Wimbledon 1980: Wooden Racquets, Short Shorts And The Ultimate Showdown On July 5, 1980, the stage was set for the greatest rivalry in tennis: Iceman Björn Borg versus hothead John McEnroe. The match lasted four hours — and was one of the best in Wimbledon history.

Wimbledon 1980: Wooden Racquets, Short Shorts And The Ultimate Showdown

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The awesome Serena Williams won her 21st grand slam title at Wimbledon today. Tomorrow, in the men's final, the long-awaited rematch between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, one of the greatest rivalries in modern tennis, though I would argue the greatest matchup of Wimbledon's most interesting rivals took place 35 years ago. NPR's Daniel Hajek takes us back.

DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: We're talking about the era of wooden rackets, headbands, long socks and short-shorts. Wimbledon 1980 was the ultimate showdown. There was Bjorn Borg, a rock star, the dreamy Swede with flowing blonde hair and a four-time defending Wimbledon champion. And then there was a scrappy New Yorker named John McEnroe, a 21-year-old tennis prodigy known for his temper. Here's sports photographer Walter Iooss.

WALTER IOOSS: He had such a beautiful game, but he was wound as tight as a, you know, drum all the time out there. And at any second - you waited for him, one line call and he just - he'd flip out.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1981 WIMBLEDON CHAMPIONSHIPS)

JOHN MCENROE: You can't be serious, man. (Screaming) You cannot be serious. That ball was on the line.

HAJEK: At Wimbledon, the British tabloids pegged McEnroe as the villain.

BUD COLLINS: People weren't very crazy about him. They booed him when he came onto the court.

HAJEK: Retired NBC sportscaster Bud Collins was calling the match that day, back on July 5, 1980.

COLLINS: And of course, Borg was the gentleman, the stoic Swede, and they played this magical match, which went on and on and on.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1980 WIMBLEDON FINALS)

HAJEK: McEnroe easily takes the first set, but Borg comes back strong, winning two sets in a row.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1980 WIMBLEDON FINALS)

HAJEK: But McEnroe isn't one to quit. He fights to stay alive in the fourth set, which leads to what feels like a never-ending tiebreaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1980 WIMBLEDON FINALS)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Number seven for McEnroe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on, John.

UNIDENTIFIED CHAIR UMPIRE: Quiet please.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENNIS RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Yes, two sets all.

(APPLAUSE)

HAJEK: Incredibly, McEnroe stays in and the match continues. Again, Bud Collins.

COLLINS: They just went at it as though they were the only players on Earth. It was a brawl. It was the best thing comparable to a heavyweight title fight. And certainly, they were the two heavyweights of tennis.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1980 WIMBLEDON FINALS)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: If Borg wins this point, I fancy the roof will blow off this center court.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENNIS RALLY)

COLLINS: Oh, a marvelous volley again.

HAJEK: Finally, Borg and McEnroe enter the fifth and final set. Whoever wins this set wins it all. Collins says it feels like it would never end.

COLLINS: One guy would make a tremendous shot, and that would tie it up. And another guy would make another tremendous shot and take the advantage - advantage, deuce, advantage, deuce, advantage, deuce - I was having a little trouble keeping score.

HAJEK: Meanwhile, down at the sidelines, sports photographer Walter Iooss was waiting for the match point.

IOOSS: In an event like that, you always think of one thing going in, which is the last moment. What's going to happen when the match ends, when McEnroe or Borg rejoices?

HAJEK: In the end, it's Borg's flawless backhand.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1980 WIMBLEDON FINALS)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: That's it.

HAJEK: The crowd erupts, and Iooss captures it - Bjorn Borg sliding on the grass, arms extended, head back - the look of pure joy. The stoic Swede wins his fifth straight Wimbledon. And on the other side of the net, John McEnroe lies sprawled out face down with a look of pure defeat. After nearly four hours, the historic brawl at Centre Court is over.

IOOSS: Oh, it was perfect. You know, Yankees-Red Sox, Ali-Frazier, Borg-McEnroe. These are great rivalries and rivalries make each side better. You know, you see a match like that maybe once in your life, so I was lucky to be there.

HAJEK: McEnroe may have lost, but he gained a lot of respect. Now he's a fixture at Wimbledon. He's there this weekend, this time in the stands, where crowds cheer him on. Daniel Hajek, NPR News.

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