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The “fire and ice” rivalry between Borg and McEnroe led to tennis’s greatest matches

 (Photo by Steve Powell/Allsport/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steve Powell/Allsport/Getty Images)

The new film Borg vs. McEnroe is based on the rivalry between two of the greatest tennis players ever, Björn Borg and John McEnroe. It is indeed a rivalry that deserves to be onscreen since the matches between the two players are considered some of the best in the history of tennis. They played against each other 22 times in total with each player winning 11 matches. They met four times at major championships–McEnroe won three.

The rivalry between the two tennis players is commonly known as “Fire and Ice” due to their opposite personalities. The Swede was known to be calm, cold, and somewhat emotionless compared to his hot-headed American rival. The duo met for the first time in 1978, when they played against each other in a semifinal of the Stockholm Open, when McEnroe beat Borg. And that was the start of a three-year-long heated rivalry between the two, followed and remembered by all tennis fans around the world.

When Björn Borg was 13 years old, he was beating every tennis player under the age of 18 in Sweden. He was devoted to the sport, athletically talented, very fast, and had a strong endurance for play. Borg was also recognizable for his unique bowlegged appearance. By the time he was 15, Sweden couldn’t imagine a better player to represent the country in the 1972 Davis Cup, where Borg won against the tennis veteran Onny Parun. And the year wasn’t over yet. At aged 16, he went on to win the junior singles at Wimbledon, and then the Orange Bowl Junior Championship for boys. In 1973, Borg turned pro and was ranked No. 18 by the end of the year.

John McEnroe at the 2012 French Open –Author: Pruneau – CC BY-SA 3.0
John McEnroe at the 2012 French Open –Author: Pruneau – CC BY-SA 3.0

Although he lost his first singles final against Ilie Năstase at the 1972 Monte Carlo Open, Borg defeated the Romanian top-seeded champion at the Italian Open in 1974, just before his 18th birthday, making him the youngest winner of the tournament. That year Borg won the singles at the French Open and continued to rack up the victories in the following years. In total, he won 11 Grand Slams, including five consecutive Wimbledon competitions, which made him the first man with that number of victories during the Open Era. Borg also has 15 Grand Prix Super Series titles and three year-end championships.

On the other side was John McEnroe, whose career moved more steadily. He started competing at regional and national juniors tournaments and was ranked No. 7 in his age group. When he was 12, McEnroe enrolled in the Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island. In 1977, aged 18, McEnroe was still an amateur when he won the mixed doubles at the French Open with Mary Carillo. He also qualified for Wimbledon, where he lost to Jimmy Connors in the semifinals. However, his performance was recorded as the best by a qualifier at a Grand Slam tournament.

McEnroe turned pro in 1978. That was the year of his second Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, where he was defeated in the semifinals once again by Connors (to whom Borg lost in the finals), and the year when he first played against Borg at the Stockholm Open. By the end of that year, McEnroe was ranked No. 4. He also earned a fiery reputation and was known to argue with umpires. “When he was just 20, he was nicknamed ‘Superbrat’ by the outrageous British tabloids in 1979,” wrote ESPN Classic.

Björn Borg (11 Major singles titles, world No.1 for 109 weeks; pictured in 1991) Author: : C ThomasCC BY 2.0
Björn Borg (11 Major singles titles, world No.1 for 109 weeks; pictured in 1991) Author: : C ThomasCC BY 2.0

Nonetheless, 1979 was a great, intense one for both players. Borg managed to reach the top of the ranking, defeating Connors, and met six times with McEnroe–in four semifinals and three finals. McEnroe won two of those semifinals in New Orleans and at the Stockholm Open and defeated Borg by four sets at the prestigious WTC Finals. Borg, on the other hand, won the semifinals at the WTC in Richmond and the Masters in New York, and the finals in Rotterdam and Toronto.

John McEnroe at the 1979 ABN Tennis Tournament Author Anefo / Croes, R.C. – Nationaal ArchiefCC BY-SA 3.0 nl
John McEnroe at the 1979 ABN Tennis Tournament Author Anefo / Croes, R.C. – Nationaal Archief
CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

They met four times in 1980, during which Borg won three times at the Stockholm Open, the Masters in New York, which was the first title that he won in New York, and the most pivotal, five-set encounter: the Wimbledon Men’s Final. This was the fifth Wimbledon won by Borg, but the nail-biting match with McEnroe is often cited as the best Wimbledon final ever played. The epic match’s only comparison is to the 2008 final between Nadal and Federer.

Bjorn borg_1987 Author: Roland Gerrits / Anefo  CC BY-SA 3.0
Bjorn borg_1987 Author: Roland Gerrits / Anefo  CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1981, the rivals met three more times in the finals at U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and Milan, all won by McEnroe. In total, each of them won 11 matches, so it can’t be said who the overall winner is. And while McEnroe continued playing, eventually becoming one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport, Borg retired at the age of 26, most likely because of the pressure and constant attention he was under since his early teens.

Read another story from us: “Battle of the Sexes” portrays Billie Jean King’s tennis triumph, but there was heartache in her life as well

They’ve both seen the movie Borg vs. McEnroe and reportedly weren’t satisfied with its accuracy.  It appears to be much more of a fictional depiction rather than a biographical movie based on their rivalry and personalities.

Today, they are still active in the sport as captains:  Borg as captain of Team Europe and McEnroe of Team World.

Tijana Radeska

Tijana Radeska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News