Championships – Men’s Singles
John McEnroe defeated the five-time defending champion Björn Borg in a rematch of the previous year’s final, 4–6, 7–6(7–1), 7–6(7–4), 6–4, to win the Gentlemen’s Singles tennis title at the 1981 Wimbledon Championships. Borg was attempting to equal William Renshaw’s record of six consecutive Wimbledon titles and Roy Emerson’s all-time record of 12 major titles.
During this tournament, McEnroe famously shouted “You cannot be serious!” to the chair umpire in response to a serve being called “out.” The disagreement took place on June 22 during his first round match against Tom Gullikson.
Over the last 17 years, Roger Federer has played Rafael Nadal 40 times, including nine times in Grand Slam finals. He has played Novak Djokovic 50 times since 2006, twice in five-set Wimbledon championship matches, both won by Djokovic. And Nadal and Djokovic have played a staggering 58 times, including nine times at the French Open.
1978 to 1981
By comparison, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe played 14 matches from 1978 to 1981. And yet they produced one of the greatest and still-talked-about rivalries in the history of the sport.
Forty years ago, as the setting sun cast shadows across Louis Armstrong Stadium, more than 18,000 spectators saw a bizarre ending to a too-short era that involved two of the game’s all-time best. First, they watched in awe as McEnroe, a native New Yorker, won his third consecutive United States Open by beating Borg 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 in 2 hours 40 minutes. But what happened next caused bewilderment, followed by concern, at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
As McEnroe was hugging his parents, Kay and John Sr., and holding the champion’s trophy aloft, Borg was nowhere to be found. He had skipped the post-match ceremony and obligatory news conference. He had left the stadium with Lennart Bergelin, his longtime coach and confidant, hastily grabbed a shower and hopped in a waiting station wagon, never again to be seen competing at the U.S. Open, or any other major.
1976 to 1980
Borg, barely 25 at the time, was a six-time French Open champion and had also won five consecutive Wimbledon titles from 1976 to 1980 before McEnroe beat him in the 1981 final. Through much of the U.S. Open final he remained close with McEnroe, even leading 4-2 after they had split the first two sets. But when McEnroe broke back and evened the third set, Borg seemed to vanish mentally. He lost the fourth set meekly, shook hands and disappeared.
“To me, it was bittersweet,” McEnroe said during a phone interview in August from his home in Malibu, Calif. “The way it ended, with a whimper, with him walking out of the court before the ceremony to never play again. So even though it was a tremendous moment for me, winning Wimbledon and the Open back-to-back and taking over the No. 1 ranking, looking back I wish we could have kept playing.
“For years, I would see him and say: ‘When are you coming back? This is ridiculous, let’s go,’” McEnroe, who has long been a tennis commentator for ESPN, added. “It just felt like there was a void and it took me a couple of years to accept that. I think it was too bad for the sport as well.”
Borg’s manager, Per Hjertquist, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
What many did not know at the time was that Borg had received two death threats during the Open, both called in to the switchboard at the Tennis Center, though no one has ever said why. One was before his semifinal win over Jimmy Connors. The other was at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, in the middle of the first set against McEnroe. Borg was not told about that threat until Bergelin alerted him after the match.
McEnroe in 1980
Many of the fans that day were pulling for Borg, the suave Swede who wore a red, white and blue headband stretched across his forehead to control his shoulder-length mane of dirty-blond hair. Borg was playing in his 10th U.S. Open and fourth final without a championship. He had lost to Jimmy Connors in 1976 and 1978 and to McEnroe in 1980, just two months after beating McEnroe in a five-set Wimbledon final that featured a 34-point fourth-set tiebreaker, and an 8-6 fifth set.
Their stark differences were part of the Borg-McEnroe allure. While Borg preferred to quietly stalk the baseline, swinging his two-handed backhand as if it were a pendulum, the left-handed McEnroe was all about disruption, in his game and in his behavior.
“We were the perfect yin and yang,” McEnroe said. “You had someone who was naturally aggressive against someone who was a counterpuncher. Everything about us was totally different, the way we looked and the way we played.”
Even their fellow competitors saw the value in the matchup.
“Bjorn had a certain aloofness to him,” said Rick Meyer, who grew up playing with McEnroe and lost to him in the third round of the 1980 U.S. Open. “He never played doubles, never practiced on site, was basically perfect for the quiet atmosphere of Wimbledon. John, on the other hand, was all about the electricity of New York where people behaved as if it was a boxing match. In the end, that hurt Bjorn.”
During the late ’70s and early ’80s, tennis in the United States was exploding. Everyone wanted to play and viewership, in person and on television, was at never-before-seen levels. The day before the 1981 U.S. Open men’s final, 18-year-old Tracy Austin won her second women’s title with a 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) win over Martina Navratilova. Navratilova, who had beaten Chris Evert in the semifinals, sobbed, not because she lost but because the New York crowd had finally embraced her six years after she had defected from Czechoslovakia.
WHAT HAPPENED EXACTLY ON THAT DAY
On this day, June 22, 1981, John McEnroe committed the most famous outburst in tennis history in the first round of Wimbledon, where he was playing against fellow American Tom Gullikson. Beyond frustrated with a call, the surly McEnroe, angst-ridden improviser that he was, came up with the unforgettable “You cannot be serious” line. It was a line that would forever live in infamy; it became so iconic that McEnroe himself would later use it as the title of his autobiography.
