Sunday, February 25, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 196 ( The rivalry which changed the face of Tennis: Borg Vs McEnroe)

Jottings - Slice of life - 196 ( The rivalry which changed the face of Tennis: Borg Vs McEnroe)
On a cold wintery afternoon, July 5th 1980, two men, so unlike each other in every aspect of their personality, upbringing and game, walked to the center court of Wimbledon grounds to play out the final match of most prestigious tournament on earth. It was to be a defining moment in the game of Tennis. The game, which had its origins in the leisurely lawns of the affluent, and blossomed into gentlemanly sport embracing qualities of restraint, politeness and leisure, had in the course of the twentieth century transformed itself into professional business.The facade of upper class conduct were slowly falling away, and men and women were beginning to play the game for the money it offered and the fame it bought. Yet Purists, still held on to old notions of the sport. Baseline rallies, long leisurely games, impeccable behavior on court, respect and dignity were still considered the cherished hallmarks of the game. Winning or loosing was secondary. That was about to change.
In mid 1970’s players of different temperament began to grace the game. The relaxed , laid back cadence of the sport was suddenly transformed into one of different styles and techniques. The rivalry between baseline game and serve and volley, between stoic grace and arrogant flamboyance, between strict discipline and nonchalant talent, between subdued passions and pent-up anger was reaching a crescendo, and the entire weight of this paradigm change took the shape and form of two of its greatest exponents - Bjorn Borg, the icy swede and John Patrick McEnroe, the American brat. In them, the discerning public saw two aspects of Tennis competing for glory. While the weight of tradition favored Borg for his measured aggression and grace on court; it was quite clear the McEnroe’s spontaneity, prodigious talent and tantrum couldn’t be ignored. The crowds loved Borg; they hated McEnroe. For twenty two matches preceding the 1980 Wimbledon finals, Borg was the undisputed favorite, and McEnroe the unruly intruder and the number of wins between the two were more or less equally divided. The stage was therefore set that day in July 1980 for the final confrontation to decide who is the better player. History was to be enacted. Before this tournament. Borg had won straight Wimbledon titles from 1976 - 1979 , and if he could defeat McEnroe, it would make it five, and establish a precedent that would forever change the course and game of tennis. Both men had vested interests in winning the tournament. In months leading to this momentous game, they had to grapple with their tortured selves, priorities, and more importantly reassess the role of tennis in their lives. As they grimly walked out to the court that evening, they knew a lot was at stake, and in some corner of their hearts, they understood this match was unlike any other. They didn’t disappoint on court. In the annals of tennis, those four and half hours of sublime tennis between the two still remain some of “the finest” moments of the sport ever played and recorded. Borg went on, as we know, to win his fifth title. The score line will say 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6. But numbers dont do justice to what happened on court that day.
Tennis at the highest level is a very lonely game. Unlike other sports, there is hardly any contact with ones opponent. Across 26 yards, you dont see the man, only the trajectory of the ball and a peripheral vision of where your adversary is. The rules of the game do not allow for coaches to sit on side lines to talk and encourage, and neither are players allowed to solicit any strategic help. All aggression and frustration is directed on the ball, and force of the racquet swing. Psychologically, there is no help on court at all. Every point won or lost is an existential crisis that one needs to be solved by oneself very quickly. And that is why tennis is so much a mental game, at the highest level. The player who can draw from deeper resources each time, point after point, is the champion. Physical endurance, technique, speed, force - all of them are subservient to mental equipment one carries into court. In that respect, Borg and McEnroe were diametrically different. Both had difficult childhoods. While Borg seethed with anger at lack of opportunities growing up in suburban Sweden, McEnroe had a lavish childhood with indifferent parents and misplaced priorities. While Borg learnt tennis with single focus to win each game; McEnroe flirted with the game and played to rebel. While Borg was tutored to control his emotions; McEnroe refused to be tamed and regaled in being the bad boy. While Borg could hit the tennis ball with icy consistency from the baseline; McEnroe was erratic, but could conjure a magical shot out of nowhere from the net. While Borg lived a disciplined life with maniacal resistance to change; McEnroe would party late night before an important match, and care less what he ate or wore. Each in his own way was grappling with inner demons, and tennis was their only salvation to be themselves.
Between themselves, there was no personal rivalry. As the 1980 Wimbledon approached, it was clear there were two different types of champions, and the crowd preferred one. The pressure on both was enormous. It was not so much tennis choking them, but expectations from family, coaches, media, fans and friends. Left to themselves, they would have continued playing the game the way they played it, regardless of winning or losing. But the 1980 finals had taken away that playful freedom. From a mere game, it had become a battle of wills, a battle of technique, and above all - a battle of perseverance and tenacity.
Borg walked into the game as clear favorite. But as the match progressed, a silence descended on center court. Something magical was happening. Borg was, as always, playing his trademark flawless best tennis, and McEnroe, strangely, subdued and hardly uttering a word of dissent or throwing a tantrum, was carving out moments of pure genius. The favorite was being pushed to the edge. The ice cool swede was witnessing something he hadn’t expected - McEnroe had transformed himself. It was McEnroe’s tennis, his uncanny grace across the court, his sublime touch that was speaking now, and not so much the man. After a grueling and fascinating fourth set tiebreak, that vacillated between sublime tennis and supreme athleticism, McEnroe levelrd the game 2 -2. It boiled down to the last set, and field was ripe with excitement and expectation.
The Borg serve has always been his weak point, and in the past opponents have often exploited that weakness. But throughout his career, his superior ground play more than compensated for lack of serve. In the final set then, when it was clear that McEnroe matched him stroke to stroke, strategy to strategy, Borg had to do something different; conjure a different trick. And that is always the mark of a genius -they quickly adapt and improvise. In that seminal fifth set, Borg lifted his first serve to unbelievable levels, hardly expected of him. He faulted only 6 out of 31 first serves, and each of those serves sliced the line raising chalk, making a return difficult, weak or impossible. McEnroe lifted his game too; but in the end, the stoic resilience of Borg had the better edge of the two. Pundits of the game would later comment that Borg served the best during the last set than they have ever seen him serve. McEnroe would acknowledge it was true. Such , as they say, is the stuff of genius.
The Borg - McEnroe rivalry is now a legend, repeated in modern era through Nadal-Federer battles. What was different then was Borg and McEnroe became close friends, God Father's to each other children and companions otherwise. The 1980 finals was a tipping point. A huge release to both players. Borg had achieved his life’s ambition of winning five wimbledons, and McEnroe had cast away his juvenile image and emerged as great player. Both of them came out of that crucible transformed. In 1981, McEnroe beat Borg in Wimbledon and ascended to top in world rankings , and in the same year Borg retired from Professional tennis.
Personally, for my brother and me, this match has poignant memories. Father was a member of the Coimbatore cosmopolitan club, and we saw this game live on small television installed in a big hall It was one of the first live telecasts of a grand slam tennis match final. Little did I realize, as a Kid, that I was witnessing something extraordinary. The only concrete memories I have of that day is the boyish charm of McEnroe and the stern demeanor of Borg on court, nothing else. Thirty seven years later, I relived the match as I watched the new Swedish movie “Borg vs McEnroe” during my recent flight from India. A great film, directed with sensitivity and thought. The fact that great sportsmen are as much human as all of us are, have the same insane emotional struggles, grappling painfully with day to day life and trying to rise above it, is bought out quite beautifully in the movie. I am convinced that the 1980 Wimbledon final irrevocably changed the game of tennis, and it many ways added flamboyance and excellence to the sport ; ripples of which still reverberate in the modern game.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,

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