Bjorn Borg's dream of a first U.S. Open tennis championship and a possible Grand Slam ended tonight for the third straight year in the asphalt jungle of the National Tennis Center when he was beaten by John McEnroe, 7-6,6-1,6-7,5-7,6-4 in a bizarre 4 hour 11 minute struggle that tennis fans will talk about for years to come.

No, make that sports fans, who will discuss the strange and ultimately wonderful fight that took place on the rubberized asphalt hard court of the Louis Armstrong Stadium. The Borg-McEnroe rivalry -- elevated to greatness by the majestic Wimbleton final that Borg won in july, when he took the fifth set, 8-6, after McEnroe fought off two match points; when he won the fourth set in the all-time great grand-daddy of tie breakers -- has transcended tennis and become a sportingoccasion of epic proportions.

McEnroe, 21, the New Yorker who was virtually alone in his home town as the crowd 20,172 vocally backed Borg, became the first man to win America's premier title in two years in a row since Australian Neale Fraser in 1959-60.

But he did so only after the remarkable 24-year-old Swede -- who this year won his fifth French Open and fifth successive Wimbleton, but now has lost a shot at the Grand Slam and will not play the Australian Open -- fought back from a two-set deficit by sheer force ofwill on a day that he played some terribly un-Borglike tennis.

Borg served dreadfully. He made errors, both on ground strokes and volleys, that he never makes in a major final. He returned serve well only fitfully. He looked in the second set as if he had given up, or was about to. fBut somehow, in his magical, almost mystical way, he hung in, turned the match around and seemed ready to defeat an opponent who understandably was becoming exhausted and exasperated.

At 3-3 in the final set, after Borg had held serve comfortable three times and had taken McEnroe to deuce twice on his serve, few people thought the glacially cool Swede would lose.

But then he lost his serve once more, in the crucial seventh game with the aide of a horrendous line call on the first point and two totally uncharacteristic double faults.

Borg had not lost a match that went to a fifth set since 1976, winning 13 in a row. But this was the time Houdini failed to escape. With that one break to renew his sagging energy and spirit, McEnroe handcuffed Borg with some great serves in the last two service games and sent him to the bottom of the river.

Borg's legions of admirers will never believe it could happened if he hadn't gotten a bad call on the first point of the pivital seventh game. Borg served, McEnroe hit a forehand that appeared to go about an inch beyond the baseline and Borg, poised to hit a backhand, let the ball go, waiting for the "out" call.

It never came. Linesman Art Italo, who sells "Good Humor" ice cream for a living, saw the ball good. Umpire Ken Slye, intoned: "Love-15." The usually impassive Borg -- who had directed an atypical persecuted look heaveward when an apparent McEnroe fault was not called on a key point in the first set tie breaker -- turned and questioned the call with an expression that was at once startled and loathing. He muttered something at the linesman as the crowd booed the call raucously.

McEnroe hit a backhand wide but then Borg double faulted to 15-30, the second serve clipping along. He put his next serves into the net for 30-40 and murmurs shot through the hushed stadium like shock waves.

mcEnroe came in behind a forehand return of a second serve on a break point, a tactic he used throughout the match but Borg looped a topspin forehand passing shot by him. Then McEnroe chipped a backhand return of another second serve and went in, and Borg was inches wide with a backhand pass. Break point again.

Borg paused, dried his right hand on his shorts and put in a first serve, but McEnroe lashed a deep return. Borg thumped a forehand approach shot but McEnroe -- the one man whose fighting instincts aren't eventually sapped by Borg's enervating intensity -- ripped a backhand cross court that forced a leaning forehand volley error.

People will remember the line call that started his downfall, but Borg -- obviously disappointed but as gracious as always after his rare defeat -- downplayed it.

"I think the ball was out, but the umpire had a different opinion," he said.

"It was a pretty important point, but I'm not going to say that's why I lost the match.I think I lost because I was not serving well."

One of the most peculiar things about this twilight zone of a match, which began at 4:12 p.m. in brilliant sunshine, ran through twilight and supper and finished at 8:23 with McEnroe drillingaway a forehand volley under jet-black skies and floodlights, was that Borg should have won the first set, and all but gave away the second.

Borg became a little tenative in the first set, serving without his usual power and moving far slower than his customary swiftness, but he seemed to get into it and picked up the tempo to break McEnroe at love for 5-4. Serving for the set, he missed three of six first serves and was borken to 30.

When the temperamental left-hander's backhand down-the-line first volley was called wide, he turned furiously and screamed "What?" He stormed around the net, pointed to the spot where he thought the ball had landed and argued futiley with the umpire.

McEnroe still jawing sourly with the linesman as Borg went out to serve for the set again and had to wait for McEnroe to shut up. McEnroe won the first point with a forehand volley, then Borg startlingly double failed, pushed a forehand appraoch long and sailed another forehand off a back court rally to lose his serve at love.

Into the best-of-12 point tie breakerthey went, and Borg forged ahead in that, too, 2-2. Then McEnroe served two balls that both appeared to be wide of the line to Borg's forehand, but thesecond wasn't called. Borg, the undemonstrative one, arched his head back and sent a disgusted look heavenward, as to tell the linesman: "You've got to be kidding." The second serve ace stood, in lieu of a double fault.

After that, Borg went downhill faster than his countryman Ingemar Stenmark until he was two sets behind. He butchered a little forehand off a short return to fall 3-4 down in the tie breaker, got back to 4-5, then lost it, 7-4, dropping the last two points on his serve.

On the set point, McEnroe was in behind a chipped return of serve again and slashed a forehand volley down the line. Borg chased it, but couldn't get there. He looked frustrated, dispirited, angry.

Borg played that way in the second set, losing his serve to 30 in the first game with two double faults, to 30 in the fifth game with another double fault. gIn one stretch he lost 13 points in a row and dropped his serve six straight times. He was missing first serves by a yard or more, muffing easy ground strokes. He even hit an easty overhandsmash wide.

But come back he did. Gradually at first, just hanging on by his fingernails, then, splendidly, he started climbing on McEnroe's second serve, dashing the return winners and passing shots that are expected of him.

Borg started putting pressure on McEnroe -- who had played 4 hours 17 minutes Saturday night before subduing Connors in a draining final set tie breaker -- and got the break for 4-3 as McEnroe doubled faulted. Borg got to a 5-4 and served for the set.But, as in the first set, he missed three of five serves, played an awful game and was broken to 15.

McEnroe held for 6-5, and it seemed there was no way Borg could do what was required to stay alive -- hold his serve, then win the tie breaker. So what did he do? He held with an ace and won the tie breaker 7-5, McEnroe mis-hitting a high backhand volley off a floating return on the final point.

Now Borg was in the match, running like a deer, hammering the return and passing shots on the dead run that few other players can even imagine, and only he can make.

He continued to serve poorly, but backed up the vulnerability with a solid ground game and a renewed assurance on his volleys. He won 20 of 25 points on his serve up to 5-4, saved a break point and held after two deuces for 6-5, then broke McEnroe for the set after four deuces.

Finally, it was McEnroe who got the break in the seventh game -- the one everyone will focus on when they recall the oddities of one of the oddest of Open finals.

He still had to serve out, but he played well, with steely nerve and bold ambition, in his last two service games,missing only easy service in the final game. At 40-15, match point, Borg wobbled a forehand return short off a second serve and McEnroe -- in like the wind and on top of the wind -- gobbled it up with a forehand volley. The match won, he leaned back, threw up his arms in ecstacy and unspeakable relief.