U.S. Open 1976
The year was 1976 and 20-year-old Bjorn Borg was playing Jimmy Connors in the finals of the U. S. Open.
The ice man or “Is i magen” in Swedish paced the baseline like a tiger ready to leap forward into the court at the slightest provocation.
The players battled on skimpy-looking green clay under the lights after beginning the match in the bright sunlight.
In 1976, Borg had won his first Wimbledon Championship after losing in the French Open quarterfinals to Italian Adriano Panatta, the only man who ever beat Borg at this event––twice.
It was the Swede’s first final in New York and it was on clay. 1976 would be Borg’s best chance to win what would prove to be his most elusive final.
Connors, however, was aiming toward his fourth grand slam title and his second U.S. Open title. Since 1974, Connors was clearly struggling to quiet his critics who touted that the American could no longer win the big tournaments, especially the majors.
In 1974 the American triumphed in three of four majors––all except the French. In 1975 Connors made all of the major finals, except the French––losing them all. So far in 1976 Connors had added no major trophies to his mantle.
The press was relentless. Connors had something to prove.
In the beginning, they kept things even. By the time the third set began, each man had a set in his pocket. The match teetered on the brink the the third set.
With each man holding six games in his bag, the third set went into a tiebreak which eventually settled at 6-6. After coming back from the brink, saving 4 set points in the thrilling tiebreak, Connors secured the third set at 11-9.
Playing with new confidence while the Swede sagged in disappointment, the American Connors broke the Borg serve in the fifth game of the fourth set.
Serving for the match in the fourth set at 5-4, Connors sent it wide to Borg’s backhand. Borg sent the ball back, gaining needed real estate, winning the point.
This sent the game to deuce. At the second match point – Connors sent his second shot long. Back to Deuce. The third match point for Connors is successful again wide to the Borg backhand.
The loss ended a 19 game winning streak for Borg whose stony demeanor on court was becoming legendary. Connors blasted the media after his win in typical fiery Connors fashion. Life was good for the American, winning the U.S. Open in 1976 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4.
To view some highlights of this match click here.
U. S. Open 1978
In 1978 Bjorn Borg once again encountered “bad luck” in his attempt to win the U.S. Open in the brilliant new facility in Flushing Meadows, New York––the first year the tournament moved to its present location.
Borg’s opponent in the final was his long-time rival Jimmy Connors. Connors was itching to get back at the Swede after Borg spanked him soundly during the finals at the All-England Club earlier that summer, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.
Connors, with his usual spit-fire disposition, told the assembled press that he “would go to the ends of the earth” to stop Borg from winning the U.S. Open and a potential grand slam. Connors meant it, too.
Borg had already won the French Open and Wimbledon in 1978. Connors was able to stop the Swede dead in his tracks in New York, for the second time.
The bad luck for Borg in 1978 came in the form of a blister on the thumb of his right hand––the hand that held the racket. It had developed on Saturday and trainers had treated it with ice and oral medication and sprays.
During the match the racket flew out of his hand several times and many times he seemed to mis-hit the ball. Borg, however, refused to make excuses and claimed the thumb did not bother him during the match.
Connors, on the other hand, played inspired tennis that even a healthy Borg might have found difficult to contain and conquer.
In the first set, Connors needed only a single break of serve in the fifth game. Then he held on to his own serve to take the first set. Following that Connors broke Borg’s serve in the third game of the second set. It was all over for Borg. He lost in straight sets with hardly a whimper, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.
It was Borg’s first defeat in 50 matches––but Borg swore he would have many other opportunities staring with next year.
U.S. Open 1980
In 1980 Bjorn Borg, the winner of the greatest match ever at Wimbledon against John Patrick McEnroe, found himself again in a final against the pesky American upstart.
If Borg could win the 1980 U.S. Open, having already captured the French Open in the spring, he would be only one step away from a calender year slam. All Borg would have to do is bounce on down to Australia in December and win there on grass.
