'70s Era: When Tennis Really Mattered

On Sept. 13, 1981, on a crisp, beautiful Gotham evening, John McEnroe defeated Bjorn Borg in four relatively easy sets to win his third consecutive U.S. Open and grab a firm hold as the No. 1 tennis player in the world.

The heartbroken and despondent Borg walked off the court, a ghost incarnate, and vanished from the sport. It marked the end of an era - actually, several eras - a time at which many American tennis fans of a certain age still look back with great reverence and longing.

Of course, pining for things gone is not unusual, especially in the United States.

The American character is curiously contradictory. Never is this more apparent than in our confusing relationship with the past. Though we are a nation that routinely tears down our physical structures - buildings, stadiums, historic sites - to make way for the supposedly modern, efficient or just new, and we take great pride in being in the vanguard of new territory or technology, we possess a yearning for the past that is as ingrained in our national identity as is the quest for the new.

In fact, it sometimes seems that America invented nostalgia. Or at least the 20th (and 21st) century version of it. In the popular consciousness, this nostalgia was first manifested by a personal focus. Think of Jay Gatsby staring at the lights across Long Island Sound or Charles Foster Kane realizing that all the fortune and power in the world could not deliver him from the pain of a stolen childhood.

In the second half of the 20th century, nostalgia took on a more generational tone. George Lucas' "American Graffiti" is often referred to as the first nostalgia film. With its rock soundtrack and visual valentine to all things California, especially cars, the film was a love letter to an era. Though the period depicted is only 11 years removed from the
film's release in 1973, it was a point in time that seemed long - and painfully - gone.

A similar paean to teenage life was "Dazed and Confused," the 1993 movie from Richard Linklater. This time it was the 1970s in all its disheveled glory that was explored in a day-in-the-life manner. Though the movie's focus had clear Texas flourishes, as the director based it on his high school experiences in the Lone Star State, it resonated significantly for those who had come of age then from any part of the country. Indeed, it wasn't just reflexive '70s nostalgia; it was a definitive snapshot of the America of that era.

The 1970s continue to have a hold on so many, be it the actual events or trends of the time or the movies and television of that era, in all its gritty reality. It's difficult to pinpoint why or to offer anything more than anecdotal evidence, but there is a sense, mainly from those who grew up then, that it was the last pure era of sorts.

Of course, not all '70s fondness delivered in poplar culture is accurate or interesting. It runs the gamut from the amusing but facile "That '70s Show" to the thoughtful and sad homage to the decade (and tennis) in "The Royal Tenenbaums."

There are also indirect references to the '70s, hinting at nostalgia for all the negative aspects of the decade, which can be insulting on several levels. A current TV commercial depicts passengers in the back of a cab watching a Cowboys game as opposed to the Giants. The driver takes umbrage at this and drops the riders in front of a city block with abandoned buildings. One of the passengers asks, "Is this Central Park?"

This is a ridiculous premise. New York often doesn't resemble its '70s self (for better and worse), and the visual signs of urban blight in Manhattan are few and far between compared with 35 years ago. Too often, New York is still popularly depicted as rough-and-tumble, but for the most part, this simply isn't the case anymore.

And then there are sports. Specifically, tennis. No sport has followers who are as obsessed with a prior era in their favorite pastime as tennis fans. Many baseball fans wish their game would return to the pitching-dominated 1960s, and some football fans think the great defensive teams of the Giants and Bears in the mid-'80s represented a peak for their sport.

But nostalgia for tennis in the 1970s through the early '80s is an altogether different and far more comprehensive situation. Many tennis fans born between, say, 1955 and 1972 still have an overwhelming fondness for the sport as it was back then - the way it looked, the way it was played and the intense emotional rooting interests. It isn't just simply a matter of missing the beloved players from this era.

When McEnroe defeated Borg at that Open final in 1981, leaving crestfallen millions of the stoic Swede's devotees - yours truly included - it was as if the '70s had ended viciously and abruptly. Looking back, that appears to be the case.

Not every decade can be so immediately identified with its own characteristics. But some decades are so clearly marked with fixed endpoints that one is able to pinpoint the actual year, not just the period. The '60s are like that. And to some extent, so are the '70s and the '80s.

There was a palpable shift in this country in 1980. Especially politically. When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, it represented the most tangible and powerful change in our governance (again, for better or worse) since FDR in 1932. Things just felt different.

In tennis, things also changed a lot after McEnroe's defeat of Borg. Consider: McEnroe's Open triumph was the last Grand Slam championship won with a small-faced wooden racquet. The '80s indeed had begun.

Part Two: Is Nostalgia for '70s Tennis Misplaced?

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports. His work has also appeared in,, and Tennis Week. Email:

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