Tennis: The Garden and the Brat

My first visit inside the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’s iconic centre court was indeed memorable. Instead of paying close attention to the  action, I found myself reminiscing over famous Wimbledon centre court battles of yore. A catalyst for this was the presence in the BBC commentary box of a certain brash New Yorker sporting an unkempt Steelo pad-like hair-do. I couldn’t take my eyes off this famously bad-tempered and outrageously talented leftie who was (and still is) my numero uno sporting idol. John McEnroe.

As a young glamour by the name of Kournikova accounted for (bundled out in annoying tennis parlance) German Anke Huber, I recalled McEnroe’s often unreadable serve, delivered with his back almost facing his opponent. I got a warm feeling remembering the sweetness of his groundstrokes. I recalled the abbreviated forehand and backhand waves of his Dunlop Max 200G wand, waves that were designed to incrementally unravel his opponent’s balance, court position and timing. I remembered the signature drop volley, played with sublime wrists and in a manner never replicated since. Were there ever better hands in sport? Aaahh, how I loved John Patrick McEnroe and the skill set he brought to the table. He mesmerised. He beguiled. And he entertained.

As Kournikova headed towards an unexpected victory at SW19, I recalled, almost point for point, the 1980 epic tie-break between McEnroe and his arch-nemesis Borg. Nearly every point was decided by a clean winner. Borg executed his winners with his new Donnay Pro racquet. McEnroe had his trusty Dunlop racquet. Both racquets were wooden. The description “wooden” could hardly be levelled at the players wielding those racquets.

McEnroe ultimately prevailed in the tie-break 18-16 to take the 1980 final to a fifth set. To my eternal disappointment, and to the considerable delight of teenage girls around the planet, Borg put McEnroe away 8-6 in the decider. It was Borg’s fifth (and last) Wimbledon crown. It was also the second best tennis match I’ve watched on TV. Nadal’s triumph over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final superseded the 1980 classic.

Borg held aloft the trophy with the inscription “The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion of the World” each year from 1976 to 1980. His reign started by beating the favoured ‘Nasty’ Nastase in 1976 and finished by overcoming the anti-establishment ‘Superbrat’ in 1980. In between he defeated two other US lefties, gunslinger James Scott Connors (twice) and the man who served with no ball toss, Roscoe Tanner.

On Friday 26 February, I’ll be visiting another famous sporting venue, Madison Square Garden. Coincidentally, The Garden is in McEnroe’s home patch. I’ll be at The Garden, not for tennis or ice hockey unfortunately, but for a Knicks v Grizzlies NBA basketball clash. I know jack about NBA basketball and even less about the two protagonists. Is Ewing still playing for the Knicks? Grizzlies in Memphis? Still, I’m looking forward to it.

Two days before I take up my nose-bleed seat, I find myself reliving another famous Borg v McEnroe stoush. This one occurred at the 1981 Volvo Grand Prix Masters tournament at Madison Square Garden.

In a sense, this contest followed a familiar script. Borg won the first set 6-4. The second set went to a tie-break. At 3-3 in the tie-break, the almost always unflappable Borg hit a forehand past the net-raiding McEnroe. The linesman called the point in Borg’s favour. The umpire, however, overruled the call, giving McEnroe a vital 4-3 lead. Borg couldn’t cop it. He argued and argued, with the umpire firstly, and then, just as vehemently, with the tournament supervisor. He received not one, but two point penalties for disputing the line call. Each point penalty was awarded for about 90 seconds worth of blueing. McEnroe, loitering at his baseline, was in shock. So was the sell-out Garden crowd of 19,000. The punters went collectively ballistic. Borg had acted like a commuter who had been nabbed by those Metlink nobs without a valid ticket. After a roughly five minute stand-off, McEnroe closed out the second set 7-6 (7-3).

The drama did not end there. In, I think, the first game of the deciding set, McEnroe was aced. The serve was called a fault. Both players thought it landed in. At the next available opportunity, McEnroe whacked a Borg serve deliberately into the stands to forfeit the point.

Who would have thought that Borg would throw teddy out of the cot? Who would have thought that McEnroe would deliberately forfeit a point in the pursuit of fair play?

I read somewhere that McEnroe did it because he was fearful that Borg, such was his anger, was going to forfeit the match. The Garden crowd gave McEnroe a standing ovation for his sense of fair play. The irony!

