Tennis: Opposites attract in old rivals' revival act

Click to follow
The Independent Online
John McEnroe defeated Bjorn Borg in the Honda Challenge at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday, 2-6, 6-3, 10-7. The tennis legends showed how entertaining play can be on the ATP Senior Tour and enjoyed themselves so much that they requested a re-match at Wimbledon.

It was not the pits, not even the orchestra pits. It was simply beautiful tennis performed in the splendid setting of the Royal Albert Hall as John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg escorted 3,472 devotees on a excursion to yesteryear.

Playing against each other in Britain for the first time since McEnroe ended Borg's five-year reign at Wimbledon in 1981, the pair gloried in an array of shots, classical and improvised.

The scenario, a duel of opposites in both technique and temperament, produced much that was expected - McEnroe's sublime left-handed touch play, Borg's breathtaking passing shots - plus one or two surprises. Not least of these was Borg's eagerness to approach the net and make confident volleys, a capacity unsuspected when the Swede ruled Wimbledon's lawns with top-spin from the baseline.

So unusual was the rhythm of the points in these days of explosive serving and pounding groundstrokes that some of the action appeared to be in slow motion. That was not merely due to the seniority of the protagonists but chiefly because of the enduring quality of their timing and anticipation. When it came to alacrity of movement, both men were equal to the demands more often than not, an indication of pride in performance and another sign of how perfectly matched are their games.

McEnroe, three years the younger at 38, won, 2-6, 6-3, 10-7 (a "champions tie-break", first to 10 points, is used on the senior tour in the event of the two sets being split). The very notion of a tie-break delighted the spectators, many of whom recalled the drama of the shoot-out at Wimbledon in the 1980 final, McEnroe edging the fourth set, 18-16, only to lose 8-6 in the fifth.

There is a risk of overcooking the romanticism of occasions such as yesterday's reunion of old warriors, a temptation to make an idyll of idols. Suffice to say that few present, while enthralled by what they saw, would underestimate the superiority of the current campaigners, headed by the splendid Pete Sampras, in terms of power and fitness. As for style, however, who could ask for more?

"I wish we were still out there playing," McEnroe said. "The tie-break is fine, but I wish we had played a third set. It felt too quick. We're not that old!''

There were moments, admittedly, when one began to suspect the happy coincidence of the two sets being shared, and McEnroe's reputation would be ruined if he failed to sound off at umpires and line judges. The New Yorker was warned for unsportsmanlike conduct (he belted a ball in the direction of a line judge).

McEnroe's eyes may have narrowed to match Borg's as soon as he realised that he had a Craven umpire (Kim Craven), and at times, the American admits, he does become a parody of himself. But even the element of pantomime was taken in the spirit of the occasion.

Borg even broke his silence after being foot-faulted during the tie-break to shout to McEnroe, "You get bad calls? You get bad calls sometimes?" McEnroe gave his opponent an old-fashioned look and said, "You've got to roll with the punches.''

The Swede even involved himself with some interplay with the crowd, blowing a kiss in response to the voluable support of a spectator in a gorilla mask waving a Swedish flag.

McEnroe and Borg are keen to extend their trip down memory lane to the lawns of Wimbledon, and mentioned the possibility of a special event on the hallowed lawns to Alan Mills, the All England Club's referee.

"I think it's a great idea," Mills said, "and I'm sure it will be discussed. Initially, the idea of staging some kind of special event on the Centre Court or No 1 Court will be put before the order of play committee and then go to the management committee.''

In keeping with the retrospective nature of yesterday's contest, McEnroe and Borg both received a presentation from the ATP Tour to mark the 25th anniversary of the ATP. They were awarded Waterford crystal trophies as players who have been among an elite group of 13 who have been the world No 1 since the computer rankings began in 1973.