In his book High Strung Stephen Tignor writes about the rivalry between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. While McEnroe was defined by his wild behavior, Borg was concerned with protecting his reputation as a consistent and unflappable player. Bill Littlefield talks with Tignor about the very different approaches that McEnroe and Borg took to tennis.

Bill’s Thoughts on High Strung

Perhaps the most enjoyable moment in High Strung, Stephen Tignor’s book about the rivalry between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, comes at the beginning of chapter thirteen. That’s when Tignor recounts the story of the day Vitas Gerulaitis, who had lost sixteen consecutive matches to Jimmy Connors, finally beat Connors at the 1980 Masters Tournament in New York. After his triumph, the victor told the press, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

But much of the rest of the book is, in fact, about the rivalry between McEnroe and Borg, neither of whom ever said anything that self-deprecatory or funny. McEnroe was too busy slamming his racket into the ground, whining, shouting at fans and calling the officials names, while Borg seemed committed to maintaining his image as an automaton programmed to grind down opponents relentlessly, albeit joylessly.

Of those two players who dominated tennis during the late seventies and early eighties, John Newcombe said, “I feel sorry for both of them. In our day, we never forgot it was a sport. It seems like now, with so much money, there ought to be more fun. But there isn’t. They’re missing all the pleasure in it.” Newcombe’s era was characterized by the camaraderie among the dominant Australian players. The era during which Borg and then McEnroe flourished? Well, as Stephen Tignor writes, “hierarchy, rather than camaraderie, would become the rule in tennis.” John McEnroe himself put it more bluntly when he said: “Deep down, nobody gives a shit about anybody else.”