Commentary

Borg-McEnroe vs. Federer-Nadal

Updated: June 10, 2011, 2:39 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

There's an unforgettable New York moment in "Fire & Ice," the outstanding new HBO documentary about Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, that reminds us, without ever explicitly saying so, of the strong parallels between Borg-McEnroe and the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry that added another bookmark Sunday in the French Open final. The film details how by the 1981 U.S. Open, McEnroe was inexorably hunting down Borg's place as the top player in tennis, much like Nadal has overtaken Federer in the last three years.

[+] EnlargeBjorn Borg & John McEnroe
AP Photo/Ron FrehmAfter Bjorn Borg shook John McEnroe's hand in 1981, he walked off the court and retired.

Though many people remember that McEnroe beat Borg that day to culminate a long climb to overtake Borg for the No. 1 ranking Borg had held most of the previous five years, what's oft-forgotten is the real stunner: how McEnroe pushed Borg to a Roberto Duran "no mas" moment. Borg, one of the most driven champions of all time, was so upset about the U.S. Open defeat on the heels of also losing to him for the first time at Wimbledon, he walked off the court, skipped the trophy presentation entirely, went straight to a waiting car and drove to nearby JFK airport, got on a plane and left town without speaking to reporters. He retired a few months later at the age of 26.

Borg couldn't bear the idea of being No. 2. He felt burned out. Something vital inside of him just snapped.

It's natural to wonder how much Federer, too, struggles with a reason to go on now . He turns 30 this summer, which is advanced for a top tennis player, and the future would seem to belong to his archrival. Much like McEnroe did to Borg, Nadal has systematically stripped away the aura of invincibility and nearly every statistical distinction that used to separate Federer from everyone else. Nadal has built lopsided advantages in their head-to-head meetings, even at the major tournaments where Federer had never lost in a final until playing him. The biggest major chip still up for grabs is Federer's career record for Grand Slam titles, the source of his claim to Best Ever. And Nadal, who is just 25, may take that away, too. He's five years younger but already has 10 Slam titles to Federer's 16.

Still, anyone wondering if the end of Federer's career might come as Borg's did 30 years ago -- if Federer will simply decide one day that he's trapped in a waking nightmare, and haunted by a personal nemesis he's no longer capable of holding off -- would be smart to reel back to a juncture in the third set of Federer's French Open final on Sunday against Nadal.

Roger Federer
AP Photo/Michael EulerDespite losing multiple matches and his No. 1 ranking, Roger Federer has continued to play on.

Nadal had an answer for everything Federer tried Sunday. But that isn't a unique sort of torture in truly great rivalries, as the Borg-McEnroe documentary poignantly and often humorously shows, too. ("He was berserk, like a mental patient they just released," Borg says of his first taste of McEnroe's incinerating temper.)

On Sunday, Federer blew chances to win each of the first two sets from Nadal. But then he took a personal stand that would be easy, but wrong, to dismiss when he rallied to win the third set. He still lost the match. But it was how Federer refused to go against Nadal that flung open a little window into where Federer's head and heart are at. The same was true two days earlier, when Federer ignored Novak Djokovic's 43-0 start to the year and upset him Friday in the French Open semifinals.

With Wimbledon just around the corner, Federer declared something important about the kind of future he still sees for himself, in a way Borg apparently couldn't envision in 1981.

Borg wouldn't change his mind about retiring no matter how much a heartsick McEnroe, then just 23, implored him to come back.

"It [Borg's abrupt retirement] made absolutely no sense to me -- none," McEnroe says in the HBO film, his amazement and memory of the emotional tides in that match still fresh 30 years later. "I would ask him, 'When are you coming back? Tennis needs you. I need you' … Maybe he wanted to experience other parts of life. Maybe he was pissed he was losing to me."

Speaking to McEnroe several years later at an exhibition match, Borg finally explained, "No. 1 is the only thing that matters. You know it as well as I do. If you're No. 2, you might as well be No. 3 or 4. You're a nobody."

McEnroe remembers that even as their last Open match was still being decided, he could feel something draining out of Borg, and it almost felt spooky. He'd always thought of Borg as "this perfect blonde Viking god." This Borg he didn't recognize.

[+] EnlargeBjorn Borg
AP Photo/Ray StubblebineThe 1981 U.S. Open final seemed to drain all the life out of Bjorn Borg.

"It basically looked like he gave up," McEnroe says in the film, "which I had never seen him do before. Something new seemed to be happening. But it was like, 'What is happening?'"

If a lot of that sounds familiar, it should.

Nadal has pushed Federer to a similar emotional and psychological crossroads.

The epic Wimbledon final Federer and Nadal played in 2008 is often compared to the 1980 classic that Borg and McEnroe unfurled on Centre Court. (Its famous 18-16 fourth-set tiebreaker is revisited in riveting detail in the HBO documentary, too.) Though Borg won that match for his fifth straight Wimbledon title, he wasn't able to hold off McEnroe the following year there. The reaction to the 1981 Wimbledon outcome echoed when Nadal knocked off Federer in '09: There goes the last fig leaf the veterans had left to argue that they were still better than the young guns chasing them.

Federer's straight-sets pounding by Nadal at the 2008 French Open was described as the final passing of the torch between them. The tears Federer wiped away when Nadal beat him in five sets at the 2009 Australian Open -- remember the TV cameras picking up a sobbing Federer softly moaning, "God, this is killing me …" afterward? -- was another indication of just how far out on the gangplank Nadal had pushed him.

But once out there, the questions every great champion faces are these: How much am I willing to fight my way back in? And where do I get that will to go on?

That's where Federer found himself again last weekend, much like Borg did once upon a time. Federer's response? With Djokovic having dropped Federer to No. 3 in the world rankings, and with Nadal waiting after Djokovic for the chance to match Borg's record of six French Open titles, he didn't shrink from either challenge. Federer beat Djokovic in four scintillating sets in the semis. He missed the chance to register another thunderclap when he could have won -- but didn't -- both of the first two sets against Nadal, especially the opening set, in which Federer squandered a 5-2 lead.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer/Rafael Nadal
Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer has been on the losing end to Rafael Nadal more often than not in Grand Slam finals, including the French Open this year.

Next came that glimpse into what he has left. He pushed back and won the third set before Nadal put him away 6-1 in the fourth.

After the match, it was notable that Federer didn't seem despondent like he's been after so many other major losses to Nadal.

He actually sounded upbeat.

After listening to him, it was tempting to repeat that line McEnroe said about Borg: "What is happening here?"

Every great champion on the down-glide has to strike a bargain with himself or herself.

Chris Evert could quit in peace after winning the '85 French Open following a long drought in which she had trouble taking even a set from Martina Navratilova. In 2002, Pete Sampras had his last hurrah in his last U.S. Open final against Andre Agassi, which few expected the faded Sampras to win. A few years later, Agassi could barely walk because of back trouble. Yet he still drove himself to make one last, loud run at the U.S. Open, partly because New York was the place where everything had started for him, and, as Agassi said, "I wanted to feel like I retired. I didn't want to feel like I quit."

Rather than take his racket and go home, Federer seems to be building, building, building toward one last push now, too.

He still might not have enough game left at this point to lift him over Nadal, as Sunday's final showed. But brace yourself for an interesting summer of tennis.

Last weekend still provided the latest, most up-to-date X-ray of his champion's character and soul.

And what it suggested is that Federer isn't close to saying, "No mas." Not yet.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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