It would mark Borg’s third final, his third try to capture the U.S. Open title which was now played on a synthetic surface after a short stint on clay. New Yorkers referred to it as “cement.”
John McEnroe came in as the defending champion and was prime to upset Borg in New York City in front of his hometown people. There had not been a repeat winner since Neale Fraser of Australia had done so in 1959-1960.
McEnroe was also suffering because he had endured a tough four-and-half hour semifinal against Jimmy Connors the day before, in fact a mere 20 hours before stepping on court for this final.
You can recover quickly when you are 21.
Borg served abysmally throughout the match – getting a mere 49 percent of first serves in and double-faulting nine times in the match. Yet the Wimbledon champion fought hard making the best of second serve opportunities.
The inability to serve well caused Borg to work harder than even the Swedish workhorse was accustomed.
Running on adrenalin McEnroe took the first set 7-6 and then capitalized on Borg’s disappointment to sweep away the second set 6-1.
Borg fought back in the third set, breaking McEnroe in the seventh game. The American broke back and the third set went to a tiebreak. Borg went down fast 1-3 but battled to even it and then win the tiebreak 7-5. He trailed two sets to one.
The two combatants were both tiring in the fourth but it was McEnroe who found that his legs had turned to rubber. It took Borg, however, until the 12th game of set four to break McEnroe with a couple of service winners on two McEnroe second serves.
Once again, the two found themselves in a fifth set. McEnroe had a sinking feeling heading into the fifth, recalling how Borg rebounded at Wimbledon in the final set.
But McEnroe summoned all his reserves and stayed even with Borg. The American finally broke the Swede in the seventh game and held onto his serve to secure the title.
It was a major disappointment for the Swede––his third loss in New York City’s biggest tennis tournament. He fought back from two sets down with a serve that decided to take a hiatus during the final to level the match, only to blink first in the fifth, 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4. The Swede would try one more time next year.
Take a look at this match in this clip by clicking here.
U.S. Open 1981
What a difference a year makes. In 1981 Bjorn Borg would play his final match at the U.S. Open before essentially walking away from professional tennis.
His opponent in New York that year was John McEnroe, the same man who defeated Borg as he was going for his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title earlier that summer.
After chasing Borg for years, McEnroe took the Wimbledon trophy from the man who had owned Centre Court. It was a devastating loss for the Swede who’d grown accustomed to the pomp and circumstance of the All-England Club.
Borg had to defeat the usual suspects to make it into the final at Flushing Meadows––Roscoe Tanner in the quarterfinals and Jimmy Connors in the semis. The last man he really wanted to see across the net during the final stood there, nonetheless––John McEnroe.
Usually the matches between these two were small skirmishes where one came out on top for the moment. The feeling remained that the war was ongoing and no one had won or lost––not yet. But the final in 1981 painted Borg as a loser that day.
After winning the first set, McEnroe came back to dominate, truly overwhelm the Swede. Borg could not sustain continually skirting the painted boundaries with pinpoint shots up the line and cross court requiring unending depth and precision.
McEnroe came back to win the second set fairly easily. Things looked like they would get very interesting in the third set when Borg broke McEnroe’s serve. McEnroe, however broke back, eventually breaking Borg and going on to secure the third set.
At his fans urging, Borg began another comeback in the fourth set, breaking the American’s serve to retaliate for his own break by McEnroe. Now trailing 3-2, Borg needed to hold on to level the set at 3-3. Normally, Borg would have accomplished that feat with his eyes closed. But not that day.
McEnroe broke and went up 4-2 as Borg committed four errors in one game. Hardly typical behavior for the Swede. Borg managed to hold onto his serve one more time, barely. McEnroe closed out the match, seizing his third consecutive U.S. Open Championship 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.
Borg, suffering with death threats and defeat, did not stick around even for the trophy award ceremony. John McEnroe had dethroned the king. Borg would never return.
To see the action unfold click here.
In later years, Borg would look back at his career at the U.S. Open and simply blame bad luck for his inability to win. Something always came up to prevent a victory. It is just the way life plays out sometimes.