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The year was 1984, and John McEnroe was enjoying the peak of his powers on the tennis court. McEnroe would end the year with an 82-3 win-loss record.
In 1984, McEnroe made it to the final of the French Open to face the Czech Ivan Lendl.
Ivan Lendl, who was 24 years old in 1984, had never won a major. When McEnroe and Lendl met in the finals of the French Open in June of 1984, McEnroe was the prohibitive favorite, having in essence assembled a perfect season to date.
In fact, McEnroe had not lost a match in 1984.
Lendl was down two sets––apparently receiving last rites––when McEnroe began to unravel. The turning point of the match came in the third set. McEnroe was becoming increasingly agitated by a camera man whose headset was emitting noise that apparently disturbed the quick-tempered American.
When the score stood at 1-1 with an advantage over Lendl of 0-30, McEnroe walked over to the camera man and shouted something into his headset. With McEnroe’s concentration broken, Lendl escaped.
Lendl, in the meantime, had found his game. The Czech's ground strokes were growing menacing plus Lendl began lobbing effectively when McEnroe crowded the net. McEnroe’s game grew steadily weaker as Lendl’s grew stronger. The seesaw third set finally went to Lendl, 6-4.
Lendl was in the best shape of his life. He found renewed energy in the fourth and fifth sets while McEnroe struggled.
The French crowd was fully engaged and fully behind Lendl, the underdog. They chanted his name and cheered wildly when points fell his way.
All of this was getting on McEnroe’s frayed nerves. But the world's No. 1 player never quit while battling mightily in the last set.
In the sixth game of the fifth set, McEnroe held break points against Lendl, but he could not convert. Lendl’s power surged after this, as McEnroe faded quickly. McEnroe fell to 15-40 on his own serve at 5-6. Match points were now against him.
The American saved one match point but then shoved a volley wide, and Lendl won the match. It marked the biggest collapse in the history of the tournament to date, with Lendl winning the last set 7-5.
The match lasted four hours and eight minutes. McEnroe declined to address the crowd, who had been so vocal in their support of Lendl, and his escape was accompanied by a chorus of boos.
The red clay of Paris had buried another American alive.
The match was a turning point for Lendl, who had no trouble after this victory winning the big matches.
The monkey was officially off his back. Lendl would become a real thorn in the side of McEnroe for the rest of his career.