By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 1999
It was tennis' equivalent of the Ali-Frazier Thrilla in Manila. On the well-worn grass of Wimbledon's center court, two heavyweights slugged it out for 3 hours, 53 minutes until only one remained standing.
And he was the loser.
When Bjorn Borg finally claimed his fifth consecutive Wimbledon men's singles championship, sending a cross-court backhand shot out of John McEnroe's reach for the 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6 triumph, it was the steely Swede who sank to his knees, his face an amalgam of ecstasy and relief, raised his hands to the sky and rolled onto his back while the fiery American stood stoically stiff on the other side of the net.
"This was my hardest match at Wimbledon and it was my best match," the 24-year-old Borg said. He understated the situation. The July5, 1980, match is universally considered not just the most thrilling at the staid, old All-England Club but the greatest anywhere, a classic confrontation that exhausted the 16,000 spectators who ringed the court and probably a good portion of the millions who saw it on television.
The 21-year-old McEnroe, his fluffy hair encased in a red headband, began the match flawlessly, holding service of the second set, when Borg hit a pair of his double-grip backhand returns to even the match.
Borg went up 2-0 in the third set and held service to win it. He went up 5-4 in the fourth with a pair of cross-court backhands and was serving at 40-15. The match appeared all but over. In fact, the drama was just beginning.
A backhand pass and forehand volley by McEnroe brought the set to deuce, Borg netted a forehand, then McEnroe hit a backhand that broke Borg's serve and tied the set.
Each combatant held serve to force a fourth-set tiebreaker.
Borg had five more match points -- at 6-5, 7-6, 10-9, 11-10 and 12-11 -- and McEnroe, with a series of drop volleys and backhands, saved every one. McEnroe had seven set points of his own before he hit the backhand that won it 18-16. The tiebreaker alone, with 34 contested points, took 22 minutes.
"I thought, "Maybe he will end up winning the match,' " Borg said. "I have never been so disappointed on a tennis court as when I lost that fourth set. Seven match points and I failed to do it. Every time I had another match point, John came up with a great shot."
McEnroe was thinking along the same line -- sort of.
"Since he had already won the title four times," McEnroe said, laughing, "I thought that when he lost that long tiebreaker, he might just give up."
He didn't. Both players were exhausted but Borg had more in reserve. He dropped two points serving in the first game, and lost only one more in the remaining six service games.
"I thought Bjorn would be mentally down after the fourth set," McEnroe said, more seriously. "He wasn't. He kept me working all the time."
Fittingly, at year's end, Borg was No. 1 on the ATP computer rankings, McEnroe No. 2.
And in 1981, McEnroe ended Borg's string of Wimbledon titles, winning a four-set, 3-hour, 22-minute final. It was the first of his three Wimbledon singles titles and ended Borg's run of 41 consecutive match victories there. It also was Borg's last appearance at Wimbledon. He retired at the end of the season.
-- Information from Times files was used in this report.