It seems evident now that whoever finally dethrones Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon, if anyone ever does, will need a dagger. Nothing less will do. Surely not a mere tennis racket, even in the hands of a determined man with an assassin's instincts for survival.
John McEnroe, the second-best player in the world, tried it all today. He used the racket as a weapon in almost every imaginable way, and still couldn't deny Borg his fifth successive title in the oldest and grandest of tournaments.
After nearly four hours of blood and guts that built to an unbearable pitch of tension, Borg won, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6. It was the longest Wimbledon final since 1954, and, given the circumstances, certainly one of the most thrilling tennis matches ever played.
McEnroe attacked Borg with lefthanded serves full of menace, with volleys that cut like a switchblade, with diabolical chips and slices and lobs and some ground strokes that seemed shot from cannons.
He fought like the U.S. Open champion and hungry, 21-year-old scrapper that he is. He refused to quit. He saved two match points when Borg served at 5-4, 40-15 in the fourth set, and five more in an excruciatingly combative tie breaker that lasted 22 minutes 34 agonizing points, leaving 15,000 incredulous spectators at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club gasping for breath and emotionally spent.
But even the crushing disappointment of those missed opportunities, the visions of paradise lost that flashed through his mind after losing that tie breaker, 18 points to 16, could not break Borg's spirit. They made him play better and better and better.
In the fifth set, the remarkable 24-year-old Swede lost only three points on serve, winning 28 of 29 from 0-30 in the first game. By his own estimation, this was the best set he has ever played in terms of his own serve. e
Twice in that fifth set, as the drama built, McEnroe dug out of 0-40 holes with some splendid serving of his own. He staved off four break points at 0-1, and three more at 3-4, raising his own game to Olympian hieghts when Borg seemed on the verge of finally putting him away.
Each time McEnroe escaped the anxiety grew at Centre Court. How many chances could Borg afford to let get away without inviting disaster? How long could he maintain his intensity and the sublime level of play on his serve? Wasn't this McEnroe, would-be assassin, all the more dangerous having so many times dictated his own reprieve?
There was a palpable sense of these questions building in the collective mind of the crowd.Even Borg had fleeting doubts. Maybe this was not meant to be his day. Perhaps it was not destined after all that he should become the first man since Lawrie Doherty at the turn of the century (1902-06) to win the Wimbledon singles five years running.
The uncertainty became almost too much to stand. At least one onlooker was overheard to say, and probably thousands of more were thinking to themselves: "Please God, let it finish one way or the other. I can't keep from going to the bathroom any longer."
Finally, after 3 hours 53 minutes, this dramatic masterpiece of a match ended in perhaps the only way it could -- with Borg holding onto the trophy with both hands, and refusing to let go.
With McEnroe facing his eighth break point of the set, his eighth match point, at 6-7, 15-40, he went for a good first serve to the forehand. Borg returned it. McEnroe drilled a fine first volley wide to the backhand, and Borg ripped a cross-court passing shot that bit into the grass, a foot inside the sideline.
With that shot -- a flat-out winner off an uncompromising challenge that so perfectly epitomized the best stages of this epic -- all the emotion that Borg suppresses when he plays welled up and overwhelmed him.
He dropped to his knees, clasped his hands in a prayful gesture of relief and thanks and arched his back so far that his long hair brushed the court.
His face, stubbly with the beard he superstitiously cultivates during every major championship, was a portrait of exultation as he looked quickly up to the competitors' guest box. There Mariana Simionescu, who will marry Borg on July 23, burst into tears of joy, and Lennart Bergelin, the coach and confidant who is usually as stolid as Borg himself, allowed himself a happy little smile that spoke volumes.
Borg got up quickly, and ran to the net -- not to hammer another of the volleys he had hit with increasing authority as the match went on, but to shake hands with a valiant loser.
There was real warmth in that handshake. It was a touching moment. For once McEnroe -- the often temperamental perfectionist whose self-critical outbursts inspire dislike in audiences -- looked as if he were willing to acknowledge the superior play of an adversary. He patted Borg on the back, mumbled congratulations, then went to his courtside, chair and buried his face in his hands for a few moments of soulful reflection.
It was a full minute before the cheers and applause subsided enough for the umpire to announce the final score.
