John McEnroe

But they were. It was like life and death to each of them. They were remarkably alike, both in history and temperament. Both were tennis prodigies. Bjorn Borg was just 15 when he played in Sweden’s Davis Cup team and beat the number 20 in the world. He was 19 when he won Wimbledon for the first time. John McEnroe was only two years older when they met on Centre Court. But how did they become so determined to be the best in the world? Was it all to do with their parents? While their mothers gave them the love and self belief, it was probably their strict fathers who forged that backbone of steel that meant that neither could ever give up. Confident of the stability of the family and the sole focus of their parents’ ambition, they had to be the best. It was unacceptable to be mediocre. Good enough was no good at all!  If they were not the best, they were nothing.

Tennis is a gladiatorial contest, in which you live or die by your own skill and will to succeed.  Perhaps it is only teenagers have that obsessional drive and dedication to satisfy the ambitious love of a demanding parent.

The young Bjorn Borg had a volatile temperament and could lose it when he was not winning and had unfair line call. He was trouble. It was only when his coach, Lennart Bergelin, who had also represented Sweden in the Davis Cup and ws once number 9 in the world,  told him to channel his fury into the next shot and not waste it by ranting at the umpire, that he began to change. He became the ice man, turning the air conditioning in his hotel room down to zero to keep himself totally cool, totally focussed. McEnroe called him the machine, but his psychological mechanism had a tightly coiled spring, that was only be released when he got on court. McEnroe probably had the same degree of aggression; his rants at the umpire released the pent up tension, allowing him to gather himself and stay in control.  The 1980 Wimbledon final was the perfect match: ‘the ice man’ versus ‘superbrat’.

McEnroe had the upper hand to begin with and won the first set. The commentators were already writing Borg off. But in second, Borg served an ace and announced his recovery with a vengeance. He won the third as well. McEnroe looked flustered and confused before the beginning of the fourth, but Borg said, ‘C’mon. It’s a great match’. That set was so evenly matched, it went to a tie break. Borg had six match points, but McEnroe came back each time, gaining two match points which Borg nullified. McEnroe eventually won the tie break by a phenomenal eighteen points to sixteen. They had to play a fifth, but that also went to a tie break, which Borg won. it was an amazing match, the like of which has never been bettered on Centre Court. McEnroe won the respect of the British crowd on that day and although he never stopped ranting, he was great entertainment and had many supporters.

Psychoanalysts might say that the McEnroe’s rants and Borgs tightly controlled narcissistic rage were Oedipal expressions of aggression at the harsh parent who had first call on their mother’s love. But if so, how did they grow out of it?

Borg played McEnroe the next year but lost and retired from tennis. He said at the time he didn’t mind losing. Something had changed. Perhaps he had nothing more to prove. He was persuaded to come back on the tour some years later but was never good enough. The fire had gone out. Perhaps getting married, living abroad and starting his own business distanced him from the influence of his parents. McEnroe is still playing tennis, competing in veterans tournaments and commentating on radio and television. For a time he tried to be a rock star, but it didn’t work. He has mellowed, become more thoughtful and developed an engaging, self deprecating humour. He doesn’t have to win any more. It is like they have both grown up. Tennis is no longer life and death. There is more to life. Their narcissism had been tempered by the realisation that they have to work with others to be at peace with themselves and successful in life. They have been socialised. Borg is a successful businessman with a big fashion company in Sweden. He is happily married and has three children. McEnroe, as far as we know, is also contentedly married with five children. Borg was his best man.

The Swedish biopic Borg/McEnroe has been released this and is in cinemas now ,