Mac the Mouth again: "Tennis needs rivalries!"
Tennis does need great rivalries
When people come up and talk to me about the old days they invariably mention the 1980 Wimbledon final that I lost to Bjorn Borg. It seems like I lost that match 20 times more than I lost any other.
You would have thought that after all these years, I’d be sick and tired of the mention of it, but I’m not. When you have a rivalry that was as good as ours, it’s an honour to know it’s still remembered.
Tennis needs great rivalries like that. Every sport does. Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier; Jack Nicklaus versus Arnold Palmer; while in England I suppose it would be Arsenal versus Manchester United.
Tennis needs to get back to those kinds of rivalries that I had with Borg and Jimmy Connors, or that Pete Sampras had with Andre Agassi, in order to give the sport that extra edge.
There aren’t too many obvious ones around at the moment, but I could see Roger Federer and Andy Roddick developing into a pretty good one, given time and the opportunity; while in the women’s game there are great possibilities for an exciting rivalry between Justine Henin-Hardenne and the Williams sisters.
Great rivalries depend on certain factors that usually have to include either a contrast in styles or personalities — preferably both. The only acceptable similarity, I would say, is that the protagonists have to wear tight shorts and if it is topped off with a headband all the better.
Sadly for me, my rivalry with Borg did not last anywhere near as long as many people imagine. We met 14 times in major competition — seven wins apiece — and although that was far fewer than I played with Connors (20-13 in my favour) or Ivan Lendl (21-15 in his favour), the rivalry between the Swede and myself was easily the most memorable. There was a contrast in styles and obviously a contrast in personalities.
It also helps enormously when people care who wins, when they have personal favourites, and I think that was definitely the case with Borg and myself. The clothes, the hair, even the wooden rackets — the whole picture was magical. But there was never any bitterness between us as there was between Connors and Lendl and myself.
It was one of the great regrets of my career when Borg decided to retire after the 1981 US Open at the age of 25. I know our rivalry made me a better player and I like to think it made him better, too. I just feel I could have improved more had he stayed around.
Many explanations have been put forward for why he did not. No one will ever know the real reason, except perhaps Borg himself, and I’m not even sure he knows because it just sort of happened. I think he was the first player who could afford to stop at a young age.
I remember Rod Laver was the first guy to make $100,000 but he had to play 30 to 35 tournaments to do it. If you look at most players from Laver’s time they’re still doing things, be it coaching or running tennis academies — guys who have got a real job. But Borg was the first one to be able to retire on what he had made from the sport.
Another reason, perhaps, was that he thought his game no longer matched up well against mine on the faster surfaces. The year he quit I had beaten him, I believe, on three straight occasions, including Wimbledon and the US Open.
Remember, too, that although he was still young he had been playing for a long time. He turned pro when he was 15. He expected so much of himself that I think after ten years he sort of burnt out. I think the fact that he was finally enjoying the fruits of his labour also influenced his decision.
He had led a very regimented life. When he played Wimbledon, for example, he would stay at the same hotel, eat the same food at the same time. I think the monotony got to him.
And then there was that thing where he wouldn’t shave until he lost, so that meant for four years in succession, between the French and Wimbledon, he’d grow this beard.
I still think he pulled the trigger a little too quickly. He also had a great rivalry with Connors and was dominating him the last couple of years they played.
The year after he retired, I lost in the semi-finals of the US Open to Lendl and Connors won the title. Who was to say that Borg wouldn’t have beaten him if he had still been around?
He was also shabbily treated by our own union. I remember we had to commit ourselves to certain tournaments each year and when he refused to do that, they made him play in the qualifying tournament at the US Open. Can you imagine that? One of our greatest champions and he has to play the qualies!
There doesn’t always have to be a contrast in personalities for great rivalries to thrive. Connors and I were both fairly similar types, both very emotional, like two stags locking horns. But there was a distinct difference in our style of play: he would come at you from the baseline while I would come at him from the net. Neither of us liked to lose to the other so we would each go to extreme lengths in order not to do so.
Of course enmity like that can make for great rivalries, as can great effort. Most people would say, ‘God, you’re really into this, you really try hard”, and I would always compare myself to Connors.
I don’t believe Sampras would have been as impressive a player had it not been for his rivalry with Agassi that lifted him to great heights. Rivalries can do that for you. I mean, I would have loved to have played regularly against Sampras and Boris Becker on grass in my prime, or Borg more often on clay.
I would probably have lost to most of them but that’s what you want to do as an athlete: test yourself against the best. I’m sure Tim Henman would have been an even better player had he had another Briton to extend him — Greg Rusedski turned British too late in his life to have much effect.
Agassi first played Sampras when they were ten and nine respectively, and also Jim Courier and Michael Chang were playing each other from an early age, pushing each other on.
The first rivalry that I can recall was that between Laver and Ken Rosewall. I remember wanting Rocket Rod to win so bad, which he usually did, but Rosewall often found a way of hanging in there.
Laver was my idol. He had every shot in the book long before Federer had it. Rosewall was five-feet-seven-inches, didn’t have much of a serve, and always hit his backhand sliced — he never came over a backhand — yet somehow he made four Wimbledon finals, including one at 19 and another at 39.
I remember playing him once when he was preparing for a winner-take-all tournament in Madison Square Garden. He needed a practice partner. I was 17 at the time and lucky enough to get the call. I was so pumped up, but he made me work so hard. I was completely exhausted by the end of it, having lost something like 4-6, 3-6. And I thought, ‘At least I made him work a little bit, too’. And then he says to me, ‘You wanna play another set?’ I nearly died.
Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert played each other something like 80 times — now that’s a rivalry. A lefty against a righty and a woman who never showed her emotion against one who generally did.
It would help if there was another men’s player around to duel with Federer and Roddick. But there’s only a select few who could rise to that level. An ideal type would be Lleyton Hewitt, who has this great intensity; a little guy who wants to prove he can play with the big boys. Other than him, I think there is only Marat Safin who has real box-office appeal.
There’s an element of the Ali-George Foreman mix about Roddick and Federer. The American is the one with the big shot, like Foreman, but if he doesn’t get the job done, as was the case at Wimbledon last year, then Federer has the versatility of an Ali to finish him off.
Roddick has a bigger serve than Federer but doesn’t back it up as well. And while his forehand might be better than Federer’s, his backhand definitely isn’t. When Federer gets into a rally there is a comfort level that he has that is remarkable to watch against an opponent who hits the ball as hard as Roddick, which is harder than I have ever seen anyone hit a ball.
Normally, it’s difficult to remain calm in such circumstances, but he plays with an ease that the rest of us can only dream about. Roddick hasn’t had things all his own way since the US Open, although he did win the Nasdaq-100 Open. His defeat to Federer in last year’s Wimbledon semi-final ought to have left him desperate to renew their rivalry.
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