Brian Viner: Racket of today drowns out slow brilliance of Borg

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The Independent Online

It is 28 years to the day since Bjorn Borg beat John McEnroe in what is surely still the most thrilling of all Wimbledon men's singles finals. Roger Federer's defeat of Rafael Nadal last year was a doozy, and the first time Federer had been taken to a fifth set in a Grand Slam final, but he completed that set in relative comfort, 6-2.

On Saturday 5 July 1980, by contrast, Borg won the deciding set 8-6, having yielded the 22-minute fourth-set tie-break 18-16, winning on his eighth match point fully one hour and 17 minutes after holding his first. The match lasted just under four hours and those of us who weren't there will never forget it. Dan Maskell, bless his soul, commentating for the BBC, very nearly burst his superlatives.

Watch that match now, though, and it seems almost pedestrian. Rallies unfolded at a downright leisurely pace, only gradually building up to a conclusive, point-winning burst of energy. And Borg, by comparison with the body-builders playing the game today, looked as though a sharp gust of wind might snap him in half. As for McEnroe, despite his reputation as the hottest of hotheads, on not one of the seven match points he denied Borg did he emit so much as a gargle of emotion, let alone anything like the primeval roars unleashed by Andy Murray in his fourth-round comeback – how long ago that now seems – against Richard Gasquet on Monday.

Emotions were much more contained in the players' box, too, 28 Wimbledons ago. Borg's girlfriend, Mariana Simionescu, simply looked sick with anxiety, indeed there was a moment during the epic tie-break when she seemed on the verge of vomiting into the lap of the man alongside her, the stony-faced coach Lennart Bergelin. The tennis Wags these days are much more camera-savvy, and they have much better orthodontistry. Murray's girl, Kim Sears, could plainly feel the eyes of a nation upon her on Monday and Wednesday; there was no chance of her looking ready to puke – she just adjusted the radiance of her lovely smile.

In 1980, though, the winds of change were already beginning to swirl around Centre Court. For example, there would be only one more men's singles title won with a wooden racket – when McEnroe came back the following year and put an end to the five-year era of Borg – and after that it was over to the graphite, titanium and fibreglass weapons of match destruction. Five years later, in 1986, white balls went the way of wooden rackets. Who ever sees white tennis balls now? They have disappeared from our lives as emphatically yet mysteriously as white dog poo.

Borg and McEnroe, however, are still very much with us. McEnroe has taken Maskell's place as a fixture in the Centre Court commentary box, which in 1980 would have seemed about as likely as Martin McGuinness sitting at Stormont as Northern Ireland's deputy first minister. McEnroe is universally regarded as one of the BBC's great sporting assets, too, although for my money – currently £139.50 if we assume it to be the value of a colour licence-fee – I wish he'd shut up a bit more during points. Borg, meanwhile, popped up during a rain delay earlier in the week to tell the corporation's new trainee, Tim Henman, that he hoped Federer would break the record they share of five consecutive titles, which was jolly generous of him.

Borg, of course, also won six French Open titles. Moreover, he won at both Wimbledon and Roland Garros in three consecutive summers. Winning Wimbledon weeks after winning in Paris is a feat nobody else but Rod Laver has achieved in the open era, and Laver only managed it once. Federer still hasn't won the French. It is his misfortune to reach the summit of men's tennis with the clay-court titan Nadal having planted a flag on a peak just below, spoiling the view. So, although Borg never won either the US or Australian Opens, which Federer has, is there not a pretty strong case for the Swede, not the Swiss, being acclaimed as the most dominant player of the last 40 years? After all, Borg won 11 of the 27 Grand Slam singles championships he entered, while Federer has won 11 from 33 (that lightweight Pete Sampras finished with a feeble ratio of 14 from 51).

Statistics can be bandied about all day, but comparisons between eras, while enjoyable, are almost entirely pointless. We felt thoroughly blessed, 28 years ago today, to be living in the age of Borg and McEnroe, and now we feel similarly blessed to be living in the age of Federer and Nadal. That is as far as it should go. In the meantime if, like me, you feel an urge to take a look at the 1980 final, do yourself a favour and speed it up.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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