Like Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler whaling away for 15 rounds of a world championship bout, or the Red Sox and Yankees battling through extra innings in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, or the Lakers and Celtics scrapping it out in overtime of the NBA Finals, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg were dazzling shot after dazzling shot.
The top-seeded Borg, the 24-year-old cool, calm, long-haired Swede, was vying for his fifth consecutive Wimbledon championship. The second-seeded McEnroe, the 21-year-old feisty, hot-tempered, frizzy-haired New Yorker with a perpetual scowl, was playing in his first Wimbledon title match.
July 5, 1980, All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon, England.
John McEnroe's lefty serve is punishing, and his deep volleys knock Borg for a loop, keeping him completely off balance, in route to an easy 6-1 first-set win.
McEnroe maintains the edge through much of the second set. He wins 14 of his first 41 points on serve by ace, service winner or errant return by Borg. But Borg rediscovers his primary weapons, his stinging serve and two-handed backhand, which enable him to solve McEnroe's dominance, and he winds up winning the set in thrilling fashion, 7-5.
In the third set, Borg holds for 5-2 with a 20-point game during which McEnroe has five break points. Borg takes the set 6-3, leaving him on the threshold of his fifth straight Wimbledon crown.
Borg takes control of the fourth set, but McEnroe scratches back from double match point to 5-all with a backhand cross-court service return winner. They find themselves tied again at 6-all, and they move into a tiebreaker that will define their rivalry for all time.
As the tense tiebreaker advances, match points and set points are played on virtually every other point in a dizzying display of guts and brilliance. On and on the tiebreaker goes. McEnroe gains the edge, 17-16, when Borg drives a forehand service return wide, by no more than a half-inch. Finally, on his seventh set point, McEnroe takes the epic set 18-16, deadlocking the electrifying match at 2 sets to 2 when Borg, attacking off serve, nets a forehand volley.
"I felt terrible, very disappointed," Borg would say later to the press, referring to the historic, 22-minute, 18-16 passion play. "I told myself, 'Forget about it. Go forward.' But it was difficult. Very difficult.''
With McEnroe having all the momentum, the decisive set begins. Even the British crowd is on McEnroe's his side, roaring for the New Yorker they had come to detest and mock. Deep down, Borg believes he is done, finished, that it'll be impossible to combat McEnroe's momentum and power, especially with the crowd on his side.
Borg loses the first two points and quickly scolds himself, saying, ''Stay relaxed. Don't get tight.'' Suddenly, out of the blue, he gains clarity. His senses come alive. He does not lose another point on his serve until the 10th game, a stretch of 19 consecutive points.
McEnroe battles just to hold serve from 0-40 in the second game and again from 0-40 to get to 4-all. The strain his semifinal match with Jimmy Connors -- and a doubles match that McEnroe and Peter Fleming admittedly bagged to avoid further physical strain on McEnroe -- is clearly wearing him down. But he reaches down and somehow battles Borg point for point.
That is, until finally, inexorably, the fresher, more experienced Borg pulls ahead. The fifth set, like the fourth set, goes to 6-6, but no tiebreaker is to be played in the final set -- the set and the championship will be decided when one player gets two games ahead in the fifth set. That happens immediately when Borg beats a tired McEnroe in the 13th and 14th games of the set -- and the Wimbledon title is Borg's for the fifth straight year.
Borg falls to his knees on the Centre Court lawn with an expression of disbelief, relief and joy. The roar of the crowd rises all around Borg, serenading him. Moments later, after finally rising to his feet, Borg extends the Champion's Cup high in the air, relishing the glowing moment of victory. High in the stands is Borg's fiancée, Mariana Simionescu, waving wildly.
As McEnroe steps up to the Royal Box, he performs the customary and traditional bow, and the noise from the fans that have always booed him swells, louder and louder. He lowers his head, moved by the fans' response, holding back tears. He then looks up, turns and acknowledges Borg, who admiringly glances back, knowing they had just waged perhaps the greatest court battle in history.