The classic 1980 Wimbledon Final between John McEnroe and Björn Borg has been dissected more than any match in tennis history. But the friendship that developed between the two, before and since, hasn't been as picked over, in part because Borg, who abruptly left the sport at age 26, has been generally averse to talking about tennis, or anything else for that matter, even when he was playing.
We all know about the fourth set tiebreaker in that Wimbledon final, in which McEnroe saved five match points, eventually winning the set 18-16 only to drop the match in the fifth. ("I was absolutely disgusted that I didn't win," McEnroe said. "It was a giveaway as far as I was concerned. Thankfully, it was historical.")
But did you know McEnroe had something of a heterosexual man-crush on Borg when he first saw Bjorn? "I'd never seen a tennis player look like this," McEnroe admits in HBO's McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice," documentary, which airs on Saturday night. "He had this sort of perfect Viking godlike look, and I certainly wanted to get the same type of things that he seemed to be getting, which was a lot of interest and a lot of girls. … I think everyone wanted to look like Bjorn. Certainly he had the cool clothes and the sweet headband and the great locks."
Unlike Agassi-Sampras, the friendship between McEnroe and Borg rivalry appears to be genuine. "Just being around Björn, and the matches we had, lifted me as a player and as a person," McEnroe said. And Borg: "John is always gonna mean something deep inside my heart."
Beyond the sweet headbands and shorts that would make Anthony Weiner blush, the film focuses on Borg's quirks that make Rafa Nadal's OCD seem quaint ("He'd sleep for ten hours a night at a certain temperature, naked"), his exit from tennis after losing to McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open final, and years of soul searching before a sad attempted comeback in 1990, when Björn refused to switch to graphite racquets, stubbornly sticking with wood. It's hard to feel sorry for someone who retired young to launch a high-end underwear line, but HBO managed to do just that.
The documentary even manages to make Mike Lupica sound profound-albeit in typical, breathless fashion.
"Somehow John—the kid from Douglaston [Queens], the kid from Trinity [School, on the Upper West Side]-convinced this element that he was from the roughest neighborhood on the Lower East Side," Lupica said. "It was a magnificent imagining of himself."
At an HBO screening earlier this week, McEnroe admitted his punk-rock image off the court was manufactured for leverage on it.
Of one famous Wimbledon argument with a chair umpire, McEnroe admitted he sounded "a bit like Weiner."
The film blows past McEnroe's (alleged) cocaine-fueled marriage to Tatum O'Neal, and skips his improbable run to the 1992 Wimbledon semifinal, which he lost to Andre Agassi—on the way to Agassi's only All-England Club title—entirely.
Of his life now—star of tennis' senior tour, multi-network analyst, prostate health pitchman, unabashed family guy, father of six—McEnroe said, "it's pretty much everything I said I wouldn't do back then."
It's like the 52-year-old McEnroe can hear the 20-year-old McEnroe screaming "You cannot be serious!" at him every day, instead of fans.
His only regret about participating in the documentary, McEnroe said, was its proximity to "Magic & Bird" and the fact that it "couldn't be 90 minutes."
Ross Greenburg, who said he checks Deadspin "every night before bed," told me I was "probably right" when I suggested they should've done short-run screening, in between bites from a seafood platter at the after-party at the Blue Water Grill. Bert Sugar, who was saddled up at the bar, called the documentary "real tight."
"You're not all assholes," McEnroe said later to the assembled journalists—perhaps finally noticing the irony that he's now one of them. "Some of you are alright."
Dylan Stableford, Deadspin's occasional tennis correspondent, is an editor at Yahoo.
McEnroe/Borg: Fire and Ice [HBO Sports]