'Epic' vs. 'High Strung': Fighting over the Borg-McEnroe rivalry
Professional tennis in the 1970s always has been the perfect subject for a book. You’ve got jet-setting athletes, disco, cocaine, short-shorts, sideburns and a newly freewheeling attitude about sex. How could you go wrong?
There is a problem, however. A lank-haired Swede named Bjorn Borg dominated this so-called "Golden Age" of tennis. Awed observers called him The Viking God, and while the moniker fit, it wasn’t enough to make him interesting. It was always his absence -- his inward focus that emitted no light -- that defined him.
Whenever I meet a tennis fan who loves Borg -- and it happens not infrequently -- I want to ask, "But ... why?" Maybe it’s a cultural thing. In America, personality always has counted as much as talent. John McEnroe was obnoxious on court, often flat-out reprehensible, but I’m never surprised to meet people who love the guy. Americans -- and so American advertisers, too -- can’t get enough of the "Up yours!" attitude. As Stephen Tignor writes in High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis' Fiercest Rivalry, shoe company pioneer Phil Knight "didn’t want to associate Nike simply with winners; he wanted athletes who fit the company’s image of defiant individuality, people who broke the rules and still won." McEnroe was one of the first big-name athletes to go up on a Nike billboard.
Tignor hasn’t been alone in his pursuit of Tennis Past. Matthew Cronin has just brought forth Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.
Two books about The Viking God and McBrat? Yes indeed. The Borg-McEnroe rivalry is bigger than all of us, which isn’t an unqualified good. Sports writers have spent the past three decades overselling it, working it and its participants over into myth. Tignor and Cronin are no exceptions.
Borg, Tignor writes, "was one of those rare athletes who changed the nature of his sport single-handedly -- or, in his case, double-handedly." He did this by popularizing the two-handed backhand and by staying back on the baseline rather than rushing the net at every opportunity. Cronin insists that the Borg-McEnroe rivalry "is largely responsible for the U.S. tennis boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when everyone from clumsy kids to suburban moms and baseball-loving dads picks up rackets and floods private clubs and public parks."
One James Scott Connors, who used a two-handed backhand and preferred working from the baseline, probably would take exception with those statements. He was a star before Borg, after all. And his obliteration of the Old Guard pros in 1974 pushed a lot of defiant American individuals out onto tennis courts for the first time.
Yet both of these books share a belief that Connors was nothing more than a scenery-chewing supporting player during pro tennis’ Golden Age. Reading Epic and High Strung, back to back, brings home just how far Jimbo’s stock has fallen in recent years. In the 1970s, let’s remember, Connors was omnipresent on the cultural radar -- a crude, strutting, floppy-haired danger to America’s children. Said Connors at the time: "I like my image. I’m a louse. But if you’re going to be a louse, I say be a good one."
Jimbo definitely was a good louse, a memorable louse. But that was then.
Part of his fall can be chalked up to the power of marketing. Borg is Borg, as his claycourt rival Adriano Panatta once said. He is the eternal mystery. People always will be drawn to the unknown. And McEnroe, for all his obnoxiousness on court, is quite likable (in a look-at-me kind of way) off court. He’s built up a lot of good will through his 15-plus years of TV commentating.
Connors, on the other hand, never played the self-promotion game -- or, to be more exact, he never played it well. Though he became a crowd favorite during his playing days, he alienated a lot of tennis insiders along the way. If Jimmy didn’t like you, you knew it. And he didn’t like a lot of people. Here’s Andre Agassi in his bestselling memoir, Open, relating an early-career match against Connors:
"The crowd wants Connors to defy the odds, and Father Time, and I’m standing in the way of that dream scenario. Each time they cheer I think: Do they realize what this guy is like in the locker room? Do they know what his peers say about him? Do they have any concept of how he responds to a friendly hello?"
The lesson here: It pays to play office politics. Connors didn’t, and so all of the professional chatter about the great ’70s rivalries excludes him. It’s all Borg v. McEnroe, and Chris Evert (once Connors’ fiancee) v. Martina Navratilova (who once played against Connors in a weak reprise of the Battle of the Sexes). Never mind that Connors beat Borg three times at the U.S. Open -- including twice on Borg’s beloved clay! Never mind that the 1982 Wimbledon final, when the aging, underdog Connors upset World No. 1 McEnroe, is more thrilling than the far more acclaimed Borg-McEnroe clash the year before.
Connors and Borg played an amazing, instant-classic five-set Wimbledon final in 1977. Four years later they went the distance again at Wimbledon, this time in the semifinals, a fight to the finish that the overwhelmed press called "a banquet for the Gods." No one seems to remember those epic matches now.
