Perhaps it is time for all of us to seriously consider the merits of blowing on our fingers before serving, of bouncing the ball on the turf—one, two, three, four times—of staring absently at the ground and with hostility at opponents. Maybe we should all hold the racket in our left hands, wear Prince Valiant haircuts, scream at linesmen and clown a bit when the mood strikes you. Do whatever Jimmy Connors does. Because whatever he does works, as it did again last week at Forest Hills.
Here was Connors, facing 39-year-old Ken Rosewall for the second time in two months—finals, grass, major championship—a sassy 22-year-old rebel vs. a tennis legend, a man who had won at Forest Hills in 1956 when Connors was four. In their first meeting, at Wimbledon in early July, Connors won in straight sets, allowing Rosewall only six games. Impressive? You bet. But Rosewall had just beaten John Newcombe and Stan Smith back to back. He was tired. Not a fair test.
Now they were at it again, and for those who doubted his ability Jimmy Connors proved he is quite a tennis player. He crushed Ken Rosewall 6-1, 6-0, 6-1, the most lopsided final in the history of Forest Hills and surely Rosewall's worst defeat since he learned to hit a backhand.
For Connors the U.S. Open capped a tremendous year in which he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and all but three of his other matches. He might have won the Grand Slam, but he was not allowed to play in the French Open because he was "tainted" by team tennis.
September 15, 1974
The Connors-Rosewall match could have been high drama. Connors has a devastating serve, but throughout the rain-prolonged tournament Rosewall had proved that he was still capable of taking anything hit at him and whipping it cross-court or down the line, bringing up chalk as often as not.
But not against Connors. The first set was over in a flash, Connors making Rosewall look like a middle-aged club player. It would have been delightful if the old pro had come back to make a match of it, as he has so often. There was no way. Connors wiped him out in one hour and eight minutes. Connors' return of serve was so devastating that Rosewall won only 19 points on his serve in the whole match.
"The best tennis I've ever played in my life, all 22 years of it," exulted Connors. "I didn't miss a ball."
Didn't he at any time have pity on the old man across the net?
"I've seen people pity Ken Rosewall and then see him win 6-3 in the fifth," answered the now-undisputed No. 1 player in the world.
The Billie Jean King-Evonne Goolagong women's finals was far more entertaining. Goolagong, a beautiful player on grass, has seldom beaten King—the notable exception being 1971 when she won Wimbledon as a 19-year-old. On Monday Goolagong took the first set 6-3, dropped the second by the same score and looked in great shape when she went ahead 3-0 in the third, but although she broke King's serve again she could not hold her own serve (lack of a strong service in many ways makes women's tennis more interesting than men's, especially on grass). King broke to go ahead 6-5 and held her own serve for the match. Just as Connors had done, she threw her racket high in the air.
At that moment in the glass-enclosed press box, Connors' manager, Bill Riordan, was talking about a challenge match in Madison Square Garden, between Jimmy and a man he has never played, another old Aussie named Rod Laver. And in the tradition of the late golfer Tony Lema bottles of champagne were popped open for the press, courtesy of the new champ.
For the woman who will become Mrs. Connors in November, it was not such an effervescent occasion. Chris Evert, with her lovely feminine way of moving, her impeccable grooming and her impeccable ground strokes, was seeded first, just like Jimmy, and it seemed possible that Forest Hills would have a "lovebird double" to match their twin victories at Wimbledon. Evert had won 56 matches in a row (her last loss was to King indoors in March) and was the leading female money winner in the world ($157,500) this year. True, she had never beaten Goolagong or King on grass, but she had won Wimbledon, indicating that perhaps she had learned to live with it. She had not even lost a set since Wimbledon, although that statistic lost a little gloss when one realized that most of the best women players were either pregnant (Margaret Court) or off playing team tennis (King, Goolagong, Nancy Gunter, etc.)
