Bjorn Borg – John McEnroe: the Sport’s most Iconic Rivalry


It is called “the most glamourous episode in the history of sport”. Sport in general. Not just tennis. They are Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Ice and Fire. Swedish and American. Class and irreverence. Legends. 1980.

The physical aspect in every sport has been transformed and tennis is no exception. World records are beaten every year and many athletes in their thirties make history: Cristiano Ronaldo, 31, is the world’s best footballer; Roger Federer, 35, won the first three more important tennis tournaments in 2017; LeBron James, 32, took Cavaliers to another Playoffs final; Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps still face no competition in their specialties.

This leads to epic rivalries, lived year after year, as a matter of “who you support” and “who you are” for the most avid fans. For instance, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal already shared a tennis court for fifty (!) times – and many more are to come. The following rivalries with more matches played are between the same Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, 46, and, of course, the one that defines what tennis is, between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, 37.

However, in almost four years, from late 1978 until 1981, tennis met its first real characters. The first big rivalry, in the open era, that defined the beginning of outstanding consecutive matchups. There were fourteen matches in less than four years.

Bjorn Borg, the personification of the Nordic, was the first tennis player to earn more than one million dollars in prize money in a single season. Long story short, Borg won five times the French Open and the Wimbledon, winning both tournaments in three seasons. Despite being the very best tennis player for years, Borg was not only a clay court specialist, but a gentleman on court. If tennis is known as a classy sport, Borg was the perfect example of how a tennis player should behave.

John McEnroe, on the other side, you know. “Are you serious?!”. The most irreverent, the one every referee was afraid of, the one every kid should not know nothing about. Broken rackets and offensive words were common in their matches, but no one can doubt about his quality. Winner of seven Grand Slams, shared courts with such big legends as Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl… beyond Bjorn Borg.

They faced each other in fourteen occasions with the head-to-head ending tied up at seven-seven. Borg’s success, which was huge, made him retire early, at the age of 26. Some say it was due to the inability to deal with the pressure, but Borg never shared the throne of tennis with anyone but McEnroe.

One of the most epic matches in tennis history was played in 1980, at Wimbledon’s Centre Court. The public’s favourite Borg against the ugly son McEnroe – who was booed as soon as entered the court due to his behaviour in the semi-final clash against Jimmy Connors. The contrast of game styles and personalities, magnified by the off-court friendship between both. McEnroe won the first set, but Borg took a toilet break and came back to win the second and third sets. However, it was just the beginning. The fourth set of this match is a set every tennis fan knows about. McEnroe saved seven match points in that set and eventually won the tie-breaker by eighteen to sixteen. That tie-breaker took over twenty minutes! Later, Borg admitted this was one of the worst moments of his tennis career. But if this seems to be enough to take down any athlete, let me remember you it is about Bjorn Borg we are talking about. Losing that fourth set, where one point out of seven had been enough to get his fifth Wimbledon title, did not affect the Swedish confidence. Two minutes to start the fifth set and Borg was focused on what matters, as always was. With only one serve break, Borg got the final victory, winning 8-6 in the last set.

McEnroe was still twenty-one and this was the last time Borg defeated him. In fact, they both played Wimbledon’s final in the following year – as well as 1980 and 1981 US Open finals – where the American redeemed himself.

These two tennis legends did not face each other for more times as Borg retired at the age of twenty-six. Fortunately, later this year, in September, there will be a movie covering this epic Wimbledon final and their off-court life, which seems very promising for every tennis – and sport – fan.

You can watch a 25-minute summary of their so known epic battle at Wimbledon here: