Every time I hear or read a sports-related discussion, I’m reminded of a cartoon I once saw on a Web site. One stick figure says to another, “A weighted random number generator just produced a new batch of numbers.” “Let’s use them to build narratives!” replies the other.
The descriptor at the bottom? “All Sports Commentary.”
Sports fans spend a lot of time building narratives; one can argue that sports-watching wouldn’t be much fun if we didn’t do it. We are all guilty of reading too much into statistics, or tossing off smug statements about this or that player. (Try counting the number of times you’ve heard the remark “He can’t handle pressure”, made about someone who has been ranked in the top 10 of his sport for years.) We think we know what is going on in the head of our favourite player, and we make whimsical connections between athletes who lived decades apart. Even the more balanced, self-aware viewers frequently succumb to the human tendency to see patterns.
Aiding us in this is the sports media, which specialises in creating stories with a dramatic arc (they’d be out of their jobs if they didn’t). So we regularly get headlines about eras ending and batons passing rapidly from one champion to another when, in fact, sports history is more often marked by slow, incremental changes. The careers of top players overlap for long periods; a champion may begin his decline or get overtaken, but then return for a last hurrah when no one expects it. When he entered the 2002 US Open, the once-dominant Pete Sampras had gone 33 tournaments without a title — the ‘Sampras Era’ was well and truly over — but he won that trophy against all expectations. Before him, Jimmy Connors reached the semi-finals of the 1991 USO at the age of 39, eight years after his last Slam win and more than 15 years after his peak. Sporting narratives are rarely cut and dried.
All that said, it’s easy to see why so many tennis experts consider the 1981 US Open historically significant and the end of an important era in the men’s game. It was the last major, or Slam, for Bjorn Borg, who had been the most dominant male player of the previous few years. His rock star-like status had defined the first decade of the Open Era, a period when the sport’s class division came to an end and drastic changes did take place. And Borg’s own career, unlike those of most athletes, ended on a genuinely dramatic note: Shortly after losing the USO final to his younger rival and nemesis John McEnroe, he announced his retirement, aged only 25.
It’s no surprise, then, that Stephen Tignor — one of the best tennis writers at work today — has written a book that focusses on the 1981 USO as the culmination of a dynamic decade, as well as a harbinger of the decade to come. But in looking at the era through the prism of its most celebrated rivalry, Tignor’s High Strung also recognises that the friction between competitors is what makes sporting contests so compelling.
The Borg-McEnroe story had every element you’d want from a dramatic storyline, not least an attention-grabbing contrast in personalities. Anyone familiar with Tignor’s work for Tennis magazine will know that he is a writer with a head for nuance, but even he can’t resist titling the first chapter of his book ‘The Angel and the Brat’, and setting one legendary persona against another: Borg the Ice Man, under whose imperturbable surface burnt hidden fires, versus McEnroe the Superbrat, perpetually on edge, scourge of umpires and genteel viewers. Weaving in and out of this story is the other top player of the time, and the Open Era’s first blue-collar brat, the mercurial Jimmy Connors, who had separate intriguing rivalries with Borg and McEnroe. But there’s no question who the two protagonists are.
There is a temptation in sports writing — particularly in individual sports — to cast major rivals as doppelgangers with an almost mystical bond; players who form an ambivalent relationship as they come to realise that their names will forever be linked.
Describing McEnroe’s pursuit of Borg, Tignor writes: “At its deepest psychological level the match was a case of a little brother trying to slay a big brother, an acolyte attempting to kill an idol.” McEnroe had looked up to Borg, holding him as a personal standard, ever since he had served as a ball-boy during one of the Swede’s early matches; for him, the only truly meaningful way to reach the apex of his sport was by conquering his idol.
The romantic view of sporting conflict has it that Borg’s sudden retirement was a case of a champion crushed by the emergence of a rival capable of beating him. But Borg’s exit was equally the result of well-chronicled factors in his personal life. Even before McEnroe became a serious threat, there had been signs that the reticent Swede was being worn down by the grind of the celebrity life; twenty-five may not have felt very young to someone who, making his Wimbledon debut at 17, had been assaulted by hundreds of screaming schoolgirls in the first manifestation of a decade-long phenomenon called the “Borgasm”.
Even so, there’s little doubt that the rivalry was majestic on sporting grounds alone. Borg’s frustratingly consistent, error-proof baseline play contrasted well with McEnroe’s fine touches and all-court artistry; they played two classic five-set Slam finals in 1980, and their head-to-head record would end at seven matches each. After McEnroe swiped the Wimbledon title from Borg, it seemed almost predestined that Borg would return the favour at the USO. But that didn’t happen. And so, Bjorn Borg — who still holds the record for the highest percentage of Slam matches won — walked away defeated from his last major. For the sport — which had the young future champion Ivan Lendl waiting in the wings, as well as a new era of graphite racquets to come — it was an end and a beginning.
This month’s edition of the US Open marks exactly 30 years since that fateful tournament, and once again we narrative hounds are on the scent of a Big Story. The interim decades did see a number of intriguing rivalries in the men's game — most notably the ones between Sampras and Andre Agassi, and between Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker — but they were relatively low-intensity or confined to specific venues, never really providing a sense of big things at stake for the sport. However, the past few years have seen a rivalry that in some ways has eclipsed even Borg-McEnroe. And there are signs that the era it defined is ending.
For nearly seven seasons — a vast stretch of time in an athletic sport — tennis lovers have been riveted by the saga of Switzerland’s Roger Federer and Spain’s Rafael Nadal. Federer has overtaken Sampras’s Slam record and set new standards for tennis dominance, holding the number one spot for 237 consecutive weeks and reaching an incredible 23 straight semi-finals at majors. But even in his peak years, the one player the Swiss could never dominate was Nadal, whose defence-to-offence baseline play, mental tenacity and powerful top-spin seemed almost laboratory-created to break down Federer’s more subtle game. In Federer’s greatest year, 2006, he lost just five matches in all; and four of them were to Nadal, all in finals, and most of them on clay, the surface where Nadal was best able to exploit the advantages his left-handed forehand gave him against Federer’s one-handed backhand.
Between them, these two men won 23 of the 26 majors that were contested between the 2004 Wimbledon and the 2010 US Open, a duopoly unprecedented over any comparable period in tennis history. In just five years, they played each other in a record eight Slam finals, on all surfaces. (The leading rivals of the 1990s, Sampras and Agassi, contested five finals over a 12-year period.)
And there have been irresistible parallels with Borg-McEnroe: Borg took his fifth straight Wimbledon title in 1980, winning a classic five-setter against the young McEnroe; Federer won his fifth Wimbledon in 2007, beating off a similar challenge from Nadal; and in 1981 and 2008 respectively, the younger man reversed the result.
But sporting comparisons are never so facile, and there is simultaneously a counter-narrative that casts Nadal as the modern-day Borg. There is a 30-year age difference between these two champions, almost to the day, and both were very early bloomers. Like Borg, Nadal is a master of the natural surfaces, a clay-court monster who recently equalled the Swede’s record of winning six French Opens and then successfully adapted his game to grass. The words used by Time magazine to describe Borg in 1980 — “an inexorable force that is one part speed, one part topspin and two parts iron will” — read like a sketch of the Spaniard.
Neither man ever seemed as comfortable on hard or synthetic courts: Borg’s Waterloo was the US Open, where he finished as runner-up four times; until last year it seemed like the same would be true for Nadal, but he completed his career Slam by beating Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in the US Open final.
Now, however, the same Djokovic is threatening to end the Federer-Nadal era. He has utterly dominated the men’s tour this year, beating Nadal in five finals, and the events of the past few months have raised the question: Is history being rewritten on the 1981 palimpsest? Nadal is now 25, the same age that Borg was when he abruptly hung up his racquets. Could it be that Rafa now has a ‘McEnroe’ of his own?
Ultimately, these stories can be spun in many different ways. What’s more interesting is how tennis rivalries — and our perceptions of them — have altered in the past three decades. In the Internet age, sports fandom is more intense and in-your-face; everyone has not just an opinion but a forum to express it in, and fans around the world can access even the smallest tournaments and discuss matches “live” on message-boards. Everyone becomes a psychologist when it comes to analysing the behaviour of their favourite — and least favourite — sports players. Thus, Federer fans see him as humble while his detractors proclaim with equal confidence that he is unbearably arrogant. Nadal’s on-court mannerisms such as the vigorous fist pumps and shouts of “Vamos!” are decried by those who don’t care for his playing style, but his fans point out that these self-motivating gestures are never directed at his opponents, and that he is well-behaved off the court.
Leading players have always been cast into images that are impossible to break out of. Borg, for instance, was mythologised as having a resting pulse rate that never rose above 35, a claim that is about as accurate as the one that he had ice in his veins. Tignor’s book indicates how this reputation developed, but there are also vignettes that show another side to the player, such as a remarkable photograph of a young boy looking more shy and dazed than aloof as police keep hordes of those schoolgirls away from him.
Simplifications have also plagued the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic rivalries. Nadal has been labelled the unrelenting ‘bull’, while Federer is the ballet dancer with the smooth and seemingly effortless game. Djokovic’s name has only just entered the great-player discussions, but a few years ago he drew attention for his locker-room imitations of other players’ mannerisms, including Nadal’s butt-picking gesture. This writer (a big Nadal fan) thought them funny, but people with thinner skins saw the imitations as disrespectful. At any rate, the Serb’s reputation has been fixed for all time in some minds: Djoker.
At the same time there have been positive changes in our perceptions. Tignor’s book reminds us that Borg and McEnroe were friends off-court, but for most fans the dominant image of their rivalry is that of an undemonstrative or even sullen handshake at the net. Today, however, there is so much more coverage — not just on official media but through fans’ reports, photographs and videos — that we are constantly exposed to the goofier sides of players. We see them fooling around at exhibitions, participating in musical sideshows on the eve of a tournament, or having a casual courtside chat shortly after a seemingly acrimonious match; and so it becomes more difficult to sustain notions of deep hatred between rivals.
It helps that today’s top players have consistently been fine sportsmen, “good boys”. The mutual respect between Federer and Nadal in particular contrasts strongly with the acrimony that dotted player relationships in the past (and their hugs at the net have even spawned homoerotic online fan fiction that would have made Connors and McEnroe barf into their racquet bags).
At this point, though, tennis belongs to neither Nadal nor Federer. With a 51-1 win-loss record for the year (at the time of writing), Djokovic is the clear favourite to take the US Open title. If he does (which will mean winning three out of four majors in a calendar year, something Federer and Nadal have both done in recent times but such greats as Borg, McEnroe and Sampras never achieved), it will be possible to speak of 2011 as another major shift in the sport’s history.
And then the weighted random number generator will probably kick in again next year, and we’ll have a completely different narrative to follow.
(This story appears in the 09 September, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)