From Bjorn Borg to Pete Sampras: Pivotal U.S. Open Finals
The U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York signifies the climax of the tennis season. At times careers are made or lost on the final Sunday of this popular sporting event.
Throughout the modern era in men's tennis, many have triumphed spurred on by the thunderous applause of biased New York crowds who remain loyal to the American boys—most of the time.
The U.S. Open is also popular for the tiebreak, which made its debut in Grand Slam tennis on the opening day of the 1970 U.S. Open.
Let us take a look at some of the most significant matches of the modern era that shaped careers and made New York the most exciting destination for players and fans alike.
1976 Final: Bjorn Borg vs. Jimmy Connors
20-year-old Bjorn Borg played Jimmy Connors in the finals of the U.S. Open.
The ice man, or “Is i magen” in Swedish, paced the baseline like a tiger ready to leap forward into the court at the slightest provocation.
The players battled on skimpy-looking green clay under the lights after beginning the match in the bright sunlight.
In 1976, Borg had won his first Wimbledon Championship after losing in the French Open quarterfinals to Italian Adriano Panatta, the only man who ever beat Borg at this event—twice.
It was the Swede’s first final in New York, and it was on clay. 1976 would be Borg’s best chance to win what would prove to be his most elusive final.
Connors, however, was aiming toward his fourth Grand Slam title and second U.S. Open title. Since 1974, Connors was clearly struggling to quiet his critics who touted that the American could no longer win the big tournaments, especially the majors.
In 1974, the American triumphed at three of four majors—all except the French. In 1975 Connors made it to all of the major finals except the French, losing them all. To date in 1976 Connors had added no major trophies to his mantle. Connors had something to prove.
They stayed even in the beginning. By the time the third set got underway, each man had a set in his pocket. As usual, the match teetered on the brink during the third set.
With each man holding six games in his bag, the third set went into a tiebreak which also evolved to 6-6.
After coming back from the edge of defeat, saving four set points in the thrilling tiebreak, Connors secured the third set at 11-9.
1976 Final: Bjorn Borg vs. Jimmy Connors, Continued
Playing with new confidence while the Swede sagged in disappointment, the American Connors broke the Borg serve in the fifth game of the fourth set.
Serving for the match in the fourth set at 5-4, Connors sent it wide to Borg’s backhand.
Borg sent the ball back, gaining needed real estate, winning the point. This sent the game to deuce. At the second match point, Connors sent his second shot long. Back to deuce.
The third match point for Connors was successful again, wide to the Borg backhand.
The loss ended a 19 match winning streak for Borg, whose stony demeanor on court was becoming legendary.
Connors blasted the media after his win in typical fiery fashion. Life was good for the American, winning the U.S. Open in 1976 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (11-9), 6-4.
To view some highlights of this match click here.
1980 Final: Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe
In 1980 Bjorn Borg, the winner of the greatest match ever at Wimbledon against John Patrick McEnroe, found himself again in a final against the pesky American upstart.
If Borg could win the 1980 U.S. Open, having already captured the French Open in the spring, he would be only one step away from a calender year slam.
All Borg would have to do is bounce on down to Australia in December and win there on grass.
It would mark Borg’s third final, his third try to capture the U.S. Open title which was now played on a synthetic surface after a short stint on clay. New Yorkers referred to it as “cement.”
John McEnroe came in as the defending champion and was prime to upset Borg in New York City in front of his hometown people. There had not been a repeat winner since Neale Fraser of Australia had done so in 1959-1960.
McEnroe was also suffering because he had endured a tough four-and-a-half hour semifinal against Jimmy Connors the day before. In fact it was a mere 20 hours before stepping on court for this final.
You can recover quickly when you are 21.
Borg served abysmally throughout the match—getting a mere 49 percent of first serves in and double-faulting nine times in the match. Yet the Wimbledon champion fought hard making the best of second serve opportunities.
The inability to serve well caused Borg to work harder than even the Swedish workhorse was accustomed.
1980 Final: Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe, continued
Running on adrenaline McEnroe took the first set 7-6 and then capitalized on Borg’s disappointment to sweep away the second set 6-1.
Borg fought back in the third set, breaking McEnroe in the seventh game.
The American broke back and the third set went to a tiebreak. Borg went down fast 1-3 but battled to even it and then win the tiebreak 7-5. He trailed two sets to one.
The two combatants were both tiring in the fourth but it was McEnroe who found that his legs had turned to rubber.
It took Borg, however, until the 12th game of set four to break McEnroe with a couple of service return winners on two McEnroe second serves.
