John Barrett: the 1980 final, Bjorn Borg v. John McEnroe

Looking back over my lifetime in tennis, as someone who played at Wimbledon 21 times, promoted the sport with Slazengers, spent four years as Davis Cup captain and 34years as part of BBC TV’s commentary team, the match that stands out in my mind has to be the Wimbledon Men's Singles final of 1980: Bjorn Borg v John McEnroe

This particular match captured the attention of all tennis fans and viewers all over the world. It had the crowd in absolute raptures throughout. What a magnificent contest it was!

The rivalry between the pair was the central theme of men’s tennis at the time and the contrast between them made it all the more fascinating. Borg, the imperturbable Swede, who they said had ice-blood in his veins, versus McEnroe, the vocal, argumentative American, who in his youth was seen as 'the brat, always arguing with officials and risking disqualification (a fate he eventually suffered in Australia in 1990) .

Borg, a right-hander, was the consummate baseline expert, though he could and certainly did volley very well indeed, especially in that match. His game was based on controlling affairs from the back of the court, using a heavily topped forehand and a dipping double-handed backhand that it was impossible to read. He was quick, determined and deadly with his passes and lobs.

McEnroe, a left-hander , played single handed on both sides and had the ultimate attacking game with a disguised serve that he could direct to either side with the same action, great speed about the court, wonderful anticipation and deadly volleys that were either punched for winners or deftly dropped to acute angles with gossamer touch.

This made for an intriguing contrast in both style and personality. In this final Borg was going for a fifth consecutive win at Wimbledon, a modern record. Two years earlier, in Stockholm, McEnroe had become the first player younger than the Swede to beat him. Borg realised that the gap between them was closing.

The final had everything. It started quietly with McEnroe taking the first set 6-1 with some marvelous serving and lethal volleying. Borg broke for the first time to take the second set 7-5. The third set fell to Borg 6-3 and they embarked upon a fourth set that would become one of the most famous in Wimbledon’s long history. At 4-4 on the McEnroe serve Borg ripped a crosscourt backhand return to break. Now 5-4 ahead he would serve for the match. At 40-15 it seemed to be all over. But wait. McEnroe was smiting a backhand return for a winner and then diving for a forehand volley that Borg could not reach. Deuce. Two more point to McEnroe and the crowd erupted. They were heading towards a tie-break. And what a tie-break it was.

For a full 20 minutes these two great athletes scurried and dived, lunged and leapt answering each other’s awkward questions by posing more difficult ones of their own. As the score mounted Borg had five more match points, McEnroe six set points. All were denied with some breath-taking shot making. At last, after three hours of play, McEnroe, 17-16 ahead, stood for the seventh time at set point. Borg, charging forward behind his serve saw his forehand volley fall into the net. They were level.

In the final set it was Borg’s service that saved him. Behind love-30 in the opening game, he recovered to hold for 1-0. Thereafter he lost just one more point in six service games as he wrapped up the match 8-6 with a crushing backhand winner that broke the American for the first time. It had been an absorbing 50 minute set that was a fitting climax to an unforgettable encounter. By the end I was as exhausted as the players.

After the match Dan Maskell and I met up with all our colleagues who had been involved in the broadcast. We animatedly discussed the drama of it all and reflected on the skill and courage that both men had displayed. It was one of those rare sporting occasions when we all felt privileged to have been part of it. .

The following year the great rivalry came to an end. McEnroe gained revenge in the 1981 final and took away Borg’s title. After five glorious years at the top Borg decided to retire.

I was fortunate to have known both players well for many years. Bjorn was one of our Slazenger players as a junior. I remember him winning the junior title at Wimbledon in 1972. That was quite a landmark victory for a base-liner. In the final he beat our very own Buster Mottram after trailing 2-5 the final set. We knew then that he was a remarkable match player.

After retiring from the Tour John became an excellent TV analyst and we worked together on several occasions for the BBC.

John Barrett

John's next book will be a new edition of his “Wimbledon – the Official History” last published in 2001. Completely re-designed, updated and augmented, it will be available in May 2013 from Vision Sports Publishing


Watch 8 minutes of that famous final, take yourself back to 1980 instantly

Memory added on June 20, 2012

1 Comment

I'd gone to a friend's wedding in Somerset and, after a beautiful Quaker ceremony, we all returned to the bride's family home for the reception. Although it was a beautiful day, gradually we all gravitated to the living room where we gathered round the TV to watch the final! A wonderful atmosphere, albeit a slightly unusual wedding reception! Lovely to hear Dan Maskell's voice again...

– Sue Lomax, November 2 2014 at 14:23

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