McEnroe's tennis artistry deflates rivalry with Borg
It's beginning to look as though the stormy New Yorker John McEnroe owns the United States Open Men's tennis championship the way Bjorn Borg once had a lock on the Wimbledon crown.
By brushing aside Borg 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 with unexpected ease in the final, McEnroe made it three in a row, thus monopolizing the men's competition more thoroughly than anyone since Bill Tilden secured six consecutive titles beginning in 1920.
The victory temporarily knocked the wind out of one of tennis's greatest rivalries, one characterized by lengthy back and forth matches in big tournaments. The two clearly are the modern giants of the court, and their confrontations on opposite sides of a net have supercharged public interest in the game.
After McEnroe ended Borg's five-year reign at Wimbledon, Bjorn made no secret of the fact that his chief priority was to break his personal futility barrier at the Open, where he has now come up empty in 10 runs at the title.
The pressure, McEnroe felt, should have been on him, what with his No. 1 world-ranking, Wimbledon crown, five-set victory over Borg at last year's Open, and chance to enter the record books. But, to John's surprise, Borg assumed a lot of it.
"He put so much pressure on himself to win this, if he didn't it was like he had a lousy year," McEnroe observed in his post-match interview. "I don't think it was necessarily the right thing for him to keep stating that this was the one he wanted, since it was obvious. It just seemed like he didn't play his game."
After a fast start, Borg's play indeed became oddly listless, giving no hint of one of his patented comebacks. Any potential drama evaporated, leaving the 18,000-plus crowd at the National Tennis Center feeling unfulfilled.
Borg didn't help unravel the mystery of his collapse by making a quick exit, which saw him bypass the traditional award ceremony and mass interview. A threat made on his life the day before obviously had made him security conscious , but whether it weighed on him in the final was not known. (A second threat, which Borg presumably was unaware of, came while the final was in progress.)
Certainly Borg gave every indication of peaking on the eve of the final, overpowering third-seeded Jimmy Connors in straight sets to advance into the championship. Borg's serve was never more devastating than it was against Connors, who was aced 14 times.
With the "beware of serve" sign out, McEnroe discarded Jimmy's strategy of fighting fire with fire, and concentrated on getting the ball back and changing the pace. Once the ball had been returned, John could start drawing on his rich arsenal of power and touch shots, which kept Borg off guard throughout most of the match.
"I don't think he was really sure of what he wanted to do," McEnroe said of Bjorn's seeming indecision. Out of sync, he would come to the net and get passed or stay back only to have McEnroe angle crisp volleys beyond his reach.
No paint-by-number player, John was applying his free-flowing brush strokes to another masterpiece of a match. In all, he broke Borg's serve seven times.
Though the crowds, even in New York, have never warmed to McEnroe because of his testy court behavior, they are not blind to his artistry. His instincts and technical mastery are beautifully blended in a way that even awes the old masters.
Bill Talbert, a star of the 1940s and '50s, and now the Open's tournament director, is especially impressed with how McEnroe uses the whole court. "He knows how to come his opponent around to open up the court," he says. "I go back to Ellsworth Vines and Fred Perry [US champions of the '30s] but I've never seen a player as complete as this kid."
His only real weakness, if it can be called that, is on clay, where the slower surface requires tremendous patience to win and neutralizes all-court players like the left-hander from Douglaston, New York.
He's yet to win the world's major clay court title, the French Open, but feels he has never seriously prepared for it. "The French hasn't been at the top of my list," he says.
Whether or not he ever applies himself to improving on clay, his record makes him this year's undisputable king of the realm.
Of the 15 tournaments he's played, he's won nine, and beaten Borg all three times they've met during the 1981 campaign -- in Milan, at Wimbledon, and here at the Open.
McEnroe obviously enjoys playing; otherwise why would he also play doubles, which few of the top players do? (He and Peter Fleming, the Open's top-seeded team, won here when Heinz Gunthardt and Peter McNamara were forced to default.) But though John may inwardly find pleasure in playing, he gives the appearance of finding the game a chore, and matches something to be survived.
"I was brought up to be very serious," he says. "I enjoy the competition, but the way I was raised, I feel if I joked around, did things that are pleasing to the crowd, maybe I wouldn't do as well. Why change a winning formula?"
Some have felt that the formula demands controversy, which is almost a given at any McEnroe match. He denies intentional attempts to stir things up, yet his run-in's with umpires and officials are legend.
At the Open, he avoided fines, but became engaged in a dispute with CBS over the network's use of courtside microphones. He considers them an intrusion, the way they pick up private remarks and make them "sound 10 times louder than they really are." During his five-set semifinal victory over fellow New Yorker Vitas Gerulaitis, he even smacked the mike with his racquet, breaking a string.
Asked what he thought of the hometown crowd rooting more vigorously for Borg, John replied, "It hurts, but I'm accustomed to it."
If three US titles won't get the fans on his side, what does he think will?
"For me to lose a couple of times," the champ shot back, obviously aware of his status as the greatest anti-hero the game has ever produced.