Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
I was 11 years old when Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe played their legendary 18-16 tiebreak in the fourth set of the 1980 Wimbledon final.
McEnroe denied Borg five match points in the historic breaker before prevailing, only to lose the fifth set and the championship, 8-6.
I watched every point in the living room of my parents’ home in Crugers, N.Y.
Though I had no idea I would one day become a professional sportswriter, I was preternaturally drawn to the significance of the match and the history the two rivals were forging.
Indeed, my attraction to moments like those is a big reason why I became a sportswriter.
A huge McEnroe fan, I cut out The New York Times clippings every time McEnroe beat Borg or Connors or another rival and stapled them to my bedroom wall.
During local tournaments, I served-and-volleyed and threw my racket in disgust when I made a mistake — just like Johnny Mac.
More than 30 years later, HBO has produced a tremendous documentary on the rivalry, “McEnroe/Borg: Fire and Ice,” to be shown Saturday at 10 p.m. on HBO.
I was fortunate enough to watch a screening of the film Tuesday night in Manhattan. McEnroe, his wife Patty Smyth, his parents, John Sr. and Kay, and several of his children were in attendance, along with a few notable tennis executives and journalists.
“It was great. It was incredible to sort of go through that,” McEnroe, 52, told the assembled crowd after watching the film for the first time.
McEnroe called Borg Monday on his 55th birthday to check in and said he would call back today with a favorable review on the film.
“I’m quite happy and proud to say that I’m going to report back to him and tell him that this was absolutely awesome,” McEnroe said.
The McEnroe-Borg rivalry is right up there with Ali and Frazier and Bird and Magic.
Yet it lasted just 14 matches over a four-year span, with each man winning seven times.
Consider that Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi played 34 times (Sampras led 20-14) over a 14-year rivalry.
And Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have already played 25 times (Nadal leads 17-8) across a glorious run now in its eighth year.
Still, Borg and McEnroe seemed born to become foils for the other.
Born in Södertälje, Sweden in 1956, Borg began playing tennis at a young age and spent hours hitting balls against a garage door near his home.
“My parents never pushed me. I just wanted to play tennis,” Borg said in the film.
As pictures of a young Borg flashed across the screen, he said that when he was 11, “I had it my mind to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world.”
As a youngster, Borg was suspended from his local club for six months after an emotional outburst.
When he returned to the court, he vowed never to speak or show emotion on the tennis court again.
In one clip he is asked by reporters if he has any emotions about returning to play a tournament in Sweden.
“No, no emotions at all.”
Known for his icy cool and tremendous work ethic, Borg became the first rock star of tennis with his long blond locks and trademark headband. Teenage girls screamed his name and chased him around tennis tournaments.
“He was like this blonde Viking god,” McEnroe recalled in the movie. “I wanted to be just like him.”
A brash and talented serve-and-volleyer out of Douglaston, Queens, McEnroe tried to imitate Borg by growing his hair out and wearing a headband. But it didn’t quite have the same effect.
“I didn’t look like Bjorn; I looked like Bozo the Clown.” McEnroe said in the film.
The two men played their first match in the semifinals of Stockholm in 1978, with McEnroe shocking the No. 1 player in the world in straight sets. He partied late into the night with friend and doubles partner Peter Fleming, realizing only then that he hadn’t yet won the tournament.
After Fleming departed home to the U.S., he was surprised to read that McEnroe had beaten Tim Gullickson in straight sets in the final. That was the essence of McEnroe’s talent, Fleming said, that he could celebrate late into the night and still come up with the goods in the final.
When McEnroe and Borg met a second time in New Orleans in 1979, their relationship turned forever.
McEnroe was in prime form berating a line judge when Borg told him to come to the net.
“Oh my God, he’s going to tell me I’m the biggest ass who ever lived,” McEnroe recalled.
Instead, Borg said: “Listen, this is a game. Relax, take it easy.”
Unsure if the Swede was playing mind games or legitimately trying to help him, McEnroe was perplexed at first.
But he did relax and won the match.
And their friendship was forever forged.
Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles before suddenly and mysteriously walking off prior to the trophy presentation at the 1981 U.S. Open (won by McEnroe), never to play another major again.
He was 25.
Without Borg as his foil, McEnroe struggled for a period to find motivation.
He won Wimbledon twice more and the Open once after Borg retired at 26, but he, too, never won another major after the age of 25.
“Rafael Nadal is 25 right now, so I don’t know what to think about that, what he’s going to keep doing,” McEnroe told the crowd.
Nadal won his 10th Grand Slam title on Sunday, beating Federer in four sets for his sixth French Open title, tying Borg’s all-time record.
Federer, 29, has won a record 16 Slams.
McEnroe expressed some regret that he wasn’t able to continue playing at a high level into his mid- and late-20s like Federer and Nadal.
“I’m sort of upset at myself that I care more about how good a shape I’m in now than I was back then,” he said. “That was a pretty bonehead move.”
Though their rivalry lasted only four years — and four Slam finals — it will forever be remembered as one of the most special of any sport.
“There may have been other great ones,” tennis historian Bud Collins told The Wall Street Journal, “but for sheer talent, epic clashes and an almost absurd contrast in styles and personalities, nothing equals McEnroe and Borg. If you brought their story to a movie studio, they’d say, ‘Who’s gonna believe this?'”
Luckily for those of us who lived through it, there will always be the shared memories.
**Federer-Nadal dominance over? Not so fast, Mac says
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.