Once again, the two found themselves in a fifth set. McEnroe had a sinking feeling heading into the fifth, recalling how Borg rebounded at Wimbledon in the final set. But McEnroe summoned all his reserves and stayed even with Borg.
The American finally broke the Swede in the seventh game and held onto his serve to secure the title.
It was a major disappointment for the Swede. It was his third loss in New York City’s biggest tennis tournament. He fought back from two sets down with a serve that decided to take a hiatus during the final to level the match, only to blink first in the fifth, 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4.
The Swede would try one more time next year.
Take a look at this match in this clip by clicking here.
1981 Final: Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe
What a difference a year makes. In 1981 Bjorn Borg would play his final match at the U.S. Open before essentially walking away from professional tennis.
His opponent in New York that year was John McEnroe, the same man who defeated Borg as he was going for his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title earlier that summer.
After chasing Borg for years, McEnroe took the Wimbledon trophy from the man who had owned Centre Court. It was a devastating loss for the Swede, who’d grown accustomed to the pomp and circumstance of the All-England Club.
Borg had to defeat the usual suspects to make it into the final at Flushing Meadows: Roscoe Tanner in the quarterfinals and Jimmy Connors in the semis. The last man he really wanted to see across the net during the final stood there, John McEnroe.
Usually the matches between these two were small skirmishes where one came out on top for the moment. The feeling remained that the war was ongoing and no one had won or lost yet. But the final in 1981 painted Borg as a loser that day.
After losing the first set, McEnroe came back to dominate and truly overwhelmed the Swede. Borg could not sustain continually skirting the painted boundaries with pinpoint shots up the line and cross court, requiring unending depth and precision.
McEnroe came back to win the second set fairly easily. Things looked like they would get very interesting in the third set when Borg broke McEnroe’s serve. McEnroe, however broke back, going on to secure the third set.
1981 Final: Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe, Continued
At his fans' urging, Borg began another comeback in the fourth set, breaking the American’s serve to retaliate for his own break by McEnroe. Now trailing 3-2, Borg needed to hold on to level the set at 3-3.
Normally, Borg would have accomplished that feat with his eyes closed. But not that day.
McEnroe broke and went up 4-2 as Borg committed four errors in one game. Hardly typical behavior for the Swede. Borg managed to hold onto his serve one more time, barely.
McEnroe closed out the match, seizing his third consecutive U.S. Open Championship 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.
Borg, suffering with death threats and defeat, did not stick around even for the trophy award ceremony. John McEnroe had dethroned the king. Borg would never return.
To see the action unfold click here.
1988 Final: Mats Wilander vs. Ivan Lendl
In 1988 Ivan Lendl was the No. 1 ranked player in the world. He was looking to win his fourth consecutive U.S. Open final. The man who would replace him as No. 1 after the 1988 U.S. Open stood across the net from the Czech: Swede Mats Wilander.
The two had also played in the 1987 U.S. Open final in a marathon match that lasted four hours and 47 minutes which Lendl finally won in four sets, 6-7, 6-0, 7-6, 6-4.
The matches between Lendl and Wilander were cat and mouse strategy sessions as these two baseliners played, waiting patiently to capitalize on a short ball or an ill-timed return. Their matches always seemed to take hours.
Wilander understood from the outset what it would take to defeat his arch rival. There could be no loose points or rash reactions. Everything depended on consistency and control.
Luckily, there was no one more equal to the task on this day than Mats Wilander, who had waited his whole career for this moment.
Playing the odds, Wilander finally scored a break point in the eighth game of the first set, going up 30-40, but Lendl converted the next point and they arrived at deuce. Under pressure, Lendl served it out and they were even at 4-4.
Wilander then held serve to go up 5-4. Lendl stepped up to the plate, delivering three aces to go up 40-15. He nodded in approval and some relief flashed over his stern features. But then he double-faulted and watched in disgust as Wilander nailed an overhead to take it to deuce.
When Lendl hit a backhand into the net, Wilander got his first set point. On the next point, Wilander sent his backhand wide.
At deuce again, Lendl sent a backhand into the net to give Wilander another set point, and this time the Swede capitalized by rushing the net and forcing Lendl to hit a backhand long.
Wilander took the first set in 61 minutes.
1988 Final: Mats Wilander vs. Ivan Lendl, continued
In the second set, Lendl continued to misfire on his backhand. It cost him dearly as he lost his serve in the second game. Errors mounted on the Czech's side of the ledger. Finally Wilander went up 4-1 after saving five break points on his own serve.
