From 1974 to 1980, Bjorn Borg was perhaps the most dominant player in men’s tennis. During that period, the Swede won 11 Grand Slam titles – six at the French Open and five at Wimbledon. But there was one hurdle he couldn’t cross – the US Open. While a third round appearance (in 1974) was the best he could manage at the Australian Open, Borg’s tryst with Flushing Meadows was a more painful one.
When one speaks of Borg, the mention of John McEnroe is unavoidable. After all, they formed one of the greatest rivalries in men’s tennis and were tied 7-7 in their career head-to-head. And it was a match between these two greats – the final of the 1981 US Open – that provided one of the most shocking moments in the history of the sport.
Borg’s first crack at the US Open, a tournament he had been dreaming of winning since he was 16, came in 1973, where he lost in the fourth round. From there on, he competed in the final Major of the year eight successive times and reached the final on four occasions. While several greats of the game have had an Achilles’ heel in their careers – a tournament they just couldn’t conquer – no one could’ve guessed the toll the US Open was taking on Borg.
In 1981, Borg came into the US Open desperately in search of the title. A few months earlier, he had been bested by his arch-rival McEnroe in the final of Wimbledon – a tournament he had won for five straight years prior to that. Thus, Borg was doubly motivated to claim the US Open title that year. He wanted to break the duck and also get back at McEnroe by defeating him in front of his home crowd.
And the New York crowd got just what they were wishing for – a final between Borg and McEnroe, the two finest men’s players of that time. There was little to choose between them. McEnroe had a lot going for him. He had won their last meeting and was the two-time defending champion. But Borg, he was a man on a mission.
The pretender got off to a strong start in the match. Borg served consistently and took the first set with one break of serve. It seemed at the time that he would finally fulfill his childhood dream, but it all went south for him from that point on.
Borg’s first serve percentage dropped dramatically in the second set as McEnroe started to raise his game. The double-faults started to kick-in, the shoulders dropped and Borg’s game simply unraveled. He fought back a bit in the third set by breaking McEnroe’s serve but the quiet determination that helped him throughout his career was just not there.
The American held his nerve and closed out a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 victory to complete a hat-trick of US Open titles.
Even as the crowd at the Arthur Ashe Stadium tried to made sense of the rather underwhelming turn of events, little did they know the drama that was to follow.
Borg shook hands with McEnroe, said thanks to the chair umpire, packed his bags, and walked off the court. He then freshened up in the locker room, sneaked out of the arena through the kitchen backdoor, and simply took off in his car even as McEnroe lifted the trophy by himself back on the court.
It was a stunning breakdown of a true champion of the sport. Borg could never recover from that painful loss to his great rival. He went on to play just one tournament the following year but in 1983, at the age of 26, he announced his retirement from the sport. He did play a couple of tournaments soon after, and also made a failed attempt at a comeback in 1991, but the last time we saw the best of him was at that fateful US Open 1981 final against McEnroe.
Here are highlights of the 1981 US Open men’s singles final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe: