Centre Court turns 100 this year. During that time, this bastion of propriety and tradition has also borne witness to a century’s worth of progress and tennis democratization. For its centennial, we look back at 10 of its most historic and sport-changing matches.
1980: The five-set final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe was the pinnacle of their rivalry—and the Woodstock of their tennis eraBy Jun 20, 2022
Serena Williams' energetic return to Centre Court after a year away from the game was a brave effort, and one worthy of her legendBy Jun 29, 2022
2009: The first full match under Centre Court's roof showcased British tennis' newest Wimbledon title contender, Andy MurrayBy Jun 23, 2022
2008: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer produced a quantum leap in quality and entertainment in their classic, daylong finalBy Jun 22, 2022
2007: After fighting for pay equity at Wimbledon, Venus Williams became the first woman to collect an equal-sized champion’s checkBy Jun 21, 2022
1975: In defeating a seemingly invincible Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe showed that with enough thought and courage, anyone in tennis can be beatenBy Jun 19, 2022
1968: At the first open Wimbledon, Billie Jean King receives her first winner’s check—and notices a “big difference” with her male counterpartsBy Jun 18, 2022
1967: With the Wimbledon Pro event, professional tennis finally comes to the amateur game’s most hallowed lawnBy Jun 17, 2022
1957: “At last! At last!” Althea Gibson fulfilled her destiny at Wimbledon, and with every win she opened up the sport a little widerBy Jun 16, 2022
1937: With a World War looming and one man playing for his life, Don Budge and Baron Gottfried von Cramm stage a Davis Cup decider for the agesBy Jun 15, 2022
1980: The five-set final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe was the pinnacle of their rivalry—and the Woodstock of their tennis era
In its setting and place in time, this Wimbledon final serves as a poignant reminder of a golden era now long past, when tennis reached a peak of popularity and cultural influence it would never reach again.
Published Jun 20, 2022
Bjorn Borg d. John McEnroe
1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6
1980 Wimbledon men’s final
The 1980 Wimbledon men’s final made tennis history even before a ball was hit. It was the first time that anyone at the All England Club could remember boos—a “cacophony” of them, according to one writer—raining down from the normally respectful Centre Court audience as the players walked out to play a championship match.
They were raining on one player, to be precise, and he was unlike any that Wimbledon had seen in its 104-year history. Twenty-one-year-old John McEnroe, the bellicose, frizzy-haired New Yorker known to the London tabloids as Superbrat, was making his debut in the final. There he would face the four-time defending champion, Bjorn Borg, the stoical, long-haired Swede who had once been known to those same tabloids as the Teen Angel. Their respective nicknames gave you a pretty good idea of who the fans at Wimbledon were rooting for that day.
Borg and McEnroe—lefty vs. righty, attacker vs. defender, fire vs. ice, machine vs. mad genius, civilization vs. its discontents—was a rivalry made in tennis heaven. While the two would face each other just 14 times over the course of four seasons, splitting those matches 7-7, they became the standard by which all of the sport’s future duels would be measured.
It was against Borg that McEnroe had made his entrance onto the world tennis stage. In 1978, as an 18-year-old, he walked into Borg’s home arena, in Stockholm, and stunned the world’s best player in straight sets. It was also against Borg that McEnroe would fulfill his vast promise for the first time, by raising his game to a place where even the Swede couldn’t follow in their Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals of 1981. McEnroe was so brilliant in those matches that Borg left the sport entirely rather than try to compete with him. With his retirement from Grand Slam tennis in ’81, the first great period of the Open era would come to a sudden close.
Borg and McEnroe—lefty vs. righty, attacker vs. defender, fire vs. ice, machine vs. mad genius, civilization vs. its discontents—was a rivalry made in tennis heaven.
But July 5, 1980, belonged to Borg, and this is the one match of their 14 that tennis fans remember and celebrate to this day. That’s partly because it’s the last important one where the angel triumphed over the devil. It’s also because, in its setting and place in time, with its wooden racquets, colorful headbands, short shorts, and wild hair, the 1980 Wimbledon final serves as a poignant reminder of a golden era now long past, when tennis reached a peak of popularity and cultural influence it would never reach again. The match took place 12 years after the beginning of open tennis, and in many ways its two protagonists were shining, wealthy examples of how successful the transition from amateur to professional had been. Watching it now is like watching the sport’s version of Woodstock.
And then there was the tennis itself. This classic contrast in styles lasted for nearly four hours, and escalated in drama and quality with each game.
Borg was a notorious slow starter, but he outdid himself on this day, listlessly flipping balls into the net on his way to a 6-1 first-set loss—midway through, he could still be seen stretching his legs. But while McEnroe was confident of his chances against him on grass, he wasn’t yet free from the Angelic Assassin’s mystique; Borg was, after all, a childhood hero of his, and someone who had taken the younger player under his wing in his early years on tour. The American kept the door ajar at the end of the second set just long enough for Borg to knife his way through with two pinpoint passing shots.
His teeth into the match at last, Borg didn’t appear that he would let go. He won the third set quickly, and struck again for what looked like the final service break late in the fourth. But McEnroe produced a scintillating series of shots of his own to break back. While it wouldn’t be enough to win him this match, after that game he said he knew what he was capable of, and that one of the things he was capable of was beating Borg.
Superbrat and the Assassin proceeded to a fourth-set tiebreaker. Wimbledon, after reluctantly installing Jimmy Van Alen’s match-shortening system a few years earlier when a set reached 8-8, had joined the rest of the modern world in 1979 and started using it at 6-6. If Borg were to win this one, he would become the first man to win Wimbledon in a tiebreaker (Evonne Goolagong had broken that barrier on the women’s side the previous day). The thought of it may have made the ghosts of Wimbledon balk: This would become the breaker that would never end, and which Borg couldn’t win.
It was also one of the great passages of tennis ever played. Over the first four sets, the two men hadn’t come up with their best at the same time. For the next 34 points, in The War of 18-16, they did. McEnroe saved five more match points, while Borg saved an equal number of set points. Every shot was tracked down, every stroke of brilliance topped by another, every superb approach beaten by a better pass. Finally, with the tension as high as it had ever been inside the 58-year-old Centre Court, it ended in anti-climax. At 16-17, Borg plunked a drop shot into the bottom of the net. The Ice Man, it seemed, had finally cracked. McEnroe was sure that he would be the new Wimbledon champion.
Fourteen games and one more unthinkable reversal later, though, it was Borg who assumed his familiar victory pose—knees on the ground, hands held out prayerfully before him—for a fifth straight year, with a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6 win. Instead of melting, he had fired up his serve as never before; he lost just two points in his seven service games in the final set. McEnroe, so sure of a win a few minutes earlier, could only look on in awe at Borg’s psychological reserves.
Yet in winning that fabled fourth-set tiebreaker, McEnroe had also learned something about his own potential that day, and he would soon show Borg and the world how far it could take him. Perhaps the fans in Centre Court had an inkling of it already. The same people who had booed him as he walked on, gave him a rousing ovation as he walked off.