Bjorn Borg said before the U.S. Open tennis championships that he is able to take defeats in stride, even though he doesn't get much practice at it.

"I hate to lose, but I accept it more easy now than maybe five or six years ago," said the exceptional 24-year-old Swede, who had been beaten on the court only once this year before John McEnroe frustrated him Sunday night, 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4, in 4 hour 11 minute Open final that belongs on Masterpiece Theater.

"There's no way you can keep going, winning all the time. I hate to lose more than I love to win, so when I lose I get very depressed right after the match. But then two or three hours later, it's over. I always look ahead. I Think, 'Okay, I might play the guy in the next tournament. There'll be another time,'" said Borg, who knows that he wil play the 21-year-old McEnroe -- the only other player inhis lofty league -- in major finals many times in the years to come.

"As long as I've been trying my best, and been trying to win and trying to reach every single point in the match, I'm satisfied. If I still lose, I realize: 'Okay, the other guy was better than me today, so what can I do? I tried everything. That's it.'"

But don't you ever feel like going back to your room and smashing rackets or kicking furniture?

"No, never," said Borg, the epitome of Scandinavian cool. "I never do that."

He would have been entitled to go on a rampage -- at least to punch the stuffing out of a pillow or two -- after McEnroe beat him, becoming the first man to defend America's premier tennis title successfully since Australian Neale Fraser in 1959-60.

For the third year running, Borg arrived at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow with the French Open and Wimbledon titles in hand, halfway to the Grand Slam: a sweep of the four traditional major titles in one year. If he could win his first U.S. Open, the biggest title that has eluded him, he would go to Australia at Christmastime in an effort to complete the Slam.

Borg had been to the final of the Open twice before, losing to Jimmy Connors in four tough sets in 1976 and to Connors in straight sets in 1978, when he was inhibited by a badly blistered hand.

This time against McEnroe, who has supplanted Connors as his chief antagonist, Borg came closer than ever before to claiming the missing title which he says is his primary ambition in tennis.

Even though he blew the first set after serving for it at 5-4 and 6-5, then grew uncharacteristically dispirited and practically gave away the second, Borg somehow erased that deficit and had McEnroe physically and mentally exhausted, gasping for breath.

Even though he got only 49 percent of his first serves in the court, and made an astounding 95 ground-stroke errors (56 on the backhand, 39 on the forehand), Borg managed to hang in the match and win two sets. It took truly remarkable competitiveness and instinct for survival to battle back so far when he was playing so far below his capacity, against a player of McEnroe's caliber and combativeness.

And when this strange and suspenseful epic went into a fifth set, almost everyone in the wildly proo-Borg crowd of 20,172 onlookers at Louis Armstrong Stadium, plus an international television audience, thought Borg would win.

After all, Borg had not lost a match that went to a fifth set since 1976. He had won 13 in a row. The final set of marathon cliffhangers had become his special sanctuary. Borg's reputation for playing his best tennis in the most tense of circumstances had become almost a mystical quality.

At Wimbledon, in the course of capturing five successive titles, Borg made many great escapes -- against Mark Edmondson, Victor Amaya, Vijay Amritraj, Jimmy Connors, Roscoe Tanner. Against McEnroe in this year's all-time classic of a final, Borg lost the fourth set in an excruciating tie breaker, 18 points to 16, after having seven match points, then went on to lose only three points of his own serve in taking the fifth set, 8-6.

At this Open, Borg had beaten Tanner in the quarterfinals after being down two sets to one and 2-4 in the fourth. He had beaten Johan Kriek in the semifinals after losing the first two sets. Surely, resurrecting himself from two sets down against McEnroe -- Mac the Knife, the slashing serve-volleyer who was playing aone in his own hometown -- would be a tour de force, a fitting way to finally rule the U.S. Open.

"When it comes down to a fifth set, you always believe in yourself," said Borg, who had always provided reasons to believe.

After his uncharacteristically sluggish, erratic performance earlier in the match. Borg was running like a hare in the fifth set, sprinting to every ball, covering the court and hitting the ball with all his old, intimidcating assurance. It was McEnroe -- who had to play for 4 hours 17 minutes to put away Connors in a stirring semifinal slugfest the previous evening -- who looked weary and destined for an exasperating defeat.

But at 3-all in the fifth set, Borg got a bad call, served two double faults, and lost his serve. After four hours of puzzling twists and turns of fortune, it all came down to this one game.

The tennis was not nearly as good as the Wimbledon final, which was a match for a lifetime, but this duel was similarly distinguished by the competive heart on both sides of the net.

"At Wimbledon, we both played much better, but this was an exciting match," said Borg, as much a master of understatment as top spin. In the end, the drama was breathtaking. "These two guys play at a level of competitiveness," suggested one courtside observer, "that perhaps only they can truly understand."

Borg and McEnroe respect, admire, and bring out the best in each other.

After losing the majestic Wimbledon final to Borg in July, McEnroe had trouble getting psyched for week-to-week tournaments against more mundane opponents. He kept thinking about Borg, about Wimbledon, about an encore.

"I thought about it because I had some disappointing results. I wasn't able to get up for tournaments, and I thought that this would be the appropriate occasion, if anything was, to get another chance at him, "McEnroe said on the eve of the Open final. "This is the other big tournament, he's going for the Grand Slam, I won the tournament last year, so there's a lot of factors, and people wanted to see the Wimbledon match again. So I'm hoping it's going to be a good match and the outcome is just a little different."

Junior, as his colleagues call McEnroe, got his wish. It was a good match, a bizarre but worthy rematch. And the outcome was a little different.