x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The original duelling duo of Bjorg and McEnroe

The Borg and McEnroe rivalry was short, but the memories are long.

John McEnroe, right, and Bjorn Borg, only played each 14 times, with seven wins a piece.
John McEnroe, right, and Bjorn Borg, only played each 14 times, with seven wins a piece.

As tennis celebrated the revival of the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer last week, a documentary took fans on a nostalgic trip, revisiting one of the most compelling feuds the sport has seen.

Fire and Ice, a 60-minute HBO documentary, took tennis lovers back to those halcyon days when the charismatic duo of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe took the sport to new heights.

The rivalry between the stoic Borg (Ice) and mercurial McEnroe (Fire) lasted less than four years and just 14 matches. The scores were level 7-7 at the end of it all.

Nadal and Federer have played each other 25 times over the past eight years, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi faced each other 34 times, while Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert met in 80 matches, including 14 grand slam finals.

"I don't think people understand it was a James Dean type of rivalry - it came and went," said Mary Carillo, who helped write the documentary and appears in it. "And McEnroe never had another rival that made him aspire."

Borg and McEnroe have given tennis what is often described as the best match of all time: the epic 1980 Wimbledon final.

"Until the 2008 Nadal-Federer classic at the All England Club, the Borg-McEnroe five-setter at Wimbledon was the greatest tennis match I had ever seen," Neil Amdur wrote in the New York Times.

"Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 victory over Federer at Wimbledon in 2008 introduced another level of critique to the discussion. But after watching chunks of the 3hrs 53mins McEnroe-Borg final at an HBO screening, I am tempted again to reaffirm its place as the sport's single most compelling piece of court magic."

McEnroe lost that match but returned to end Borg's 41-match winning streak at Wimbledon the following year. McEnroe won the last of their matches as well at the 1981 US Open final. Four months after that loss, Borg walked away from tennis at the age of 25, despite pleas from McEnroe to return.

"It made absolutely no sense to me ... none," said McEnroe in the documentary. "I would ask him, 'When are you coming back? Tennis needs you. I need you'."

Several years later, after an exhibition match, the Swede finally explained his decision to McEnroe: "No 1 is the only thing that matters. You know it as well as I do. If you're No 2, you might as well be No 3 or 4. You're a nobody."

Knowing the importance of No 1 to Federer, it is tempting to find parallels with Borg. Yet, Federer, 29, refuses to stop, perhaps for the same reasons as Agassi.

"I wanted to feel like I retired," the American said. "I didn't want to feel like I quit."