New York — They say that defending a championship is harder than winning it the first time, but don't look to the result of the men's singles in this year's US Open Tennis Tournament to prove the point. John McEnroe retained his title, securing a 7-6,6-1,5-7,6-4 victory over Bjorn Borg, in a classic rematch of Wimbledon finalists.
Borg had won their wimbledon duel this year in one of the most spine-tingling matches ever to conclude a major championship and sought to keep his Grand Slam dream alive with his first US crown.
For McEnroe to win the Open's war of attrition against such a rival was no mean feat, especially considering the steep road the trod to the final.
Less than 24 hours before Sunday's finale, he had spent four-plus hours exchanging haymakers with Jimmy Connors, ultimately scoring the knockout shot in a fifth-set tiebreaker. But at one point in midmatch, he los 11 straight games and appeared to be helplessly on the ropes. It's in just such situatins, however, that McEnroe seems to thrive.
And the same can be said of Borg, who twice had his back to the wall, only to pull out five-set victories over Roscoe Tanner in the quarterfinals and Johan Kriek in the semis.
Against Kriek, he dropped the firs two sets, then dug in to devastate the unseeded South African, allowing him to win just three games the rest of the way.
This prelude helped set the stage for the intriguing title bout on the National Tennis Center's stadium court.
In one corner was the stoic Swede, referred to as "Ice Borg" for his unshakable composure; in the other the sometimes-abrasive, intense American once dubbed "Super brat" by the british press.
McEnroe, of nearby Douglaston, N.Y., had actually begun to repair his public image during his Wimbledon loss to Borg two months ago. He kept his behavior in line while playing with his usual tenacity, especially in winning the fourth-set tiebreaker 18 points to 16. His father, John McEnroe Sr., a Park Avenue lawyer who manages his son's career, later said that "if you could figure out a way to lose and do the most for yourself,that was it."
John Jr. may have won new respect at Wimbledon, but a lot of Americans -- or at least many of those who jammed the 19,000- seat Louis Armstrong Stadium -- hardly consider him the people's choice. He still snarls and argues too much to be a crowd favorite even in his own backyard. But if McEnroe is less than popular, he somehow makes the best of it, almost playing off the crowd's negative reactions to create a drama in which he suffers through to victory.
In the final, the loudest cheers were generally reserved for Borg, an ideal championm, respecful, determined, and seemingly impervious to pressure. Partly, of course, this was because many wanted to see him nail down the third leg of the Grand Slam, something he's now failed to do three years running.
If he had won here, it would have been off to koala country to play in December's Australian Open, the forgotten, finishing leg of the slam. The last player to sweep the big four -- the French, Wimbledon, US, and Australian titles -- was Rod Laver in 1969.
By snuffing out Don Budge as slam winners, McEnroe made history in his own right by becoming the first male to win back-to-back US titles since Neale Fraser did it 20 years ago.
Entering the final, McEnroe had to feel good about being a left-hander and Borg a bit apprehensive hitting from the right side. Southpaws, after all, had locked up the previous six singles crowns, with Connors, Manuel Orantes, Guillermo vilas, and McEnroe all having played a part in keeping the string alive. Left-hander. A good serve can be a major asset for a lefty, and McEnroe has a deadly one which he delivers by uncoiling out of an odd service stance.
It was with this serve and brilliant, acrobatic volleying that McEnroe hoped to break down the steadiness of Borg, who whips most opponents with his fierce topspin shots.
The first set saw both players hold their own serves until a succession of four service breaks forced a tiebreaker -- ah, shades of Wimbledon. After McEnroe won that, Borg's game became uncharacteristically sloppy and listless. One wondered if he had been demoralized. Everything changed in the third set, though, when he began his comeback in earnest.
The question that emerged: Could McEnroe, with his wealth of talent, possibly lose three straight sets and the match? It appeared doubtful, yet Borg had won 13 consecutive five-set matches, so when things went the distance Bjorn's rooters were reservedly optimistic.
McEnroe, of course, held off the challenge, but the world's top-ranked player said he would continue his Open quest.
"I'm going to keep trying," Borg stated afterward. "That will be my biggest ambition in the future: to win the US Open."