The judgment of history can be rough, man.
To my preteen eyes in the early ’80s, Connors was the quintessential American hero, brash and ballsy and sly, far more appealing than the icy Borg or the whiny McEnroe. He was tennis' Cool Hand Luke, the stubborn, misunderstood rebel.
In retrospect, of course, I can also see that Connors was rather ridiculous. His attempts to keep up with the comic hijinks of his doubles partner, Ilie Nastase, consistently fell flat, for Jimbo just wasn’t funny. Nastase could make the gallery laugh with a look. Connors had to resort to miming masturbation with his racket to get the crowd’s attention back.
Connors never quite fit in, and it bothered him. Once Borg had definitively surpassed him, Jimbo’s famous pronouncement that he would chase the Swede "to the ends of the earth" was less a tough-guy promise than a desperate cry for help. There was in Connors an inherent insecurity, all wrapped up in macho-man denial, that makes him a melancholic figure. At 16, he relocated from working-class Belleville, Illinois, to Los Angeles to work with Pancho Segura, who was the pro at a swank country club dominated by the movie colony. Noted Connors about those days: "The movie stars were coming out to see me. I must have been somebody myself."
In High Strung, the short chapter about Connors taking on the world at the U.S. Open in 1977 and ’78, when New York was reeling from looting and Billy Martin and the Son of Sam, crackles with electricity. The longer chapters about the Borg-McEnroe face-offs in 1980 and ’81 are gloomy by comparison. Borg simply sucks the life out of the room.
McEnroe does his best to fill the void, and the New York backdrop for the U.S. Open helps. These are the falling-apart years in America. All of the norms that had begun to come unscrewed in the ’60s finally exploded into a million pieces in the next decade. Both Tignor and Cronin fix on McEnroe as the embodiment of this social upheaval. They lean hard on the McEnroe-as-Holden Caulfield angle, first posited (I believe) by journalist Tim Adams. It’s a compelling meme, but I never quite bought into it. It’s too pat for the complex, intelligent Johnny Mac. And besides, Holden wanted to save the kids from going over the cliff; McEnroe only ever wanted to save himself.
Nike, NBC, pal Mary Carillo and Johnny Mac himself have worked hard over the years to explain away his vicious on-court outbursts. The nastiness comes from his perfectionism and his hatred of phoniness, they say. They insist you really should like him. But it’s still not easy. As Ben Vereen says of Bob Fosse’s alter ego in All That Jazz, which was released the same year McEnroe won his first U.S. Open: "This cat allowed himself to be adored but not loved." McEnroe decided he was too good to be a fan favorite. If he couldn’t be a teen heartthrob like Borg -- and he knew he couldn’t -- then he would take pride in the crowd getting behind his opponent. Because then he could shut them up.
Of course, while you might not be able to like Superbrat, you also can’t turn away from him. Which is why he’s a featured player in two new books. He’s a Big Personality. Inevitably, he becomes the kaleidoscope through which we see every other player of the era. Tignor describes Ivan Lendl as "the anti-McEnroe in every sense." To Cronin, "Nastase was McEnroe before McEnroe was McEnroe."
One of the best things about both books is that, while they give too much credit to Borg and McEnroe as culture-changers, they’re not monomaniacal about the rivalry. Tignor and Cronin realize that it didn’t exist in a vacuum. As a result, you’ll put down either of these books with a new appreciation for Nastase, of all people. And for that you’ll be thankful. The clownish, mercurial Romanian was the first "world number one" spit out by the computer, in 1973, but he was much more -- and much less -- than his on-court results. Like Connors and McEnroe, Nasty needed to act out on court to feel alive. But unlike Connors and McEnroe, he could actually admit to himself that he cared what others thought of him. From High Strung:
"During his 1972 U.S. Open final with Arthur Ashe, Nastase said that when he was behind two sets to one and the crowd was booing him -- he’d given them the finger and hit a ball at a linesman -- he spotted one man in the audience who desperately wanted him to win, and who was suffering with him on every point. It was enough to inspire Nastase to come back. 'He changed my life,' he recalled, 'but I never met him.' "
Just two years later, an out-of-shape Nastase had grown bored with the constant travel of a tennis professional, bored with the meaningless sex of a jet-setting celebrity (not that he stopped partaking in it). And now the game was changing in ways he simply could not abide. At the Italian Open in 1974, writes Cronin in Epic, "Nastase could do very little as Borg mocked the tricks he had in his bag. 'Borg plays like a pawnbroker,' Nastase said. 'He never gives points away.' " For Nastase, possibly more talented than Borg but constitutionally profligate with that talent, losing to the stone-faced teenager was a turning point. The fun was gone. Tennis was all business now.
