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Sunday, 2 October 2011

Books - High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry by Stephen Tignor

Star rating – 8/10

I recognise that this is a classic sign of middle age, but the temptation to compare current sporting stars and eras unfavourably to past ones is very great when it comes to tennis. And although superb a match that the Federer v Nadal men’s Wimbledon final of 2008 undoubtedly was, for me it did not even come close to the 1980 gladiatorial contest between my then idol Bjorn Borg, and the young fiery upstart from America, John McEnroe. And this enthralling new book by Stephen Tignor, captures the essence of that time and place perfectly.

Much emphasis is, quite reasonably, usually placed in the telling of the rematch the following year, when McEnroe finally ended Borg’s five year unbeaten Wimbledon domination, at a match which was to be Borg’s last appearance at the All England Club as a player. And when Borg suffered the same fate at the hands of the young pretender at the following US Open, how he simply walked out of the stadium before the trophies were presented, and walked out of tennis, and his stratospheric career, for good. It is relatively easy to understand how Borg entered a period of almost terminal decline personally, when everything he had worked so tirelessly for from childhood had been taken away. He had no goals left, and could not tolerate a tennis life after being knocked off the number one spot.

What is fascinating about this book is the effect that Borg’s disappearing act had on his great rival McEnroe. Tignor explores this aspect of their relationship here, and explains how Borg had been his boyhood hero and idol. When he was rising to the pinnacle of tennis, he needed Borg as much as Borg needed him. They fed off each others’ brilliance and determination, and used their rivalry to attain even greater heights. Borg had such a calming effect on the McEnroe psyche, that on the one occasion that he was losing his famous temper whilst player the Swede, Borg simply invited him to the net, put his arms around the young American, and urged him to relax. Amazingly it did the trick, but only Borg could have had this effect on Super Brat. The Iceman Borg knew all about temper and how to control it, as underneath his glacial exterior, the same rage burned, he had just learned how to control it with an iron will over the years in order to succeed.

And life after Borg had a hollow feeling for McEnroe. He quickly declined too, the last of the era of wooden racket winners, who were quickly usurped by the power equipment and game of young guns like Agassi, Sampras, and Becker. But it is the theory that Tignor puts forward here, that McEnroe needed the rivalry with Borg to achieve his best, that is original and insightful.

My only quibble is that only a small part of the book is actually about Borg and McEnroe. Large parts are dedicated to the other players who made up the tennis hall of fame at that time such as Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitus, and Ilie Nastase. Not that I minded this, took me back to a time in my childhood when I loved nothing more than watching Wimbledon all day. But that is not really what the book is billed as. So maybe if the title had been a bit less misleading I would have not felt slightly short changed. Nevertheless if, like me, you want to relive wonderful childhood memories of Robinson's Barley Water (I only ever saw Virginia Wade actually drink the stuff); strawberries and cream; and the best tennis that will probably ever be played; then this book is an absolute delight.

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