Quickly green carpets were laid on the turf, leading from the royal box. The linesmen in their blue blazers congregated along the net, and the ball boys in their green-and-mauve uniforms (the All England Club colors) lined up on either side of the carpet. The Duke and Duchess of Kent slowly made their way down from the box, through this human aisle to a round table, draped in a Union Jack, where the golden trophy sat.
When Borg was called forward to receive it for the fifth year in a row, the grand old Centre Court, which has seen so many classics -- but perhaps never one as scintillating as this -- erupted again in deafening applause. Borg held the cup aloft, and kissed it.
Then out came McEnroe, to receive the silver medal of the runner-up.He had been booed when he walked out to start the match four hours ealier, an almost unheard of admonishment from the British crowd that disapproved of the churlish behavior on both sides of the net during McEnroe's street brawl semifinal victory over Jimmy Connors on Friday.
But now all was forgiven. The bad boy was cheered. He had redeemed himself and behaved impecably in his first singles final in the cathedral of tennis. The ovation he received in defeat may have been greater than any he will ever get in victory.
And why not? He may never be involved in a more gripping match, even if he goes on and eventually succeeds Borg as the World's No. 1 player, as many have predicted.
Most of the first two sets gave little hint of the grandeur that was to follow, because for 18 games Borg was tentative. He didn't look comfortable in his newfound serve-and-volley game, blocking his volley instead of drilling them. He was not returning McEnroe's serves -- a succession of snakes and sizzlers -- well enough to get a single point, and always looked on the defensive, as if this was his day to be had.
McEnroe lost only 13 points in his first nine service games. On a full third of the points he served, to that stage, Borg didn't get his return over the net. The match was 75 minutes old before Borg showed any signs of being in it.
But then, with McEnroe serving at 5-6, Borg started to play as if he owned Centre Courte -- which, of course, he has for five years. At 15-0, McEnroe netted a drop volley. Borg saw his chance. Swaying and pawing the court as he waited to receive serve, 10 feet behind the baseline he started gunning his topspin returns, and broke for the set with a blistering backhand return winner down the line.
At 4-2 in the third set, Borg held serve from 0-40, saving five break points in a 20-point game. Some of the points defied belief. On one break point, for instance, McEnroe rifled two backhands at Borg's midsection, and he volleyed them back in a manner that suggested he could catch speeding bullets in his hands, and throw them back faster than they came.
McEnroe was getting frustrated, flailing at divots with his rackets, but he started to serve better again. Up to 4-3 in the fourth set, he put 15 of 17 first serves in court, some of them wicked in their pace, spin and angle.
He put in six of eight first serves at 4-4, but Borg broke him anyway. On the second break point, McEnroe hit a wide first serve that kicked chalk at the juncture of the serve and side-lines, but Borg somehow reached out, seemingly into the front row of seats and cracked a backhand cross-court return that McEnroe could only deflect with a desperate, lunging volley.
And so, Borg was serving for the match, and quickly ahead, 40-15. McEnroe mis-hit a backhand return of a deep serve, and the crowd started to hail the five-time champion. . . . But it was a premature exclamation. The serve was a fault.
Here McEnroe reached down to his toenails and played four straight great points -- a backhand down-the-line pass,a forehand volley off a weak Borg volley, a sliced backhand approach that Borg netted and a blazing backhand cross-court return winner off a first serve.
Borg, suddently crestfallen and scared, went back to receive, head down. McEnroe, on the other side of the net, clenched his fist, raised his arm, and let out a war whoop. He was still in the match, and he went back and won four straight points on his serve to 6-5 -- two of them aces, one of these on a second serve.
Borg held at love, too, and into the tie breaker they went. Who could have known what a giddy-roller-coaster ride that would be?
The first eight points went with serve. Borg got ahead, 5-4, with a brilliant backhand cross-court that forced a volley error. McEnroe got back to 5-5 with a backhand cross-court winner. And they were just warming up.
Borg got to match point again at 6-5, and McEnroe missed his first serve. Borg ran around and blasted a forehand return, but McEnroe somehow made a stretching forehand volley for a winner.
Borg got to match point again, hit a good serve and first volley down the middle, but McEnroe's backhand down the line sent him diving vainly for a backhand volley. Having just ticked the ball, he landed on his shoulder and rolled over twice, practically doing a cartwheel.
