You may not know this, but before he was the successful host of “The Chair” and the pitchman for some rental car company (Budget? Avis? I can’t remember,) John McEnroe was a tennis player. He was very good one, in fact. His rivalry with Bjorn Borg is one of the best in the history of sports. It all came to a head 30 years ago, in the finals of the US Open. Author Stephen Tignor is taking on the rivalry in his new book, “High Strung,” which hits stores this week.
He was kind enough to give us a few minutes. We talked about what made the rivalry so fierce, what brought it to an end and how it may have had an indirect impact on rock and roll history.
SCP: I don’t think there’s any doubt that the late 70’s and early 80’s was the most interesting period in the history of professional men’s tennis. How much was it the quality of play and how much was it simply because the sport happened to have a huge collection of really interesting personalities?
ST: There was great play, no doubt, but maybe more important there was unique play. It was a period of stylistic change and variety. Borg and Connors were two of the first players to use two-handed backhands, which is what virtually everyone uses now. But you also had the artistic serve and volley of John McEnroe, who may have been the closest the sport has ever seen to a raw genius on the court, and you had the touch and feel and balletic style of his fellow crazy man Ilie Nastase.
But none of that would have mattered nearly as much if hadn’t been for their outsized personalities. I think the rebellion and rambunctiousness of the 1960s finally hit the staid world of tennis in the 70s. Re-telling the stories in the book, I kept trying to imagine one of today’s top player engaging in any of the antics that these guys did. It was impossible.
SCP: There have been a number of great tennis rivalries over the years. But it seems like John McEnroe was involved in most of them. There was McEnroe/Borg, McEnroe/Connors, McEnroe/Lendl, McEnroe/Tatum O’Neal. Why him?
ST: McEnroe is, to put it mildly, a confrontational guy. He was a few years younger than Connors, so he felt a lot of pressure to catch up and pass him, and Jimmy didn’t want to let the kid beat him. Lefty and lefty, Irish and Irish, they were destined to butt heads. On the other hand, McEnroe was about the same age as Lendl, and he felt all along that Lendl had no talent, which only made him angrier when he surpassed him.
With Borg, it was different. Borg was the only guy who McEnroe played who he really respected, who he thought deserved to be on the same court with him.
So much so that he blew their 1980 Wimbledon final because he wasn’t sure he really had a right to end Borg’s long winning streak at Wimbledon
SCP: To me, McEnroe/Borg seems to have a lot of similarities to the Lakers/Celtics rivalry of the 1980’s, in that both were clashes of style and substance. Did the Tennis world have trouble picking sides?
ST: At the time, they didn’t have much trouble. Except for a few young punkish types in London, it was all Borg. McEnroe’s nickname was Superbrat, Borg’s had been the Teen Angel. Borg was (perceived as) the gentleman, McEnroe as the jerk. The silent Swede Borg had built a powerful mystique, bigger than any tennis player since, while McEnroe’s talent seemed to be the best part of him. Even the crowds at the U.S. Open were completely on Borg’s side.
SCP: Guys like Vitas Gerulaitis, Guillermo Vilas and Ilie Nastase seem to have faded from memory a bit over the years. Can you enlighten us a bit on what set them apart? Why do you think they lacked the staying power or Borg, McEnroe and Connors?
ST: Nastase had a McEnroe-like talent and touch. He should have won many Grand Slams, but his nerves got in the way. He had to act out, and it hurt his game. Gerulaitis was the proverbial nice guy, the friend to everyone who didn’t have the killer in him to beat those guys. He was best buddies with Borg, but lost all 16 times they played.
There was a new selfishness required in tennis once it went professional.
The old Australian-style camaraderie was out, and the players who could separate their games from their friendships, or, like Connors, just went their own way, were the most successful.
SCP: How did the rise of Ivan Lendl alter the tennis landscape? Did he pave the way for the dawn of a new age, with guys like Becker, Edberg, Sampras and Agassi following?
ST: Lendl was a major transitional figure. You can see the future in him in this book, when he plays at the 1981 U.S. Open. He was one of the first guys to use a bigger racquet, he was the first to attack from the baseline, he was the first to use serious fitness and nutrition techniques, and he had a healthy mercenary streak that would also define pro tennis. The U.S. Open that this book covers, won by McEnroe over Borg, was the last one of the 80s where Lendl didn’t make the final.
SCP: Where does Federer/Nadal rate on the list of all time rivalries?
ST: I think it’s No. 1. Borg and Mac were bigger characters and true opposites in every way, but they didn’t have the sustained number of tremendous matches, in various huge settings, that these two guys have had for the last six years.
SCP: There’s always been a rumor that, when David Lee Roth first left Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen wanted to hire John McEnroe’s wife, Patti Smyth, as the band’s new lead singer. What do you think of that?
ST: I’ve never heard that. Who did they get instead? Sammy “I can’t drive 55”? Maybe Patty would have been the better move.