Golden Era of the '80s: Tennis Soars in Popularity

JA AllenSenior Writer IOctober 16, 2009

It was the best of times, tennis in the '80s, when the thrill of tense tiebreaks entered everyman’s domicile, highlighted by exotic locales like Paris, Melbourne, London, and New York.

The decade also ushered in exciting yet exasperating players whose on-court conduct thrilled, engaged, and enraged fans across the globe.

The '80s energized the popularity base, taking tennis out of country clubs and landed estates into public parks and arenas. It became a sport, in contrast to an amenable pastime.

The arrival of tennis on the world stage and its subsequent impact during the '80s and beyond is the subject of this article series, inspired and conceived by Rajat Jain.

J.A. Allen will write about how the '80s immensely helped in the popularization of the game. Leroy Watson will follow by discussing how tennis has changed since the '80s, and Clarabella Bevis will conclude the series discussing the role of media during the era.

Setting the Stage

On the men’s side of the game, after years of haggling over sponsorships and professional contracts the struggling players finally formed a union of their own that allowed them to be free agents.

At last players selected their own tournaments and guided their own destinies. Although there were some lingering entanglements, anxieties, and even resentments, male tennis players of the '80s could finally pour their energies into playing tennis, striving to win the Grand Slams and becoming world ranked No. 1!

Professional tennis for women does not have as extensive a history of controversy as the men’s game provides, but it was equally as fractious during the Open era, finally resolving itself into the formation of the WTA in 1973.

The elimination of the division of labor between amateurs and professionals allowed the best men and women to play tennis at all of the big events. It opened the game wide up and participation soared to new heights in the '80s.

The bigger the names, the bigger the games, and even more to the point, the larger the demand—televised coverage of the Grand Slams became a staple. And not just the finals but extended coverage of matches leading up to the finals.

It was a perfect storm of exposure, enthusiasm, and artistry, because the '80s opened up the floodgates and just look at who came pouring through...

The Men

The No. 1-ranked men’s player in 1980 was Bjorn Borg, who had been playing tennis since the age of 14. He was renowned for stunning good looks, long blond hair and mythical mystique. Borg alone brought hundreds of young men flocking to play the game because the Swede was a babe magnet, to use the '80s' vernacular, and they aspired to follow in his footsteps.

Borg was more physically fit than the tennis players of previous generations, and this factor was one of his main contributions to the men’s game in the '80s and beyond.

Borg’s main competitor was No. 2-ranked John McEnroe. Borg and McEnroe’s tightly contested matches drew huge crowds, record-breaking numbers of television viewers, and an unending demand for more.

McEnroe’s outrageous behavior, his serve, and his volley game laid waste to the staid and steady traditions of the past, blasted into orbit by McEnroe and his American contemporaries. The tennis world did not quite know how they felt about the red-faced, hot tempered—but extremely talented—American.

Borg won his fifth consecutive Wimbledon Championship in 1980 but lost the U.S. Open again. He won the French Open for the sixth time in 1981 but lost both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Seemingly invincible, Borg burned bright then dimmed out completely in 1981, leaving the game shrouded in that same mystique that cloaked him throughout his career.

McEnroe reigned atop the tennis world in 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984, holding the No. 1 ranking during each of these years. After Borg’s departure, McEnroe’s main competition came from the equally explosive and volatile Jimmy Connors, who had a dominating two-handed backhand, a blistering return of serve, and a willingness to die before giving in.

But there was a new brand of tennis being introduced and a new No. 1 being groomed—Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia. Lendl ushered in the era of power tennis that still survives today, utilizing heavy topspin and reliance on pure strength and accuracy—which is possible now with new racket technology.

His running forehand allowed him the choice of going down the line or cross-court. In that respect, his game was comparable to Borg, and like Borg, the Czech was physically fit. It took Lendl some time to grow into his game and achieve success, but once he won that first major by defeating the serve-and-volleyer John McEnroe at the French Open in 1984, Lendl never looked back.

