The 132nd All England Lawn Tennis Championships, a.k.a., the Wimbledon Championships, rolls out from next week. One of the oldest tennis tournaments, it was an exclusive preserve of amateur tennis players since its inception. It was only in 1968, when like all other tennis tournaments, the Wimbledon became “open”, i.e., open to professionals also. Thus, the post-1968 era is called the “Open Era” of tennis and this article reminisces on the three major male rivalries that were witnessed on the hallowed grass courts of SW 19. After all, what is tennis if not for these gladiatorial rivalries!
Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe
It was said of Bjorn Borg, that even in the middle of the most important match, his blood pressure was equivalent to that of a man sitting in the park, reading an agreeable novel. The Swede was calmness personified. Fantastic all-court player and the greatest ever tennis pro from any Scandinavian nation. With his long hair, carefully cultivated careless stubble and a bandana over his long locks — the Swede has been the only player in the Open Era to win six French Opens (played on super slow clay courts) and five Wimbledons (played on super fast grass courts).
Having won all the four previous finals that he contested from 1976, Borg would run into the most mercurial player ever to grace a tennis court – John McEnroe – whose talent was as outrageous as his on-court behaviour. There hasn’t been a better match between players of such contrasting styles and temperament since the 1980 Wimbledon men’s singles final. Right-handed Borg versus left-handed McEnroe. Baseliner Borg versus serve and volleyer McEnroe. European Borg versus Yankee McEnroe. Taciturn Borg versus the tempestuous McEnroe.
John McEnroe, the brash New Yorker, was ready to take over the mantle of the “King of Grass” from the Swede. The final match lasted five sets. The 4th set tie-break, won by McEnroe (18-16), itself went on for 20 minutes. However, despite winning that tie-break, McEnroe would go on to lose the final set (8-6) and the championship to Borg. McEnroe did not have to wait long for his revenge though. In the very next year, 1981, he would beat Borg in four sets to win his first-ever Wimbledon title. 1981 was the last time the two ever played against each other on the grass courts of Wimbledon. Their rivalry had everything the sport of tennis could ask for. McEnroe would win two more Wimbledon titles (1983 and1984).
Boris Becker versus Stefan Edberg
The Tennis Freaks
In the 80s, it was hard for a kid following tennis not to be besotted by Boris Becker. (There were a few weird exceptions, like this writer, whose favourite player of the 80s was Ivan Lendl! But I didn’t know of anyone in my entire school, friends and family circles, who used to root for Lendl.)
Becker won his first Wimbledon at the age of 17 in 1985. In fact, he won his second the very next year (beating Lendl in straight sets!) and till date, is the youngest ever men’s singles champion at Wimbledon. He introduced “power” in tennis on a scale hitherto unknown. His thundering serves (so deadly on grass) gave him the well-deserved title of “Boom Boom Becker”.
From 1988 to 1990, Becker contested three straight Wimbledon finals with Stefan Edberg, an Open Era record (which would be equalled 20 years later from 2006-2008 when Federer-Nadal contested three straight Wimbledon finals – but more of that later). An accomplished serve and volleyer, but bearing a personality polar opposite to that of Becker, was his chief rival on grass — the Swede Stefan Edberg. Unlike the German, the Swede was introverted and understated. However, he was easily one of the most graceful players ever to play professional tennis.
When they met in the first of their three straight finals, Becker had never lost a Wimbledon final. Edberg shocked Becker (and most of the tennis world) in the 1988 final. No surprises next year. Becker, in the midst of his best ever professional year on the ATP circuit, pulverised Edberg in straight sets to win the 1989 final (he was to beat Lendl at the US Open final later that year). The third straight final between the two legends swung again in favour of Edberg. Inexplicably, Becker would not add to his three Wimbledon titles, the last won in 1989. He would lose three more finals, against Edberg (1990), Michael Stich (1991) and Pete Sampras (1995). Edberg, too, would never win anymore Wimbledon titles apart from his two victories against Becker. But these two players were unarguably the best players on the grass of Wimbledon during the late 80s and early 90s.
In their career, head-to-head record, Becker dominated Edberg, with 25 victories to only 10 losses. But in the three Wimbledon finals they played, Becker lost to Edberg twice. This perfectly exemplifies the vagaries of sport. It’s not merely winning, but winning the right ones that matter.
Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal
News Agency of Nigeria
The two best players of the Open Era. They have had several breath-taking contests since the last decade and half (and still continue to do so). Remarkably, a dozen years after they squared off in their first Wimbledon final in 2006 — both of them are still the top two favourites to claim the 2018 men’s crown. A tribute to their unparalleled excellence as well as their physical longevity in a sport notorious for taking a heavy physical toll on its practitioners. Federer won the first two years in 2006 and 2007. Just when we thought that Federer would complete his hat-trick over Nadal, the Spaniard stunned the Swiss in a pulsating five-setter in 2008, which rivals the 1980 Borg-McEnroe final as the best-ever men’s singles final.
Rafael Nadal has unarguably been one of the most successful baseliners on the grass courts of Wimbledon in the Open Era. He has won it twice and been the runner-up thrice, and for his entire career has avoided going up to the net as if there was an income tax officer sitting on it. While large part of the credit must accrue to Nadal — his skill and his legendary never say die attitude — but an interesting tweak in the grass of courts at Wimbledon has undeniably contributed to his victories.
The 1990s saw several boring contests at Wimbledon due to overwhelming dominance of big servers. What was started by Becker, was taken to an entirely different and higher level by huge servers like Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic, Richard Krajicek et al — thereby forcing the authorities to relay the grass courts at the beginning of this millennium with “slower grass”. This technique was followed by most of the other fast hard courts which re-laid their surfaces for a “slower” court, to provide for an even contest between the baseliners and the serve-and-volleyers.
But even the best intentions can flop and flop it did — spectacularly. Rather than creating a level playing field, it wiped out serve-and-volleyers from the game of tennis. They are an endangered species now, almost on the verge of extinction. There are barely a couple of pure serve-and-volleyers in the Top 100. The powers that be failed to notice a simultaneous development in racket technology which now afforded immense power to the baseliners and coupled with slower courts, it made approaching the net a risky enterprise. Hence, post-Pete Sampras – all no.1 players are baseliners — even the great Roger Federer’s game has more in common with the baseliners.
Since the inception of the Open Era — top echelons of tennis were inhabited by baseliners and serve-and-volleyers, in almost equal proportion. Their contrasting style of play immensely added to allure of watching tennis. Now, it is mere power-hitting, rather incredibly power-hitting from the baseline. The average height of the top players has also increased by a few inches, further proving the inexorable march of tennis towards the power game. This is a matter of great worry. After all the common thread running through all the above rivalries were the contrasting styles of play between the players concerned. If this contest is replaced by a monochromatic, monotonous similarity, we may still witness great rivalries but perhaps not the exhilaration that normally accompanies it.