Borg and McEnroe: a tennis love story

Björn Borg and John McEnroe in action at the ABN tournament, Rotterdam, 1979.

No, not that kind of love story. And certainly not the spicy, sensual goings-on of my new novel “Water Music.” But long before there was Fedal, Rafanole and Novandy, there was – well, they didn’t combine names in those days, did they? So there was Björn and Johnny Mac – a tennis rivalry and bromance set to the Stones and Sex Pistols, with a little ABBA thrown in for good measure.

I’ve been looking back on them in “Epic: John McEnroe, Björn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever” by Matthew Cronin (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2011). It’s part history lesson, part psychological study. As a history lesson, it is, as Mac himself might say, “the pits.” I never trust a title, nor use phrases, that proclaim such-and-such the greatest ever, because you know what? Time ain’t over.

Cronin has a lot of trouble with time, particularly integrating the 1960s through ’80s into the narrative. So we get sentences like “While President Carter sought to calm the nation (about the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown), McEnroe went to Rotterdam and lost only fifteen games in four matches to reach the final.” Huh? This does nothing to situate Mac in his times nor does it tell us his thoughts about what was going on. It’s a silly framing device, the “meanwhile, in other cultural news….” approach, though the award for greatest historical howler has to go to the moment Cronin describes McEnroe, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as rebels. Whatever you might call Reagan and Thatcher, I think the word “rebel” might be the last you could apply.

But Cronin redeems himself as an armchair shrink. Where “Epic” shines is as a consideration of the greatness and limitations of the human psyche. And the book weaves this theme through its narrative as if it were a novel. Time and again, people  refer to the idea that “you are what you are.” It’s Borg who first picks up the thread when he says that it’s hard to tell someone who’s nervous serving at 30-40 not to be nervous. He is what he is.

And they were what they were – not just Borg, all icy efficiency on-court and molten passions off;  and Mac, whose tempestuous nature was a mystery even to himself; but Jimmy Connors, the egotistical elder statesman who hated to lose to those rivals; Guillermo Vilas, the poetic Argentine lefty who understood the existential absurdity that lay in a game of individuals; Ilie Nastase, the wild Romanian who’d be battling you one moment and sharing a burger with you the next; and Vitas Gerulaitis the charismatic sun around which they revolved off-court even as they beat him on. Call it a grownup “Lord of the Flies,” with each representing a different archetype and the relationships – laced with women, booze and drugs – shifting like quicksand.

Through it all, there was Borgie and Mac, Mac and Borgie. Once at a crucial moment in a match, Borg called McEnroe to the net. Mac thought he was going to chew him out for bad behavior, but instead he told him to relax and take a moment to enjoy what was but a game.

McEnroe could never do that, though, and that was one of his tragic flaws. I never bought the criticism that his bad behavior was just an act to throw off his opponents. (At World Tennis Day March 3, you could see he was really mad that he and his brother Patrick were losing to the Bryan brothers, even though the Bryans, Olympic gold medalists, are the No. 1-ranked doubles team in the world; PMac is their coach and Mac at double nickels (55) is more than old enough to be their daddy. But Mac always thought he could win – Doesn’t every champion? – and the only one he ever really hurt was himself. 

Although it was interesting that he never acted out when he played Borg.

“We made a great yin and yang,” Cronin quotes McEnroe as saying of his relationship with the Swede he pursued and idolized. “The contrast in styles was incredible. He was the first guy who took me under his wing and accepted me and showed me respect. It’s pretty dog-eat-dog out there and to have the best guy in the world do that was an enormous boost to my confidence, and also that I was feeling that I belonged because a veteran would allow me into his small circle….I could shut some other people up who were giving me a hard time, because if Borg was behind me, then it was like, ‘The hell with everyone else.’”

If that isn’t love, what is? McEnroe would never crack Borg in Paris – hell, or anyone  else in the final at Roland Garros, for that matter – but then Borg would never solve the riddle of Mac at the US Open. Gerulaitis may have been the sun to their planets, but he was too much of a nice guy, too much a star, to beat Mac consistently or Borg at all. (He would die at 40 of carbon monoxide poisoning, and all those men, who didn’t really get along with one another, would be his pallbearers and weep at his funeral.)

We are such terribly complex creatures, aren’t we? – brilliant and damaged, our greatness one moment becoming in the next our undoing.

When “Epic” dwells on this notion it lives up to the name of its last chapter, which takes its title from something Mac once said about  tennis and sports being “poetry written on water."