Rivalries make perfect fodder for sports fans. What better way to spend a few hours that debating the merits of the sporting world’s great gladiators?
Ali or Frazier? Chamberlain or Russell? UNC or Duke? This is the stuff of ESPN round-table discussions, sports bar fist fights and of course, literature.
When it comes to tennis, a few rivalries instantly pop to mind: Federer-Nadal, Sampras-Agassi and Navratilova-Evert. And John McEnroe had an entourage of nemeses, including Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Bjorn Borg.
It’s the McEnroe-Borg rivalry that Tennis magazine senior writer Stephen Tignor spotlights in his new book, High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry, due out next week by Harper.
As someone not quite old enough to remember the epic matches between Borg and McEnroe in the late 70s and early 80s, I was excited to receive an advanced copy of Tignor’s book. Unfortunately, the rivalry, at least on paper, comes off flatter than a Jimmy Connors forehand.
Tignor writes well and with a great knowledge of the game, and his look back at the golden era of tennis is filled with amusing anecdotes and enough nuggets of information (the history of the tiebreaker is particularly interesting) to satisfy avid tennis fans.
The problem is the depth of the McEnroe-Borg rivalry.
A great sports rivalry is defined by three components. First, longevity. Andre Agassi and Connors could have been a great rivalry. But age difference limited them to just two matches. On the other hand, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert played 80 times, 14 times in major finals.
Second, the quality of the competition. UNC and Clemson get together as often as UNC and Duke; but one matchup is a bit more lopsided than the other.
Finally, passion, or as Tignor’s book title suggests, fierceness. Sure, great rivalries are usually filled with mutual respect, but shouldn’t they also be marked (or marred) by some good ole fashioned animosity? Some mutual dislike, or at the very least, distaste? Jets vs. Patriots is shaping up to be a great NFL rivalry. The games are good; the vitriol is better.
I jumped into High Strung with high hopes. I knew McEnroe and Borg had played what’s been called the greatest match of all time—the 1980 Wimbledon final; but I knew less about the totality of their rivalry.
I was hoping for sparring matches between change-overs, finger-shaking at players' boxes and threats of physical harm with wooden rackets. Instead, Tignor offers us a prelude to Federer-Nadal: two great players who, unfortunately, got along just fine.
Considering how often and enthusiastically Tignor references Connors and the bad blood between him and McEnroe, I often was left with the feeling that the author realized he picked the wrong rivalry halfway through writing the book, but plowed ahead anyway with the stubbornness of Borg’s baseline game.
Tignor starts strong by highlighting the contrasting figures of Borg and McEnroe. The stoic Ice Borg, tennis’s first commercial poster boy (in 1979 he endorsed 39 products) who pioneered the baseline power game and was unbeatable in five-set matches; versus Superbrat McEnroe, equal parts talent and temper who sought to supplant Borg at the top—if only he could suppress his own demons.
They would meet at the 1980 Wimbledon final, Borg going for five straight, McEnroe looking to live up to his talent. The action is well-chronicled; Tignor takes us right to Centre Court for the epic fourth-set tiebreaker and the inevitable Borg victory.
More importantly, he gives us insight into the minds of each player: Borg felt a sense of relief, not in winning, but in knowing that he was just about ready to pass the torch; McEnroe was less disappointed than elated, and he left the All England Club with the confidence that he would soon be No. 1 in the world.
The problem then lies first in the fact that McEnroe, who didn’t seem to like anyone, really liked Borg. Tignor hints that McEnroe almost felt guilty during the 1980 Wimbledon final, that he wasn’t quite ready to eclipse the great Swede. For it was Borg who took McEnroe under his wing, who accepted his outbursts as part of a burgeoning, misunderstood talent.
McEnroe, known for his wild outbursts and tantrums, actually behaved well (by his standards) when he played Borg. Not exactly the stuff of fierce, High Strung tennis.
Second, the rivalry withered before it really got started. The Wimbledon final was their eighth match. They would meet just six more times, three in slam finals. McEnroe won all three, including the 1981 U.S. Open. Borg never played another major.
Thus, with insufficient rivalry material to work with (as compared to say, Agassi-Sampras, who played 34 times over 13 years), Tignor fills the books with tangential material—the history of the U.S. Open, background on how tennis became popular on television and recaps of the careers of players such as Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis and Illa Nastase.
It is in these moments that High Strung feels less like a rivalry examination and more like a homage to what was without doubt a great era of tennis. Fine, but let the reader know up front what they’re getting into. Stories of the 1981 U.S. Open—Connors trouncing John Lloyd in the first round and Lendl having a match postponed due to burning garbage—make for amusing reading.
But so many side dishes left this reader feeling that the steak just wasn’t thick enough to fill the plate.
High Strung then reads more like a compilation of stories (albeit very good ones) than a thorough documentation of a complex rivalry. It doesn’t measure up to its women’s game equivalent, The Rivals—Johnette Howard’s superb study of the Navratilova-Evert years; plus, it lacks the cultural punch of a Seabiscuit or The Greatest Game Ever Played.
Tignor may have been better served by focusing on one single match: the 1980 Wimbledon final. He could have delved much deeper into the upbringings of both Borg and McEnroe and the roads that led them to the defining match of their careers. As is, when this match ends early in the book, there isn’t much left for the stretch run.
High Strung feels like a book that should go five sets; but it peters out in three, leaving the reader to hope he has a ticket to the night session.
High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry
Author: Stephen Tignor
Format: Hardcover; 256 pages; $20.99. ISBN: 978-0-06-200984-5
Publication Date: May 17, 2011