Transformative Tennis: When the Game Grew Up

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Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and Grandmom. It's an easy "Who doesn't belong?” exercise, but a trio connected from my earliest memories of tennis, now more than 30 years distant. It’s a trio I remember every year — like this week — when the ATP Tour makes its annual visit to The Racquet Club of Memphis.

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My family spent three years in Southern California during my childhood, but my little sister and I would travel east for the summers, catching up on time lost with my maternal grandmother in Cleveland, Tennessee. Believe it or not, those summers made for a blissful, if dramatic, balance to the realm of Disneyland, beaches, and year-round pickup baseball I knew in Orange County. Best, of course, was the time we got to spend with Grandmom.

In the summer of 1980, Wimbledon caught my attention for the first time. Grandmom had cable television — which, at the time, meant 12 channels instead of three — so I was able to follow the build-up to what would be an epic championship match. Borg was the regal Swede, the personification of stoic grace, and aiming for a record fifth consecutive Wimbledon title. McEnroe was the crazy-haired, 21-year-old American prodigy, already a U.S. Open champ and dubbed “Super Brat” by the British tabloids for his on-court antics and language. (“You cannot be serious! You CANNOT be serious!!”) The contrast in personalities couldn’t be greater. NBC’s “Breakfast at Wimbledon” for the tournament’s final match may as well have been Ali-Frazier at Madison Square Garden.

My grandmother was an uncomfortable sports fan. By that I mean she would twist, flex, and groan as she watched a football game, her body language a mirror of what she saw on the field (or TV). She knew less about tennis than I did at age 11 but she took an interest in that 1980 Wimbledon showdown. She didn’t like McEnroe’s behavior, which made it easy for her to take a side ... but more agonizing for her to watch the two stars play.

And what a title match they played. McEnroe, in boxing terms, floored the champion in the first set, winning 6-1. Borg rebounded, though, and took the next two sets. In the fourth (most memorable) set, McEnroe fought off five match points and won a tiebreaker, 18-16, to force a decisive fifth set. The great Borg was too much, though, winning the finale 8-6 for that fifth straight title. When tennis historians debate the greatest matches ever played, the 1980 Wimbledon championship is always in the conversation. And I never hear one of those conversations without thinking of my grandmother. (She died in 1983.)

If you watch the match today (yes, I have a tape), the rackets look too small. (So do the shorts, for that matter.) Borg is so stoic after every point, without a hint of emotion, up or down, first set or fifth. Modern players, however reserved, will at least grimace now and then, or offer a fist-pump after a game-clinching winner. Not Borg. As for McEnroe, he was entirely on his game for this battle. He was smart enough to know that wasted emotional energy would cost him with Borg across the net. (The rivals returned to the finals in 1981 and McEnroe defeated the five-time champ in what would be Borg’s last match on Wimbledon’s center court.)

Often lost to those tennis historians is the fact that McEnroe won the U.S. National Indoor Championship at The Racquet Club of Memphis just four months before he faced Borg at Wimbledon. (Recently named one of the 25 “coolest” athletes of all time by GQ, Borg won the very first Memphis title, in 1977.) I interviewed McEnroe in 2006 for Memphis magazine, and asked him about his memories from 1980 in Memphis. “It’s a perfect example of a club atmosphere,” he told me, “an intimate setting where the fans are close to you, a place where they knew the tennis, but they were excited because it wasn’t there all the time.”

My grandmother and I were excited about tennis 31 years ago, in part because “it wasn’t there [in her living room] all the time.” As the likes of Andy Roddick, Fernando Verdasco, and Juan Martin del Potro slug it out this week for the Regions Morgan Keegan Championship, I’ll take some comfort in how such a relatively simple game — one built around the personalities of its stars — closes the gap between generations. My grandmother might find the reflective lighting and blue courts at The Racquet Club jarring at first. But she’d recognize a great tennis match if she saw it.

NOTE: A book on the Borg-McEnroe rivalry, Epic, is being published by Wiley in April.

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