrating quickness and variety. And emotion she has seldom shown before. Occasionally Chris even shook a fist at her side, so involved was she in pursuit of the tyke she called "my nemesis." When it was done, Austin had made 54 errors and Evert Lloyd was in her sixth straight Open final.
As for the children.... Though Jaeger's endless summer received far more attention, Mandlikova's psychological advances have been more significant. Already this year the 5'8" Mandlikova, who inherited speed from her Olympic sprinter father and who draws power from her exquisitely proportioned body and extended shoulder turn on her serve, had been in position to win against Navratilova, Goolagong, Austin and Evert Lloyd (three times) only to lose. But at a tournament in Mahwah, N.J. the week before the Open began, Mandlikova upset her idol, Navratilova, to get over the hump, and at Flushing Meadow she beat her again, 7-6, 6-4.
"What is the Czech word for magician," a man asked Hana.
"Uh, magic...magic...tricks with hands. Oh yes. Kouzelnictvi," she said.
"Well, that is what you are," the man said.
After overpowering Jaeger in the first set of their semifinal match, Mandlikova withstood a nerves-inducing rain delay, two squandered match points and two foot-fault calls in the tie-breaker to win 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4). "Andrea will be better than—I don't want to tell Chrissie or Tracy this—but she will be great player," Mandlikova said.
And what of Hana? In the first set of the final, Mandlikova varied the pace of her ground strokes enough to avoid giving Evert Lloyd any rhythm. Then she merely broke at love to win the set 7-5. But shortly her first serve departed the premises; with it went her concentration and intensity.
Mandlikova had break point three times for 2—all in the second set, pounding deep approaches to the corner, but Evert Lloyd replied with a winning lob and two immaculate forehands from crosscourt; after that her serve was never threatened and she coasted to her fifth Open championship, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1.
The victory was especially sentimental inasmuch as Chris had summoned her father, Jimmy, to fly up from Florida for the final. He had never seen his daughter win a major championship in person, and she wanted him to have that privilege. Isn't that just like her? That's Jimmy Evert's daughter and John Lloyd's wife. They think they'll keep her. She wins tennis tournaments. They think she'll keep winning them.