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“McEnroe/Borg: Fire and Ice” is one of HBO’s “Legends and Legacies” summer documentaries. I watched it earlier this week and recommend it highly. It’s 60 minutes of interviews and matches worth watching; indeed, if you like tennis, it’s downright enjoyable.

Bjorn Borg is the stoic Swede who took the tennis world by storm as a teenager with Viking good looks and an even more stunning game. He won six Wimbledon tennis championships in a row and dominated tennis during ten years of sensational baseline tennis in the 1970s and early 1980s.

John McEnroe is the volatile New Yorker who took the tennis world by storm as a teenager with long frizzy hair and a frenetic energy that burst from both his racket and his mouth. He eventually ended Borg’s Wimbledon run and beat him in the U.S. Open final in exceptional serve and volley, yell-at-the-umpire (“You can’t be serious), incredible tennis.

Nothing surpasses Borg and McEnroe’s 1980 Wimbledon final on Centre Court at the All England Club. McEnroe saved 7 match points and finally won the 4th set tie-breaker 18-16 in what is yet today considered one of the game’s most riveting, indeed one of sport’s most spellbinding, events. Borg came back to win the decisive 5th set 8-6, and with that, the championship. They went on to split other matches, but Borg soon retired and McEnroe followed not long thereafter. Neither man won a major championship after the age of 25. Like Ali and Frazier, McEnroe and Borg needed one another.

Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry is compelling in part of course because of the highest level of tennis excellence they consistently drew out of each other, but also because of their friendship. As they both said in the documentary, they liked and respected each other from the beginning. Now they use the term “love.”

I watched nearly all their matches over five years including every point of the 1980 Wimbledon final. There’s not been another rivalry like them. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have produced some great matches, including especially the 2008 Wimbledon final. But they do not have the personalities of McEnroe and Borg and they have not made the same kind of impact upon the game, much less beyond it.

Watching “Fire and Ice” brought back a lot of memories. I was 28 in 1980, not too much older than the players. McEnroe and Borg’s antics, excellence, and accomplishments, their contrasting styles and personalities, their resolve and friendship were and are inspiring. Their head-to-head rivalry ranks with Palmer and Nicklaus. The fact they’ve survived various life and business foibles with their friendship flourishing represents what sports at their best are about.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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