The Boston Globe’s Bud Collins wrote of Borg’s lost temper: “It seemed as likely as the statue of the same name in Columbus Circle leaping and screaming that the world was flat after all.”

Why did Borg lose it? Was it the cauldron that is Madison Square Garden? I know that he found it difficult to win in New York.

I look forward to experiencing Madison Square Garden’s atmosphere and will probably end up reminiscing about Ali and Smokin’ Joe while I’m watching the basketball.

Comments

  1. pauldaffey says:

    Flynny,

    This is writing of the highest order, reminiscences as sweet as a McEnroe drop shot.

    McEnroe’s gesture towards Borg was one of those things that made tennis a colourful, nuanced sport in those days.

    Am I right in saying that Borg retired soon after the New York blow-up?

  2. Flynnie (or is it Flynny) – never been to Madison Square Garden but reading this made me want to go there.

    Ali and Smokin’ Joe – now that was some fight!

  3. Peter Flynn says:

    Cheers Daff,

    Only as good as the editor.

    Borg won the 1979 and 1980 Masters tournaments at Madison Square Garden (carpet surface).

    His achilles heel however was the hardcourt at the US Open. Three times (1978,79,80) he went to New York having snared both the Wimbledon and the French titles only to fall short, twice in finals (Connors and McEnroe). In those days, the Aussie Open was the fourth leg of the Grand Slam.

    Borg’s wheelnuts were first loosened by McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final. They were loosened further in the 1981 Wimbledon final when McEnroe finally asserted his superiority on grass.

    Later in the year of Borg’s MSG blow-up, Borg played McEnroe in the US Open final. He outplayed McEnroe in the first set but then the end came for Borg. And it came quickly. McEnroe wiped him in 4 sets.

    From what I understand, Borg lost the will, the mojo and the self-belief. McEnroe had destroyed him.

    That was the last time they faced each other in official tournament play.

    He retired in 1982. My understanding is that McEnroe asked him to reconsider on a few occasions.

    He missed his greatest adversary.

  4. Peter Flynn says:

    Either way Dips is fine.

    Can’t wait to visit MSG.

  5. Super piece Peter and highlights why tennis has become stale in some respects: lost touch/skills due to the modern game style and sterile, robotic personalities (especially with Safin having retired last year).

    Memphis are a young team on the way up. Watch out for Rudy Gay, who can seriously dunk. Also a young guard called OJ Mayo who can really play. They just lost to a full strength Lakers team by 1.

    New York on the other hand are rubbish and have been clearing out salary space to make a push for some big names over the summer (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade). Although they do have Nate Robinson who is the 5’7″ slam dunk champion. He provides energy to his team like no other.

    Ewing is now an assistant coach at Orlando Magic.

    Madison Square Garden will be super – organs, big gulps, friday night in the city that never sleeps and of course, as always, disaffected Knicks fans who have had waited too long for too little.

  6. Peter Flynn says:

    Ross,

    Superb.

    Thanks for the basketball info.

    Cheers,

    Peter

  7. Actually Ross, Nate Robinson got traded to the Celtics last week, but Tracy McGrady is now a Knick. Nate Robinson has a 110cm vertical leap, 8cm higher than Nick Naitanui!

  8. pauldaffey says:

    Nick Nate?

  9. Thanks Adam – wow! Shows that i need to check my NBA site more often! Imagine AFL players swapping teams midseason!

    Anyone who likes dunks should check out Nate on youtube. Insane.

    Last year Nate won the slam dunk contest, beating ‘Superman’ Dwight Howard (who is 7 foot tall and had won the dunk contest in 2008, cape and all). Now given the yanks love theatre and a good narrative and all that, Robinson reclaimed his title from ‘Superman’ dressed in character as KRYPTO-NATE!!!!

    Sorry Peter that you will miss him – T Mac is still a great player, albeit a bit washed up. But it will be worth it if Rudy Gay gets a monster dunk or two.

  10. Excellent recall, Sneaky Pete. BTW, did the croquet produce an equally thrilling finale at the All England in 1980?

  11. Peter Flynn says:

    Corka,

    As ever, very amusing.

    I don’t have an answer to your question. This pains me!

    Cheers mate,

    Flynny

    PS Madison Square Garden was fantastic. The organist was brilliant and I came away thinking that the Knicks are the Richmond of the NBA. If I get a chance, I’ll expand on this.

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