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Book Review: High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and The Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry by Stephen Tignor

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As that most hallowed of tennis events, Wimbledon, unfolds in its 125th staging at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Stephen Tignor’s High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and The Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry, serves as a lively look back at what’s widely regarded as the sport’s “Golden Age” and the personalities who defined an era.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, as High Strung encompasses much more than the Borg-McEnroe rivalry (it’s bookended by two now almost-mythical matches between the champions: the 1980 Wimbledon and 1981 U.S. Open finals). It serves as a history of when tennis bridged its genteel and stodgy pre-Open past to the wild, freewheeling, and fan-riveting years of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with names like Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase, and Vitas Gerulaitis, in addition to Borg and McEnroe, as headliners.

Tignor, a former executive editor at Tennis magazine, displays a deep knowledge of the nuances of the game, as well as a knack for colorful detail and description — Borg: the “Angelic Assassin,” with “a headband for a halo”; McEnroe: “The Dark Prince of Queens,” with “the insouciance of the born improviser” — that makes High Strung a tennis lover’s delight. His overview of the key elements that shook the foundations of the sport forever, as well as the athletes who contributed to the seismic changes, provides a detailed picture of an institution in a radical state of flux.

Technical aspects so critical to the evolution of the sport are also explored, as the author notes how the arrival of the Czech “techno-man” Ivan Lendl was a precursor to the power game that would bring McEnroe’s days as the feathery maestro with a wooden racquet to an end. (Tignor notes that by the time McEnroe transitioned to the next-generation midsize racquet, it was too late for him to master the demolishing forehand later employed by players such as Andre Agassi. McEnroe was the last to win the U.S. Open using wood, in 1981.)

But no doubt it’s the “fire and ice” contrast of Borg and McEnroe that’s the fascinating crux of the book. The methodical and enigmatic Swede, whose “mind never seemed to get in the way of his muscle memory,” is a storybook foil for the brash “superbrat” McEnroe, whose heart (and mouth) were always worn on his sleeve, and whose tantrums (and unequaled poeticism of strokes) became the stuff of legend.

Both brought out the best in the other, as in the classic 1980 Wimbledon final, a match (won by Borg) that in the words of McEnroe’s father, “no one lost.” For McEnroe, Borg was an “early idol and protector, his rival on tennis’s Olympus,” Tignor writes, and there was no one else whom he “respected as much,” or “could motivate him” in the same way.

The author artfully recreates the drama of Borg’s final appearance in a Grand Slam, at the ’81 U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York, with a you-are-there feeling that conjures the moment in time 30 years ago when McEnroe opened the match:

“At 4:10 p.m., with the orange sun shining above his right shoulder, McEnroe lifted his right arm high and held it there with elegant nonchalance. The ball reached the peak of its toss. As it did, he snapped the left side of his body upward and sent a skidding ace past Borg’s forehand side. The audience close to the court clapped politely but tepidly. Someone high in the stands bellowed, ‘That’s it, Johnny!’” 

And it was. McEnroe went on to win (6-3 in the fourth set), and Borg walked away from the one “major” he couldn’t achieve, without so much as accepting the runner-up trophy, never to play in a significant tournament again. With him went a remarkable epoch in tennis history – now quite vividly recaptured in the highly entertaining High Strung.

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