For tennis fans too young to remember the glory days of the 1970s and the early 1980s, High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis' Fiercest Rivalry is a thoroughly researched guide to an era when the game was on the front pages of the world's sports consciousness in a way it hasn't been since those days.
Tignor has used the Borg-McEnroe rivalry as a jumping off point to write a fascinating history of the game as it was during the last gasp of the wood racquet era, or to put it another way, before men’s shorts got baggy.
The centerpieces of the book are the Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon finals of 1980 and 1981. Tignor describes the famous fourth set tie-breaker of the first year and Borg's comeback in the fifth set. The next year, McEnroe ended Borg's run of five straight Wimbledon titles and by defeating him, helped push him into retirement at the age of 25.
Of course, one of the things that make the Borg-McEnroe match-up worth writing about more than 30 years later is the ice and fire extremes of each player. But different as they were, their 25th year was a turning point for both men. Borg quit tennis at that age, and McEnroe, three years younger, never won another Grand Slam after 1984 when he was 25.
Despite its title, High Strung, understandably, has a broader focus than just on Borg and McEnroe. There are chapters on Ilie Nastase, Australian coaching legend Harry Hopman, as well as a lot of material about McEnroe and Borg's fellow Grand Slam winners and frequent opponents, Jimmy Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis
One of Tignor's evocative set pieces in the book is his description of Gerulaitis' funeral with Borg, McEnroe and Connors in attendance. The author resists the temptation to overwrite this scene, but considering that so much of High Strung is an elegy for the passing of the Tennis Boom Era, Gerulaitis’ funeral is a "Day the Music Died" moment.
Tignor does a good job of charting the mini-eras of the post-Open tennis period, identifying Borg as the first Open era “native” champion, meaning that he never played when the game was split into amateurs and pros.
Although both Borg and McEnroe battled foes like Nastase and Arthur Ashe, Tignor makes the useful point that Nastase and Ashe were transitional figures whose careers started in the era of segregation between pros and amateurs that ended in 1968.
The author is quite eloquent about the implications of the passing of the wood racquet, and how when the wooden racquets died, it was like the last nail in the coffin of the pre-1968 game.
I think Tignor gets right to point to the 1981 Wimbledon final as one of our game's turning points, not only because it was Borg's last Wimbledon, but because its finalists were the last two men to win Wimbledon with wooden racquets.
Tignor makes the valid and original point that McEnroe was caught in mid-career by the change in racquets and was never really able to adjust to the new racquets. He also has a poignant section on Borg's attempted comeback in 1991 when he had to have the kind of wooden racquets he used in his prime specially made for him. But, probably for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that he was 35-years-old, the outdated racquets being another, Borg's comeback didn't work.
Extrapolating from Tignor's book, it isn't far-fetched to say that there will never be another pure touch artist in the game like McEnroe because of the change in the racquets. Not that Federer doesn't have a touch game, but as a modern player with modern equipment, he has power as well.
Not only does Tignor tell a great story well, but for older readers of Long Island Tennis Magazine, his illuminating coverage of the demise of wood racquets gives us a new excuse when we lose to younger players.
If a McEnroe couldn't fully adjust to composite racquets, it's no surprise that I haven't been able to. The next time I'm out there with my continental grip getting destroyed by a younger player using one of these, western-grip, wrist-like forehands and two- handed backhands, I'm going to explain in my imaginary post-match press conference that like Johnny Mac, I haven't been able to adjust to the post-Dunlop Maxply era. If you're old enough to have learned the game using wooden racquets, I think it is impossible to generate the amount of racquet head speed that gets the most out of modern racquets, never mind the Luxilon and other polyester strings. I'd rather think or say that than admit I'm just old and feeble so everybody in the senior ranks can thank Tignor for making this excuse more feasible.
Tignor's book tells a fascinating story and is a compelling read. He sprinkles the text with quotes from writers and broadcasters who covered the Borg-McEnroe rivalry while it was happening.
But according to the rules of the book reviewer's union, you have to find a few flaws even in such a good book as High Strung so that readers can draw the conclusion that the reviewer is smarter than the author.
So, in order to keep my membership in the National Book Critics Circle unchallenged, here is one flaw.
Tignor describes Gerulaitis as being from Brooklyn, N.Y., but area tennis fans will surely wince at the Howard Beach, Queens, native being identified with basketball star Chris Mullin's borough. True, he was born in Brooklyn, but nobody, including McEnroe, who famously said about his 1979 U.S. Open final with Gerulaitis that you're never again going to have two guys from Queens in a Grand Slam final, would say he was from Brooklyn.
But to switch back to the positive, I have to thank Tignor for explaining why Borg didn't play more in the U.S. beyond his U.S. Open jinx, it wasn't as I supposed that he was too Euro-cool for the land of McDonald’s. It was because his management company, IMG, about which Tignor is also very thorough, didn't like the tax treatment of Borg's U.S. earnings.
Throughout, Stephen Tignor’s High Strung presents a compelling portrait of one of tennis’ greatest match-ups.