Evert swept easily through her first three Forest Hills rounds, losing only eight games and no sets, until she ran into Australia's Lesley Hunt. It was Hunt who gave Chris her toughest match at Wimbledon and now she was at it again. In the first set she forced Chris into a tie breaker and took a formidable 4-1 lead—one point from victory. But Evert won four straight points to take the first set and crushed Hunt in the second 6-3. There were some boos and heckling from the grandstand, but Evert, no longer the darling "Chrissie" of three years ago, merely pursed her lips and hung in.
"I heard a couple of comments like 'Evert, you're a bad sport,' " she said (omitting such nastier gibes as "Evert, you stink"). "I'm not used to that. Jimmy might be, but I'm not."
Then came a more serious problem. Evert would have to beat Goolagong and probably King on grass—such as it was—to prove herself the absolute No. 1 woman player in the world. She had played Goolagong only once in 1974, losing on grass in Australia in January, dropping the third set 6-0.
Goolagong had come through the middle of the draw with ease, and in the first set against Evert, she made her fifth seeding look ridiculous, allowing Chris only nine points and winning 6-0. Goolagong was leading 4-3 in the second—and on a service break—when rain forced play to be suspended. Fans remembered that in Evert's tough match with Hunt at Wimbledon a downpour had interrupted play and Evert had come back strong to win the next day. This time it was two days later (soggy grounds caused cancellation of all matches Saturday), and the battle did not end until 47 hours and 18 minutes after it started.
Evert continued to have difficulty holding serve, but so did Goolagong and the second set was forced into a tie breaker, which Evert won 5-3 to take the set 7-6. Could Evert come back to win the match? Not quite. She staved off four match points but finally fell 6-0, 6-7, 6-3. She had held service only three times in the entire match.
There was some consolation for Evert, of course—$10,800 in prize money, plus a "bouncing check," a negotiable check for $35,000 written on a tennis ball for "excellence of performance in the four major tennis competitions, Australian, French, All-England and U.S. Open." And she was relieved to have her winning streak end, as perhaps Joe DiMaggio was in 1941 when his consecutive-game hitting streak ended at the same number, 56.
Billie Jean King, fresh from a summer of coaching and playing for the Philadelphia Freedoms of World Team Tennis, seemed pleased to be out in the sunshine getting a red nose again, or even in the rain getting her hair wet. She seemed in no way annoyed at being seeded second behind Evert. Mother Freedom's major scare en route to the final was a miserable first set in the semis against Julie Heldman who, aided by the heat and the effects of some medication King was taking, had beaten her in last year's Open. After losing the first set to Heldman, King woke up and won rather easily 2-6, 6-3, 6-1.
As the most vociferous spokesperson for team tennis (and almost any other cause you can name), King was tickled that five of the eight semifinalists (herself, Goolagong, Connors, Rosewall and Newcombe) came out of WTT, puncturing the notion that team tennis is woefully poor preparation for a major tournament. Not only that, all four of the finalists were from WTT.
Among the men, a number of new faces—and backstrokes and serves—attracted attention. Argentina's Guillermo Vilas justified his ninth seeding by reaching the fourth round before losing in straight sets to Arthur Ashe. Hungary's Balazs Taroczy, owner of a fine flat-top-spin backhand and forceful serve, forced Jan Kodes to five sets in the third round. Victor Amaya lost in the first round to Sweden's teen-age whiz, Bjorn Borg (who subsequently was beaten by India's Vijay Amritraj), but got lots of notice, perhaps because not many 6'7" part-Arapaho Indians win the Big Ten championship and play at Forest Hills. But the young man who drew the most attention was Roscoe Tanner, 22, from Lookout Mountain, Tenn., and later, Big Canoe, Ga.
Now, a fellow named Roscoe from places like Lookout Mountain and Big Canoe has to play tennis in his bare feet, right? Of course not. Lookout Mountain happens to be a prosperous suburb of Chattanooga, Big Canoe is a fashionable resort Tanner used to represent, and Tanner himself is a Stanford graduate, the son of a lawyer. He was a fine college player, traveled the World Championship Tennis circuit last year, partnered Ashe in doubles and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon before losing a four-setter to Rosewall.
