Roland Garros Roundtable: Looking back 50 years at Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert’s first major victories

Two teenage boys with two hands who were ready to conquer the globe and, largely, establish the rules for how tennis is played todayBoth Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg won their first Grand Slam championships in Paris fifty years ago. History is what’s left. We invited seasoned journalists Peter Bodo, Joel Drucker, and Jon Levey to the roundtable in honor of this momentous occasion to talk about these two legendary winners and their lasting legacies, which began in 1974 at Roland Garros. To learn more, visit tennis.com/1974.

Was the 1974 Roland Garros Grand Slam the most important one ever in terms of predicting the future of tennis? Bodo: History is messy, but it’s big. Not many turning points are clear-cut, exact, and devoid of qualifiers, but this one is: tennis learned the importance of defense at the 1974 Roland Garros championship. Until then, Roland Garros remained the exception among the majors; it was the final major to let international players (1925) into what remains the de facto French national championship, the one with the peculiar dirt court amid an expanse of lush grass.

The bulk of the greatest players in history throughout the 1970s were adept at attacking and serve-and-volley, including Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, and John Newcombe. Then came “Iceborg” and the “Ice Maiden,” who were known for their two-handed backhands and dislike of the net. Returners and defensive players continued to be disproportionately rewarded over the next few years due to modifications to racquet head size and materials, strings, and court surfaces. Drucker: One could argue that, along with the introduction of Open tennis, the rise of the two-handed backhand is the second greatest game-changer in tennis history.

The two-hander was largely frowned upon before Borg, Evert, and Jimmy Connors rose to prominence. But the revolution started when those three demonstrated how deadly it could be. This was especially noteworthy for blocking net-rushers. When serving and volleying in response to a one-handed backhand, it was typically quite effective because the approaching volleyer was nearly always certain to get a fieldable return. The two-hander was far more efficient with his accurate passing attempts, strong and adaptable returns, and deceptively disguised lobs.

The two-handed backhand has been shown to be substantially more proficient than the one-hander at powerfully and consistently driving the backhand down the line with significantly more depth and speed. Stated differently, it has significantly increased the court’s dimensions in terms of time, space, and distance. And there they were in the spring of 1974 at Roland Garros, two teenage boys with two hands who were ready to rule the world and, more than anything else, create the foundation for modern tennis.

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