Lendl was the No. 1 player in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1989. His only interruption came at the hand of Mats Wilander, who knocked him off his perch temporarily in 1988.

Following in McEnroe’s shoes were other serve-and-volleyers who generally made their mark at Wimbledon, a tournament Lendl could never win—nor any of the tournaments on hard courts. Serve-and-volley players never fared well on red clay.

Boris Becker won Wimbledon at age 17 in 1985 as an unseeded player with his Boom-Boom serve, net play, and heavy forehand. His reign at No. 1 was measured in weeks, as Becker always sat just behind Lendl in the rankings.

In addition to Becker, Swede Stefan Edberg was ranked No. 1 in the early '90s. Breaking into the top 10 in 1985, Edberg had the most beautiful-to-behold serve-and-volley game accelerated by an impeccable kick serve.

The roll call for serve-and-volley players who graced the grass in the '80s when their game reigned supreme extends to include Pat Cash and Henri Leconte. There were other gifted athletes like Yannick Noah, whose pure athleticism set them apart.

Basically, the '80s were divided ito baseliners—headed by Lendl and Wilander—and serve-and-volleyers, led early by McEnroe, and later by Becker and Edberg. The game was changing because of the equipment evolved, and players were becoming more physically fit, stronger, and more imposing.

On the horizon, the baseliners saw new Americans emerging—Andre Agassi and Michael Chang. The '90s would see the emergence of perhaps the best serve-and-volley player of all time, Pete Sampras, who had been paying attention to the fortunes of players like Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, and thought he would give their game a whirl...

The Ladies

The '80s, dominated by Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf saw the rise of newcomer Monica Seles blow the lid off their carefully constructed game as the '90s rolled into view.

To equate them to their male counterparts: Chris Evert dominated on clay like Borg with a carefully crafted and extremely accurate game. She was rigorously fit and quietly determined with an iron will equal to ice-man Borg’s on any given day.

Evert won 18 Grand Slam singles titles on all surfaces, but was most proficient on clay where she won a record 125 consecutive matches on the surface. One imagines that, had Borg extended his playing life, his record on clay might have equalled the “Ice Maiden’s.”

Martina Navratalova’s rise equalled John McEnroe’s with her prowess as a serve-and-volley player. Once Navratilova became fully fit and adopted a graphite racket, the former Czech player became perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game, man or woman.

Her battles with Evert were as monumental in their way as the Borg-McEnroe matches—except the ladies' matches went on for years. Navratilova dominated on grass, winning nine Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon.

Like McEnroe, Navratalova also had a superior doubles game and won 31 Grand Slam doubles titles. Navratalova was the No. 1-ranked player from 1982-1986.

Her reign at the top was interrupted when a 17-year-old German named Steffi Graf appeared on the scene. Much like Ivan Lendl’s appearance, Graf’s game focused on power, countering the effectiveness of the serve and volley play.

Graf had an amazing inside-out forehand that became her weapon of choice as well as tremendous foot-speed. Her serve, angles, and mental strength combined to make her one of the greatest athletes ever to play the game of tennis, winning 22 Grand Slam singles titles—the most of any man or woman except Margaret Court, who won 24.

As Graf rose to No. 1 in 1987, 1988, and 1989, Navratilova fell to No. 2. Graf remained the No. 1-ranked player for 377 weeks by the WTA, the longest of any player—man or woman—since tennis professionals began ranking players.

As the '80s began to fade, a new player from Yugoslavia named Monica Seles brought new firepower and aggression to the women’s game. Change was becoming the order of the day.

On the men’s side, along with Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, newcomers Jim Courier and Pete Sampras were beginning their new tennis careers aided by fantastic new technology and unlimited boundaries.

In the '80s, because of increased television coverage, new technology, exciting and controversial players, and unending opportunities, tennis exploded in popularity.

The era ended as serve-and-volley play began its inevitable death march and power tennis began to dominate...Stay tuned as Leroy discusses how tennis continued to change in the '90s and beyond.


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