History Sports

Borg & McEnroe

Did anyone watch the one-hour special on HBO revisiting the Borg/McEnroe rivalry?

The rivalry between McEnroe and Borg was something that most tennis enthusiasts embraced in the early eighties. I was hooked. I saw many of the matches that went to five sets, and it really, really mattered to me who won. Funny, I have never felt that way about any sporting event or team rivalry since. It was about more than rooting for the winning side. It was about rooting for a point of view, a way of life. Their styles, their motivation, their ethics were black and white, and we all took sides.

I was a Borg and Chrissie Evert girl. I wore only Fila & Ellesse clothing when I played, and I embraced the Chrissie Evert, Bjorn Borg way of staying in the back of the court and throwing out my left hand to balance the huge back swing and planted feet that ensured solid ground and strong placement of the ball just out of my opponent’s reach. I believed that grace, strength and intelligence were more important than flaring rage and fleeting motions that had no more than a fifty-fifty chance of being a brilliant winning shot. I believed that waiting for my opponent to err was the way to win the match. And it worked for me in my tennis club matches, which in my head, were really Wimbledon finals.

Watching the special, however, I realized that there was more to it than the tennis game. I disliked McEnroe. I disliked his antics, which I felt were the only thing that allowed him to rise above mediocrity, often at the expense of the honor of the game. I felt that his behavior was disrespectful to the game and opponent, and I felt it was an indicator that he wasn’t as good an athlete as people said he was. He often lost when he couldn’t reach down inside and find that fire, which was usually fed by his rage at some perceived line injustice.

I’m older now—more than thirty years older—and I know better now. I know that sometimes anger motivates me more than the pure desire to get it right. I understand John better after watching his life unfold and hearing him discuss those days in the special. I see that Borg burned out at age twenty-five because he never had the fire to win. It’s the classic question of the carrot or the stick; which is more motivating? The carrot—the Wimbledon trophy—or the stick: “To hell with everyone, I will show you and win Wimbledon!”

What I learned from watching this fabulous documentary is that I need to find the right combination of fire and ice, carrot and stick. The drive that burns within and the drive that looks through the window to see what can be attained.

Are you a Borg fan or a McEnroe? It’s important to know which, so you can feed it, and contain it, and own it, and most of all control it. And, I think trying to find a bit of both might just be a winning ticket. I thank both of them now for a rivalry that moved me so many years ago, and I thank HBO for the trip down Memory Lane that reminded me of it.