RealClearSports
Advertisement

1981: The Year Everything Changed

In July 1981, throngs gathered in New York City's East Village to watch the Rolling Stones tape a video for their tender masterpiece "Waiting on a Friend" from the album "Tattoo You." The song - and the album - are considered the end of an era for the Stones, their last high-quality effort.

For many teenagers back then, it was our link to the Stones' glorious 1960s and '70s on which we were musically raised, the last vestige from a time we could faintly recall as very small children. So at least we were able to watch the Stones when they were near the top of their game.

They still looked like the Stones, slightly older, but basically their same wonderfully rumpled and disheveled urban selves. But we also were all too aware that change was happening fast in music. And decidedly not for the better.

It was the end of the era for music, as 1981 was the start of the video age and, more specifically, that all-devouring force of MTV. It seemed to come on all at once, like a tidal wave of enforced cultural change without warning, this admission that style meant more than substance, that image trumped artistic integrity in the influence of videos.

Certain years possess a powerful connotation, representing a benchmark or period of significant events. For instance, 1941 conjures up immediate images of Pearl Harbor. And 1968 was a time of great turbulence, with political assassinations and widespread civic unrest.

Most don't usually think of 1981 along such lines. But this year had all the requisite major happenings to qualify for inclusion on the list of years that represented the greatest change. There was a seismic political shift in this country when Ronald Reagan swept into office on the tide of reversing activist, progressive governance; assassinations and attempted assassinations (Reagan, the pope, Anwar Sadat and John Lennon just days before the start of 1981); and a tangible, immediate change in fashion and styles.

Finally, in sports, it seemed that everything was getting turned on its head in 1981, with paradigm shifts present everywhere.

The Yankees reached yet another World Series that year, losing to the Dodgers in six games. But what followed was the longest drought of postseason play in the storied franchise's history. Gone were the mini-dynasties of the 1970s - the A's, Reds and Yankees. For the first time in baseball history, there was only one multiple winner of a series in a calendar decade - the Dodgers, who also won in 1988.

In football, the Joe Montana-led San Francisco 49ers shocked the league when they defeated the '70s powerhouse Dallas Cowboys en route to their first Super Bowl. They became not just the new dynasty. They also fundamentally altered the way offense was played by using the pass for ball control. All the famed teams of prior years except the Raiders failed to win a title in the 1980s.

And Larry Bird joined Magic Johnson as an NBA champion in 1981. Their teams, the Celtics and the Lakers, went on to claim eight of the 10 titles in the 1980s, establishing an extraordinary new level of play from two teams simultaneously that some argue hasn't been matched.

But without question the sport whose essence changed the most was tennis. I've written before about how the tennis world seemed to end after John McEnroe defeated Bjorn Borg in the 1981 U.S. Open final following his defeat of Borg at Wimbledon two months earlier. This drove a fatal stake into the stoic Swede's heart, a wound he never recovered from.

The lights went out on the grainy, soft-lit '70s, and the neon '80s commenced right at that instant. Or at least that's how many tennis enthusiasts felt. And just look at McEnroe's hair at that Open final. Gone was the Irish 'fro he'd worn to that point in his career. In place was a closely cropped look that was far more representative of the '80s in tennis.

HBO will air a documentary next month on the rivalry between Borg and McEnroe. It's good timing, not only because it marks 30 years since Borg's sixth French Open championship and final Grand Slam title in 1981, but also because Borg's progeny, the singularly extraordinary Rafael Nadal, will be aiming to tie Borg's mark in Paris in a few weeks.

The Borg-McEnroe battles were legendary and had all the necessary dramatic overtones and undertones. But what one must remember is that the rivalry was so brief. This is perhaps why it continues to haunt the imagination of tennis fanatics, as there was a sense of feeling cheated when Borg decided to literally walk off into the night, never to be seen again. There was never that second or third act to his and McEnroe's narrative. This allows even greater mystery and "what-ifs" to be applied to their rivalry's sudden and depressing conclusion, allowing observers to graft upon it whatever they wish.

This is distinctly different from the rivalry Nadal had with Roger Federer. Yes, had - not has. Federer is now ranked third, which means he has just as much chance of meeting Nadal in the semis as he does in the final of the big events. But these two wildly popular champions engaged in a nearly four-year series of incredibly important matches, competing in seven of 12 Slam finals between 2006-09, unprecedented men's tennis in the open era.

There will always be arguments as to whether Nadal's dominance over Federer in big matches proves he is the best player of his time, or if Federer's record 16 Slam titles is all the proof one needs that he is the greatest. But we'll never say we were cheated. Does that take some intrigue out of the final analysis? Perhaps.

Nadal will almost surely be one of the participants in the French Open final June 5. And I'm sure, deep down, he'll be waiting on his friend Roger to join him one last time.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports on Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

Author Archive