It’s kind of a shame that these two similar books had to come out right on top of one another, rather than, say, five years apart. Tennis is a niche sport in the U.S., and so publishers don't consider it an easy sell. If High Strung and Epic cannibalize each other’s sales, we might see even fewer books about tennis in the future than we do now. On the other hand, maybe the books’ inevitable rivalry, like the one between Borg and McEnroe, will bring more attention to them than they would have achieved on their own.
So which one is better? Which book is the must-have?
Each book has its own merits -- and weaknesses. Tignor loves the larger-than-life silliness of the era and its personalities. He gleefully relates the various insults hurled at McEnroe by Old Guard scolds. ("The worst advertisement for our values since Al Capone," the New York Times wrote about the young, potty-mouthed Johnny Mac.) He revels in Borg’s groupie problem. (A man on his honeymoon tried to get the 19-year-old Borg to be his sex gift to his new wife, forcing the tennis star to flee, mumbling, "Sorry, but I don’t do it with married women.") He brings the effervescent, party-hearty Vitas Gerulaitis vividly to life, making us lament the tameness of the careerist professionals who are presently hitting fuzzy yellow balls for pay.
This is good stuff, and it’s written with flair. In fact, it made me want even more. There is the outline here for a great Me Decade cultural history, with the Borg-McEnroe rivalry as the fulcrum, but Tignor shies away from looking beyond the insular world of high-stakes tennis. High Strung seems to be noodling with a "things will never be the same again" theme, but, with the book holding steady on the era's top players and their world, it never quite takes shape.
It's probably not fair to complain that an author didn't succeed at something he never had any intention of attempting, so now I'll offer up a legitimate gripe. At the end of this thoughtful, entertaining work, Tignor rumbles deep into music-swelling, Chariots of Fire territory in his recreation of Borg and McEnroe’s climactic showdown in the 1981 U.S. Open final. He tightly links Borg’s abandonment of tournament tennis at season’s end to McEnroe’s brilliant play that day in New York, giving barely a nod to the myriad pressures and frustrations in Borg’s life that had nothing to do with John McEnroe. And incredibly, Tignor blames McEnroe’s losses at the next year’s Wimbledon and U.S. Open (to Connors and Lendl, respectively) on Borg’s early retirement. "His missing rival," Tignor writes, "haunted him." This is pure McEnroe myth-making of the worst sort.
Epic, with its straightforward but revealing portraits of Borg and McEnroe, stays more grounded than High Strung. Unfortunately, being earthbound is also its problem. Cronin’s prose is consistently, sometimes painfully, clunky. (Example: "After nearly two weeks of play, Centre Court is badly beaten up, resembling the pockmarked face of an aging Central Park hot dog vendor who has just battled twelve hours of heat and crowds during a Billy Joel concert.") Such writerly straining proves distracting, especially in the descriptions of matches. It's made worse by some inexplicable copy-editing failures. (Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, not 1977.) And yet these are not fatal blows. The reason: Epic’s saving grace is its unexpectedly human depiction of the "Ice Borg." Cronin takes us, step by step, through Borg's hollowed-out childhood and relentlessly focused tennis career. When you come upon the 15-year-old Borg, already a workaholic, telling his coach he worries that "if I leave [tennis] for five minutes it will all break down," you’ll hope the next sentence describes the coach pulling young Bjorn into a fatherly hug. It doesn’t.
Whether we like it or not, everything comes back to the boring, blank-eyed Swede. Except it turns out he isn't quite as boring as you might think. He is a strange dude, to be sure, a man-child living in a bubble. But by zeroing in on details -- why the famously stoic champion would scream at his coach and girlfriend after matches; why the rally king viewed his return of serve as key to his success at Wimbledon -- Cronin shows us how tennis’ first Frankenstein’s monster was assembled.
What’s most striking about these two distinct, heartfelt books is how they both capture a mood of fear and discomfort at the heart of tennis’ glory days. For years, the final word on Jimmy Connors was that he needed to hate his opponent to beat him. For Borg and McEnroe, it was more complicated. They had to hate themselves.
High Strung, by Stephen Tignor (Harper), $25.99, 256 pages
Epic, by Matthew Cronin (Wiley), $25.95, 312 pages
High Strung: A-
-- Published in The Oregonian and on OregonLive.com, 2011