When the chair umpire gave Wilander a warning for taking too much time before serving at 30-all in the seventh game, the Swede lost his concentration and promptly lost his serve. In fact, Wilander only won four more points and Lendl grabbed the second set 6-4.
In the third set, once again Wilander broke Lendl's serve in the second game on his way to securing another 4-1 advantage. This time, however, the Swede maintained his steely hold on the match and his own serve and seized the third set, 6-3.
The fourth set appeared to be heading for a tie break when Wilander unexpectedly broke the Czech's serve in game number seven. The big man had simply collapsed hitting back to back forehand errors. Wilander went up 4-3, but was unable to capitalize on his advantage.
Lendl broke back, leveling the set at 4-4. With Lendl up 6-5, Wilander fell behind 15-40 on his serve. Lendl wasted his first set point by powering a forehand into the net. But on the second set point, Lendl lunged and planted a forehand right on the line.
There had not been a fifth set at the U.S. Open since the Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe final of 1980. Wilander promptly broke Lendl's serve in the opening game, eventually securing a 2-0 lead in the final set after saving two break points on his own serve.
The Czech was not finished, however, and won the next three games to go up 3-2. They were back on serve. Wilander's break came in the seventh game when his constant presence at the net forced Lendl to spray his passing shots wide of the mark.
On break point, Wilander ripped a forehand winner down the line. Wilander came to the net 131 times during the match, winning 58 percent of those forays. By contrast, Lendl ventured into the net 77 times.
The end was nigh: Wilander served it out, saving two break points. The final point came when Lendl hit a backhand into the net. Mats Wilander won the U.S. Open 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 in the longest match in U.S. Open history, lasting four hours and 54 minutes, or almost an hour per set.
In the finest year of his career, Mats Wilander became the No. 1 player in the world after winning this U.S. Open title. He won three of the four majors in 1988. This victory propelled him into the history books.
For highlights from the match in 1988 click here.
1990 Final: Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi
In 1990 Pete Sampras became the youngest man ever to win the U.S. Open at age 19 years and 28 days. The man he defeated was compatriot Andre Agassi, whose serve came immediately under fire by the aggressive return game of the younger American.
Even though Agassi produced 77 percent first-serve efficiency, Sampras swatted his serves back like he was hitting ping pong balls. The serve was an area of his game that Agassi would seek to improve in the coming years.
It was a coming out party for Sampras and an absolute dismissal for Agassi in prime time, leaving the man from Las Vegas with no place to hide. Even Agassi’s dismantling of defending champion Boris Becker in the semifinals could not make him feel better about the magnitude of his defeat by Sampras in the final.
Agassi was the star in the making, the one with all the flash in his lime-colored attire and his playboy lifestyle. But in New York on that Sunday, Sampras was the one who left with the crown and all the accolades.
Pistol Pete, as he came to be known, let his racket do all of his talking as it punished Agassi with rocket serves consistently in excess of 120 mph, allowing the young man from Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, to win points on 92 percent of his first serves and supplying him with 13 aces.
Agassi never broke the Sampras serve. In fact, Agassi only held three break points against Sampras in the entire match.
The final score was 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 as Sampras played a dream match. This was the first Slam victory for Sampras and would mark the first of his five U.S. Open titles.
Both men would go on to reign on courts around the world for years to come but their competitive career began at this final in New York in 1990.
To see a piece of tennis history click here.
2002 Final: Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi
13 years after winning his first slam at the U.S. Open over Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras returned to Flushing Meadows for his final slam appearance, leaving it all where he began at the U.S. Open again fighting for the title against countryman Agassi.
With the press harassing him, questioning his ability to win and will to compete, and conjecturing about his retirement, Sampras answered all of his critics by winning the title over quality opposition.
Sampras defeated Agassi without the same definitive stamp he exerted in 1990, but winning was all that mattered to the 31-year-old Sampras.
He and Agassi had met on the field of combat 33 times in their storied rivalry, which made this final all the more memorable because most organizers and most media outlets rejoiced when these two American champions met in a final.
That they should meet in this final contest made it that much more special. It marked their third appearance contesting for the U.S. Open championship. Sampras won all three.
Often seeming to shuffle to the side of the court, Pistol Pete, seeded No. 17 for the event, revived his serve long enough to propel him through the match. He polished up his forehand to make it shine one more time at Louis Armstrong and volleyed with precision.
To watch the last moments of this remarkable tennis rivalry click here.