Fifty years since Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert made tennis sexy at French Open

Chris Evert
Chris Evert wins the French open in 1974 - Keystone/Getty Images

Tennis is sexy again this summer, thanks to up-and-coming WTA star Tashi Duncan. As one male professional was heard saying, “She’s the hottest girl I’ve ever seen.”

A pedant might reply that Duncan isn’t real.

Even so, the actress Zendaya, who plays Duncan in the hit movie Challengers, has still launched dozens of opinion pieces, all contractually obliged to mention that 1980s Athena poster of the woman scratching her bottom.

Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor attend the premiere of Challengers
Stars Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor attend the premiere of Challengers - REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

And for those whose memories go back even further, here is another reminder of tennis’s essential sex-appeal. We are about to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1974 French Open, the one which welcomed 18-year-old Bjorn Borg and 19-year-old Chris Evert to the winner’s circle.

It’s not as if tennis didn’t possess glamour before Borg and Evert came along. You only have to read Gordon Forbes’s 1978 classic A Handful of Summers to understand that this world, with its mixed doubles and its dinner-dances, had long-been full of hook-ups and hotel assignations. As far back as 1949, ‘Gorgeous’ Gussie Moran had sparked a two-month moral panic by wearing lace trim on her knickers.

But Borg, in particular, was in a different league. In a sporting echo of Beatlemania, a crowd of screaming fans would trail him from the locker-room to the practice court. By the time he reached Wimbledon in 1974, the club had booked security guards to protect him from his own groupies.

What is it about Borg? Anyone who has followed the Laver Cup, the annual exhibition event in which he captains the European team, will know that he is a man of few words. Some have even queried his pin-up credentials. In Love Game – an aesthetic history of tennis – author Elizabeth Wilson suggests that “with his bow legs and narrow, foxy face, his eyes set close together, he was not, objectively speaking, particularly good-looking.”

And yet Borg’s great rival John McEnroe insists that his magnetism outshone other famous players – in every sense of the word – such as Vitas Gerulaitas. “Vitas was an astonishingly good-looking man and one of the most charismatic guys I’ve known,” said McEnroe.

Bjorn Borg and Manuel Orantes
Bjorn Borg came from two sets down to beat Manuel Orantes in the 1974 men's French Open final - AFP via Getty Images

“But let me tell you with absolute certainty, if all four Beatles in their prime, Elvis Presley, Brad Pitt and Jesus Christ himself were interested in a girl at the same time as Bjorn, that girl is leaving with Bjorn Borg.”

The true-life bromance between McEnroe and Borg prefigured the fictional one served up in Challengers, a movie in which lifelong rivals Art and Patrick seem to feel more strongly about each other than they do about Duncan, the woman at the centre of their love triangle.

McEnroe might have been notorious for his tantrums, but he never misbehaved when playing Borg, out of sheer respect for his idol. And after McEnroe had beaten him at the 1981 US Open, Borg walked straight through the stadium and out of the sport: a final scene worthy of any movie.

And so to Evert. Wilson’s book explains how the young Evert represented an archetype, “blonde, pretty and feminine”, at a time when many leading women were less easy to pigeonhole. Take Billie Jean King, whose Battle of the Sexes with Bobby Riggs had been staged in 1973. “Ironically,” says Wilson, “the contestants did not fit the gender norms of the day. A man in the audience wore a T-shirt inscribed with ‘BJK wears jockey shorts’”.

Unlike the outspoken King, Evert came across as demure and perfectly presented – at least until she began a love affair with Jimmy Connors. According to King, “It was made to look like a classic case of the good girl falling for the incorrigible bad boy.” Connors, direct as ever, described the partnership as “America’s sweetheart and the most hated guy in tennis”.

Quoted at 33-1 by the bookmakers to produce a “Love Double” by sweeping the 1974 Wimbledon singles titles, Evert and Connors became a daily news event. “On our first night out,” wrote Connors, “we emerged from the Playboy Club to find 40 photographers waiting for us. We felt like the Beatles, having to run through the streets of London to escape the paparazzi.”

Connors and Evert kiss
Connors and Evert secure the 'Love Double' at Wimbledon in 1974 - Leonard Burt/Central Press/Getty Images

Winning the trophies may not have been their first priority. “We didn’t get much rest,” Connors explained, rather ungallantly. “What can I say? Sometimes passion won out over tennis.” Yet such distractions seem to have helped as much as hindered, for Connors and Evert completed the Love Double with almost contemptuous ease, handing out a pair of straight-sets batterings (to Ken Rosewell and Olga Morozova respectively) in the weekend’s finals.

In those days, Wimbledon’s Champions’ Ball really was a ball, and the winners performed the first dance. For Evert and Connors, the only engaged couple ever to fulfil this duty, the band played The Girl That I Marry from the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Had the musicians possessed a crystal ball, they might have saved the tune for 1992 champions Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, who actually would get married, even though they weren’t an item in the year when they won Wimbledon.

Returning to 1974, tennis’s golden duo inspected apartments in Los Angeles in September. Yet the lease was never signed. They would split up only a week or two later, after a telephone break-up conversation that Evert remembers as lasting six hours, and Connors just a few seconds. Either way, tennis’s summer of love had run its course.