Pumped up, McEnroe clubbed a backhand pass, and now he was at set point for the first time. He hit a good first serve deep to the backhand, but the return left McEnroe diving futilely for a volley this time. The racket flew out of his hand and he landed on his nose in the turf.
For a moment, McEnroe lay there, motionless on the court. It was a wonderful tableau, symbolic of this tie breaker. Every point was played flat-out, winner after winner, and astoundly it went on . . . and on . . . and on.
In all, Borg had five match points, on his own serve at 11-10. McEnroe had seven set points. They had to change ends five times.
After 22 minutes, Borg hit a good first serve at 16-17, but tried a too-cute forehand drop volley off a heavy topspin return. He mis-hit it. McEnroe screamed, and raised his arms. Into the fifth set they went.
The crowd was absolutely spent.
But it was fitting that such a spectacular match could go the full five sets, and now one recalled the way a British writer described another marathon Wimbledon final: "It was like one of those 990-page novels that Arnold Bennett used to write.
"It began a little slowly, but gradually the characters grew in stature and fascination with their adventures, their triumphs and frustrations, and in the end it became a matter of utter compulsion to find out how it all ended."
McEnroe thought that Borg might be vulnerable. After all, he had seven match points, and now he was back to square one.
"It would have gotten me a little bit down," he said later, "but it didn't get him down." "Borg's amazing. He can be out of a match physically, but never mentally, and all of a sudden he gets into it as if somebody turned on a switch," noted British tennis writer David Irvine. You could almost feel his competitive fire. Suddenly he was hamering his ground strokes and putting away his volleys, and he ran off five games in a row to take control of the match.
"I could easily have been up, two sets to love, but when he won the second set I wasn't in the driver's seat anymore," McEnroe said later. "It was an uphill struggle all the way after that."
Borg started returning the tough serves -- especially the deep left-handed slice wide to his two-fisted backhand -- that had troubled him before.
He stretched wide for some balls and still angled them back for forcing returns, whistling them over the net with the fizzing, dipping topspin that makes them so difficult to volley.
Borg had been serving well, too, especially to McEnroe's backhand. His first serve accuracy dropped briefly in the third set, but this might even have helped him by forcing him to stay back on second serves and play more ground strokes before approaching the net behind sliced backhands or thumping topspin forehands.
When they got into long rallies, playing a clay court game on grass, Borg won all the important points. He is faster, and steadier off the ground, than any other player alive, and the last thing McEnroe wanted was a back-court duel.
Borg lost the first two points on his serve in the first set, but only one more the rest of the match. He said he was thinking about the chances he had missed.
But his tennis didn't reveal it.
"At first, I couldn't believe it," the champion said later. "Then I was thinking, 'Maybe I will end up losing this match.' That's a strange feeling, you know. I felt terrible, very disappointed, especially when I lost the fourth set.
"The first couple of games of the fifth set, I was still thinking about all the match points. I was thinking, 'I only needed to make one point, and I didn't do it.'
"And then I just tried to say to myself that I have to forget and go forward, and just try to win the fifth set."
Borg's true genius was more vivid in adversity than it ever has been when he won easily.
He pitched a no-hitter in that final set, even though McEnroe maddeningly kept wriggling off the hook in his service games.
"That was probably the best set I ever played on my serve," said Borg. "I played very, very steady.
"I was just telling myself, 'Don't get tight, don't get nervous, just relax.'"
He was the most relaxed man on Centre Court, a nonpareil competitor at his best when he had to be. Eventually he hit that last backhand cross-court pass to win a heroic match, a match that had no loser.
"I gave it the best I could, I just got beat. I'm disappointed, but I can't complain that much," McEnroe said afterward. "He's a great player . . . already one of the greatest ever."
Borg had his fifth title, another step toward his expressed ambition of ultimately being remembered as the best player of all time. But McEnroe could take pride, too.
His father, New York lawyer John Patrick McEnroe Sr., said it best, noting that his son this day had shown "courage" and "bearing" in the heat of a magnificent battle.
"This is the day," said McEnroe Sr., "that John finally won Wimbledon."
Borg had the trophy, but who was to dispute him?