John McEnroe, born in 1959, had amazed the tennis world since his first steps on the tour in 1977, when at the age of 17 he showed up at Wimbledon as an amateur and reached the semi-finals. “Mac” was very talented, his game being based on precision and touch on top of an iconic and lethal serve. In 1979, McEnroe became the youngest ever US Open Champion, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis (7-5, 6-3, 6-3). The American also made quite a sensation by edging Bjorn Borg (7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6) to win the WTC Finals.
In 1980, McEnroe reached world No 1 for the first time, although it was only for four weeks. That year, he was defeated by Bjorn Borg in a Wimbledon final which was considered to be one the greatest matches of all-time (1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6), with McEnroe winning a legendary tiebreak in the fourth set (18-16). A few months later, McEnroe took his revenge by defeating Borg in New-York to defend his US Open crown. By this time the ornery American who would become known simply as “Superbrat” to many had already gained notoriety for his shocking on-court behaviour in the well-mannered world of tennis.
Tom Gullikson, from USA, was born in 1951. He was ranked No 40 in the world when he entered the 1981 Wimbledon draw, which was his best ranking to date. Left-handed, he had a twin brother, Tim, who was also a professional tennis player but was right-handed. Together, the Gullikson brothers had already claimed eight titles in doubles and reached several Grand Slam fourth rounds.
Wimbledon is the oldest and the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. Held by the All England Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club since 1877, it moved into its current location in 1922, the same year when the fabled Centre Court was built. Considered by many as the most intimidating court in the world, with its famous Rudyard Kipling quote above the entrance (“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”), Centre Court had seen the best players of all time competing for the title. After the US Open switched to clay and then hard court in the 1970’s, and after the Australian Open switched to hard court in 1988, Wimbledon remained the only Grand Slam tournament to be played on grass, a surface that is usually more suitable for serve and volley players. Not only did Wimbledon keep its surface, but it also maintained old-fashioned traditions such as the white dress code.
In the first round at Wimbledon, John McEnroe, the 1980 runner-up, was facing fellow American Tom Gullikson. The American was one of the favourites of the Championships, and no one expected this first-round encounter to produce one of the most remarkable moments in Wimbledon history. But in the early games, when McEnroe served what he thought to be an ace and learned it had been called out by the chair umpire, he approached the net with a snarl forming on his face.
“Chalk came up all over the place. You can’t be serious, man. YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS! That ball is on the line. Chalk flew up. It was clearly in. How can you possibly call that out? How many you can miss? Everybody knows it’s in – the whole stadium – and you call it out? Explain that to me, will you?”
This first outburst cost McEnroe a warning, but in the next game, on Gullikson’s serve, the young lefty lost his temper again and called the umpire, Edward James, “the absolute pits of the world”. This time, he was awarded a penalty point. This was too much for McEnroe, who now called the official an “incompetent fool” and called the referee.
After the incident was over, it did not affect McEnroe’s ability to outplay Tom Gullikson in three sets (7-6, 7-5, 6-3).
Gullikson was not impressed by McEnroe’s attitude: “It has no place. Everyone’s afraid of these guys. All it would take is one default to put them in line. If it was the 120th player in the world they would have defaulted him.”
That year, despite the controversy, McEnroe would claim the first of his three Wimbledon titles, defeating Borg in the final (4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4). He would receive a $1500 fine for his first-round transgressions, and the All England Club board would decide to break with tradition by not making him an honorary member of the club. In response, he would then boycott the Champion’s Dinner.
Over the years, “You cannot be serious” would become the most iconic outburst in tennis history. When McEnroe would retire from tennis and become a commentator for various TV channels, his relationship with the All England Club would thaw. Nowadays, visitors of the Wimbledon Museum are guided by McEnroe’s audiotaped voice.
In 2002, John McEnroe would publish an autobiography which would be named “You cannot be serious”.
Years later, Edward James, the umpire, would bitterly recall the incident and say he wished McEnroe would apologise for his behaviour : “It was the first time I’d umpired him and also the last. I’m still waiting but I don’t expect him to apologise and he doesn’t think that he has done anything wrong. In fact we never spoke to each other again.”
1981 FINAL: JOHN McENROE d. BJORN BORG, 4-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (4), 6-4
This match illustrates the difference between a great match and a significant match… as you’ll also see in the remaining entries on this list.
No one would dispute that the 1980 Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final rates as a better and more memorable match, the one that captured the imaginations of many tennis fans at the time. The 1980 Wimbledon final is the match that’s still talked about, more than a third of a century later. Yet, the 1981 final can rightly be seen as a more significant match in tennis history.
from 2003 through 2007
This is the highly debatable and speculative point to emerge from the ’81 Borg-Mac rematch: Had Borg won it, the Swede might not have felt quite so inclined to retire from tennis before his 27th birthday.
Here’s the much less debatable point surrounding this contest: Had Borg won it, he would have owned six straight Wimbledons. As a point of comparison, Federer managed “only” five in a row, from 2003 through 2007. If Borg had never been knocked off his throne at SW19, his already-lauded name would be spoken of in even more reverential tones.
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