Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Borg-McEnroe: A short, sweet rivalry

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi played each other 34 times while Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova squared off a whopping 80 times.

  • John McEnroe, right, meets Bjorn Borg at the net after winning the U.S. Open in 1981. Their intense but short-lived rivalry is the subject of a documentary that debuts on HBO on Saturday.

    By Ron Frehm, AP

    John McEnroe, right, meets Bjorn Borg at the net after winning the U.S. Open in 1981. Their intense but short-lived rivalry is the subject of a documentary that debuts on HBO on Saturday.

By Ron Frehm, AP

John McEnroe, right, meets Bjorn Borg at the net after winning the U.S. Open in 1981. Their intense but short-lived rivalry is the subject of a documentary that debuts on HBO on Saturday.

But one of tennis' most compelling rivalries involved just 14 matches — which John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg split evenly. After McEnroe beat Borg in the 1981 U.S. Open, the 25-year-old Swede walked out before the award ceremony and never played another major.

In what will be a when-we-were-young nostalgia trip for lots of Baby Boomers, HBO's McEnroe-Borg: Fire & Ice debuts Saturday (10p.m. ET/PT). "I don't know if Bjorn was ever really injured, or just burnt out," says Mary Carillo, who helped write the show and appears in it. "With his game, he had to grind. And he felt, if he couldn't be No. 1, he didn't want to be around" — except, notes Carillo, when he later made a "cockamamie comeback."

McEnroe didn't win another major after age 25. "I don't think people understand it was a James Dean type of rivalry — it came and went," Carillo says. "And McEnroe never had another rival that made him aspire."

(Carillo says that Jimmy Connors declined to appear in the film.)

In the film, McEnroe notes being wowed by Borg's "perfect Viking godlike look, and I certainly wanted to get the same type of things he was getting, a lot of interest and a lot of girls. It was like, 'Whoa, being a tennis player is really cool.'"

Carillo, who grew up blocks from McEnroe in Long Island suburbia, says, "For a long time, John would have rather been an NBA star or Mick Jagger. As he says in the documentary, tennis is now a bigger part of his life than it ever was. While Bjorn chose tennis at an early age, tennis chose John. And Bjorn made tennis for John."

Sounds kind of heavy, but, hey, it was the 1970s. Carillo is in England doing features for NBC's 2012 London Olympic coverage — "I'll be with all the druids for summer solstice at Stonehenge." And, she says, she'll get to "speak to the grand high mystic ruler."

Kids today might see the Borg-McEnroe rivalry as something nearly as ancient and inexplicable. But as Carillo suggests, it was really a different era: "There were two guys who really liked each other back when tennis mattered."

Barkley safe from Heat fans:TNT isn't carrying the NBA Finals. Meaning Miami Heat fans don't have a chance to chant derisively at TNT's Charles Barkley as they did earlier in the playoffs when the network's studio show briefly moved outside the team's arena.

The chanting would probably be louder now that Barkley, on Chicago's ESPN radio affiliate, ripped the Heat as "a whiny bunch" that he can't root for because "something about that team annoys me."

Barkley could never pick the Heat, even if they were shoo-ins, saying even if the Heat were playing the Washington Generals— the longtime designated losers who tour with the Harlem Globetrotters— he'd pick the Generals. Barkley is no stranger to hyperbole. And his comments about the Heat aren't as strong as what he said about the Washington Wizards in 2008 — "dumbest team in the history of civilization."

Spice rack: When the Southeastern Conference three years ago got 15-year deals with ESPN and Fox worth about $3 billion, the conference almost seemed like a lottery winner. Now, with other bigger deals having been signed — the Pacific-12's new deal with ESPN and Fox is worth about $250million annually, compared with the SEC's $205million annual average — the SEC wants to revisit its TV revenues. The league has look-in reviews that can be used to adjust its ESPN deal, and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive tells The Birmingham (Ala.) News he wants to discuss whether adjustments can be made. … ESPN Around the Horn panelist Woody Paige this week apologized for lifting quotes — without attribution — from SportsBusiness Journal for his Denver Post column. Said Paige: "It was not done maliciously or to take credit for something I didn't do." … Fox finished its 2011 NASCAR coverage with viewership up 9%, Fox's biggest one-season jump ever. Viewership among the coveted 18-34 male demographic rose 36%.

Phil would be Zen hire: A two-part TV sports wish list:

After saving about $1.4 billion in its unsuccessful bid for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics, ABC/ESPN needs to go shopping — and should sign Phil Jackson as its NBA lead analyst to replace Mark Jackson, who's leaving to coach the Golden State Warriors.

The retired Los Angeles Lakers coach, usually mediagenic and sometimes enigmatic, could team with candid analyst Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen in a refreshingly original three-man booth.

Phil Jackson says he wants a break from the game. But ex-coaches find they get a break from their sports when they move to the booth: No more concerns about sore ankles, no more game films after midnight and, best of all, no stress after a tough loss.

Second, NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus, when his company won this week the 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Olympics, said there'd be live coverage on "one platform or another." So, what does that mean? That live look-ins will come from, say, subscription online coverage? While there's time to figure that out, more live action from the 2012 London Games would be appreciated.

Lazarus said London plans "have been set for a long time." London being five hours ahead of East Coast time means what happens there at night can be packaged for U.S. prime time. But some sort of taped-live hybrid coverage — showing at least snippets of key live action during U.S. daytime rather than saving them for prime time — could inject some overdue Olympic TV sizzle. NBC's new era could should start now.

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