Tanner is a lefthander with an awesome serve. He throws the ball up so low and swings his racket so quickly that it seems he is hitting it right out of his hand. "Hitting bombs" is the way Connors describes it, although Tanner himself says Colin Dibley of Australia has a much harder serve. Tanner is six feet tall, and he thinks his modest height is an advantage because his cannonball zooms at the receiver from a lower angle and the poor victim has less time to judge its velocity, direction, etc. That serve and his rapidly improving volleys and ground strokes took Tanner to some astonishing comebacks at Forest Hills.
In the second round he was down two sets to England's Roger Taylor and came back to win. He was down two sets to the Rumanian clown Ilie Nastase and came back to win. It took him five sets to beat Ismail El Shafei of Egypt, who had been the upset star of Wimbledon. The quarters should have been the end of him, for there he met another big server, Stan Smith, America's co-No. 1. Instead, Tanner won in four sets over the No. 3 seed, whom he had never beaten.
Tanner's end came in the semis against Connors, with whom he "grew up in the juniors." His ground strokes and volleys were not as sharp as they were against Smith (no doubt Connors' bulletlike shots had something to do with it) and his serves were not the "bombs" Connors had seen explode all week. The result was a 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 Connors win.
Connors had fought his way through a fairly tough draw himself. The weekend before the Open started he had to forfeit the final of the warmup tournament at South Orange because he was ill with food poisoning. Tournament Director Bill Talbert delayed his opening-round match a day, "not because he's the No. 1 seeded player but because it would be the human thing to do for any player who became ill and because it doesn't matter too much so early in the tournament." Humpf, snorted the Connors critics, would Talbert have done that for Teimuraz Kakulia or Belus Prajoux or jolly Jean Caujolle?
Connors' first match was against Jeff Borowiak, who played ahead of him on the UCLA varsity. Jimmy won the first two sets handily, but was tiring in the third and trailing 5-3 when rain interrupted play. Connors had tea with lemon during the unscheduled break and came back to win 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. After that Kodes and Alex Metreveli forced him to four sets, but he never seemed to be in danger. He just kept blowing on his left hand and blowing incredibly powerful ground strokes right through the gut of his opponents' rackets.
"The weather today was Wimbledon weather," Connors said after dispatching Borowiak. "I don't mind it. I'm loose now. I just enjoy it out there. I play the game the way it should be played."
It seemed likely that Australia's John Newcombe would be Connors' opponent in the final. Playing in a pink shirt—his lucky color—he worked his way to the semis, getting a tough match from his longtime doubles partner, Tony Roche, and a bit of a scare in the quarters from Ashe on a grandstand court in such sorry shape that Newcombe suggested Raul Ramirez of Mexico had just fought a bull on it. Newk, as even some umpires call him, beat Ashe in five sets. After that it did not look like anything or anybody would stop him from being the first man since Neale Fraser (1959-60) to win Forest Hills twice in a row.
"John was very disappointed at Wimbledon," said his friend Roche. "You could tell by the way he acted, the way he looked. I think he's probably a little hungrier than most. He'll be up."
Newcombe's opponent in the semifinals was the same fellow Sydneyite who knocked him out at Wimbledon, Rosewall. "I wish he'd get old," said Newcombe before the match, but it seems that the great backstroke artist is going to be playing and winning for at least another decade. And surely it did not hurt Rosewall that he had two days rest after beating Amritraj in four sets Thursday.
Newcombe started off serving nicely, slipped a bit at the end of the first set and got tangled in a tie breaker, which he won 5-3. But from there on it was downhill, as Rosewall took three straight sets, including another tie breaker. The fans loved it, giving Rosewall a standing ovation when he won his tie breaker.
After the victory over Newcombe, Rosewall was asked what it felt like to be an institution, to never grow old. He smiled politely, although he has heard all the jokes about his age and his wealth before.
"I wonder how much longer it's going to last," he said. "I'm playing the type of tennis that will win a lot of matches. I'm still putting my game on the line, just like everybody else."
And on Monday he put it on the line against Jimmy Connors. The ageless wonder against the brash youth.