Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Debunking Myths About Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Roger Federer

If you are only a casual tennis fan and/or are too young to remember the early 1980s, then you might believe the popular fiction that after Bjorn Borg lost to John McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open Final he walked off of the court and never played professional tennis again (save for a brief comeback in the early 1990s and some matches on the senior tour). McEnroe has done nothing to discourage people from accepting that version of events as the truth and journalist Mike Lupica is fond of repeating McEnroe's statement that Borg retired because Borg mistakenly believed that McEnroe would never mess up. Lupica and others--including McEnroe himself--claim that McEnroe never quite reached the heights that he was capable of reaching because in some way McEnroe mourned Borg's premature exit from center stage and thus never pushed himself as hard as he could have. That is a completely illogical contention, because if Borg had kept playing a full schedule well into the 1980s it is highly likely that McEnroe would have won fewer events as opposed to enjoying greater success.

Although many people act like Borg retired in 1981, he won four big money events in 1982 and did not officially announce his retirement from professional tennis until January 1983. So why did Borg not play in any Grand Slams after the 1981 U.S. Open? The International Tennis Federation ruled that any player must participate in a minimum number of sanctioned tournaments in order to avoid having to play in the qualifying rounds at the Grand Slams. Borg--the four-time defending French Open champion who won a record six French Opens overall and also won a record five straight Wimbledons--understandably did not feel like he should have to play in qualifiers under any circumstances. So, in 1982 he skipped the Grand Slams rather than obey this silly rule. Though Borg did not play in the number of events that the lords of the sport thought that he should have played in, he was still training and, if anything, his game was actually getting better in some ways; he became stronger and he was serving harder than he ever had before: if you don't believe that or are still convinced that Borg could no longer handle McEnroe after 1981, consider what happened in November 1982 in the Akai Gold Challenge Round Robin; Borg won the event by defeating the number one ranked McEnroe 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 and trouncing Ivan Lendl--who just months later would become the number one ranked player--6-1, 6-4, 6-2. Check out Borg's speed, power and deft shotmaking versus McEnroe:

In that footage you will notice how Borg repeatedly bludgeoned McEnroe with savage two-handed backhand winners. The interesting thing about Borg's two-handed backhand is that when it was subjected to frame by frame analysis (not specifically from this match but earlier in Borg's career) it turned out that Borg was actually flexing his left arm muscles more than his right arm muscles; in other words, Borg's two-handed backhand was, in effect, a left handed forehand!

A lot of people are entertaining themselves with delusions about how McEnroe would have done versus Borg in Grand Slams in the 1980s or what a hypothetical Borg-Federer matchup would look like. The above 1982 footage clearly refutes any notion that McEnroe had flustered or bewildered Borg. Federer has consistently struggled versus Rafael Nadal--a fit clay court specialist who has adapted his game to other surfaces--and Federer would not have fared any better versus Borg, a fit clay court specialist who not only adapted his game to other surfaces even better than Nadal has but was also savvier and possessed more touch than Nadal.

Borg still holds the record for being the youngest player to win 11 Grand Slams (25)--and he never played in a Grand Slam after the age of 25! This is kind of like Jim Brown retiring from the NFL at the age of 29 while holding the all-time career rushing record. Other players have rushed for more yards than Brown but there are not too many knowledgeable observers who believe that current record holder Emmitt Smith was a greater running back than Brown--and Federer is not the greatest tennis player of all-time just because he has won a record 15 career Grand Slams.

Two important factors are not properly considered when people compare Federer to Borg:

1) Borg's overall Grand Slam record is more impressive than Federer's.

Borg won 11 out of the 27 Grand Slams he entered (a .407 winning percentage that is an Open Era record). Borg won seven of the final 12 Slams that he entered and made the Finals in 11 of his final 12 Slams. His career match record in Slams is 141-16 (.898), the best such winning percentage in the Open Era. Borg's "triple double" (winning the Wimbledon and French titles in the same year three years in a row, 1978-80) is unprecedented in tennis history and will not likely be duplicated. Borg won three different Slam titles without losing a set, something no other player has done more than once.

At one time, Borg held the record for being youngest French Open champion (18 in 1974) and youngest Wimbledon champion (20 in 1976; he also was the youngest Italian Open champion and youngest player to win a Davis Cup match--and he still holds the latter record); in contrast, by the time Federer was 20 years old he had yet to win a Grand Slam title and had amassed five first round losses in Slams.

Borg made the semis in 17 out of 27 Slams, made the quarters in 20 out of 27 and never lost in the first round; Federer has made the semis in 23 out of 41 Slams, has made the quarters in 25 out of 41 and has lost in the first round six times.

It is also important to remember that in the 1970s most of the top non-Australian players skipped the Australian Open; Borg played there just once, at 18 years of age in 1974, Jimmy Connors only played there twice, Arthur Ashe played in four of the 13 Australian Opens held during his career and Ilie Nastase--the first player classified as number one in the world when the ATP began using computer rankings in 1973--played in the Australian Open once (1981) in a Grand Slam career spanning 1966-1985. John McEnroe, whose Grand Slam career lasted from 1977-92, played in just five Australian Opens. Federer's Grand Slam total includes three Australian Open wins. Referring back to the NFL analogy, comparing Federer's 15 Grand Slam wins to Borg's 11 is like comparing Emmitt Smith's rushing total to Jim Brown's without taking into consideration that Smith played for 15 seasons compared to Brown's nine and that during Smith's career the NFL season lasted 16 games instead of the 12 or 14 games that a season lasted during Brown's era; Federer's Grand Slam career has already lasted 11 years compared to Borg's nine, so Federer has had many more opportunities to pad his Grand Slam total--and he has done just that by winning an event that was so insignificant during Borg's era that many of the top players regularly skipped it. It took Federer 14 extra Slam appearances to produce four more Slam wins than Borg--and three of those "extra" wins came at the least important Slam.

2) The importance of the Grand Slam events has changed in the past few decades.

Prior to reading this article, you probably had never heard of the aforementioned Akai Gold Challenge and therefore you surely must wonder how important it could have been. That event may be largely forgotten now, but it was very important to the players at that time: it featured a larger prize fund than the Grand Slams did! Part of the reason that so many players skipped the Australian Open in the 1970s is that the event's prize fund was meager but even the more prestigious Slams were not the highest paying tournaments in the world at the time. For instance, the Pepsi Grand Slam was held annually from 1976-81; the invitation-only tournament featured a field of four players who had most recently won one of tennis' traditional Grand Slam events. As Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick noted in a January 31, 1977 article about Borg's Pepsi Grand Slam win over Connors, "Borg's $100,000 first prize was more than the entire amount he earned in winning his 1976 Wimbledon and WCT titles. Connors' winner's paycheck of $30,000 at Forest Hills was less than his runner-up Grand Slam take of $50,000." Borg won the Pepsi Grand Slam four straight years (1977-80), consistently besting the other top players in the world in a high stakes event that paid significantly more than the Grand Slams did.

While it has become very fashionable to talk about Grand Slam win totals, that was not the primary consideration for players in the 1970s--as indicated by the fact that three of the four players ranked number one in the world by the ATP during that decade (Nastase, Connors, Borg) regularly did not play in one fourth of the Grand Slam events (Australian John Newcombe, who was ranked number one for eight weeks in 1974, won a pair of Australian Open titles). Sure, players from that era aspired to win whichever Grand Slam event best suited their playing style but no one could match Borg's consistent, simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open success. Nowadays, it is easier for players to travel around to all four Slams and the tennis bureaucracy--while far from perfect--is much more professional than it was over 30 years ago, when there was constant infighting among various organizations, which resulted in various players being banned from or boycotting certain Slams.

Wilt Chamberlain once said that if he had thought that anyone was going to break his all-time NBA career scoring record then he would have put it "way out of sight." If Borg had been interested in setting the career Grand Slam record, then he would have annually journeyed down to Australia and most likely dominated that event the way that he dominated Wimbledon and the French Open--and he certainly would not have skipped the 1982 French Open when a victory there would have tied Roy Emerson's then record total of 12 Grand Slams (six of which were Australian Open titles won by the amateur Australian player between 1961 and 1967; professional players were banned from playing in any of the Slams until the start of the Open Era in 1968).

After Borg officially announced his retirement, Ashe said, "I think Bjorn could have won the U.S. Open. I think he could have won the Grand Slam (i.e., win all four Slams in one calendar year). But by the time he left, the historical challenge didn't mean anything. He was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis or Liz Taylor or somebody."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Lance Armstrong: Hero or Charlatan?

Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France a record seven times in a row (1999-2005), has returned to the grueling endurance race at age 37 and is a serious contender to post his eighth Tour victory. Armstrong survived a bout with cancer in 1996 and he announced his current comeback by declaring on his website, "After talking with my children, my family and my closest friends, I have decided to return to professional cycling in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden." While Armstrong is certainly at least partially motivated by a champion's desire to once again be the best in the world at what he does--much like George Foreman and Michael Jordan were when they came back--there is no denying that he could do a tremendous amount of good for millions of people if his efforts lead to more funding for cancer treatment research

The Tour has been tainted for decades because of the large number of competitors who use performance-enhancing drugs; many of the sport's champions have either tested positive for drugs and/or confessed to using them. Armstrong's name has been at the forefront of PED speculation for many years but he steadfastly denies all such allegations and has never been caught redhanded. However, when you watch him outrace competitors who are much younger--many of whom probably are cheating--you inevitably ask yourself, "Is Lance Armstrong such a great and highly dedicated athlete that he can be clean and yet still beat younger athletes who are dirty--or is Lance Armstrong one of the greatest frauds in sports history, loudly proclaiming his innocence merely because he has found a way to beat the system?"

It is so sad that we have to wonder about this and if Armstrong is truly clean then I feel bad for even speculating about his character--but Marion Jones declared in bold print in her autobiography that she never used PEDs only to later tearfully admit to being a lying, cheating criminal. I would love to believe that an honest, forthright American hero is beating a bunch of liars and cheaters at what they consider to be "their" sport--but to believe that is to believe that Armstrong is superhuman, that he can outperform human beings are artificially enhanced. Forgive me if I have my doubts.