Tennis' own counterculture all-stars resumed their traveling headband-and-friendship review deep in the heart of Texas last Sunday, and when the barrage of ground-stroke dust had cleared, the scraggly curled, blue-jeaned teen-ager from Scandinavia had done it to the scraggly curled, blue-jeaned poet from the Argentine one more time.
That the top-spin twins, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas, managed to eat meals together, hit practice balls together, hang around hotel lobbies and attend press conferences with each other and reach the deciding match of the sixth annual World Championship of Tennis Finals looking like some new country rock group was understandable enough. But that Borg then saw fit to wind up and blast his way past his friend for the fifth time in six matches in the past year and that Vilas reacted to another rear-kicking with merely a shrug was somewhat amazing. "These beatings not affect our relationship. I am never thinking I cannot win," said Vilas after losing the $50,000 first prize, 1-6, 6-1, 7-5, 6-1.
If it seems Borg has been making the WCT finals in Dallas since he was six, it probably is because every time he does reach Big D and its blue-bunting hoopla, he slugs his way through to the championship round. Having lost in the finals to John Newcombe in 1974 and Arthur Ashe last May, Borg wasn't about to let this one slip away, not even to a boon companion. "I am pretending Guillermo is somebody else; it is another guy over the net," Borg said.
After the Teen Angel and the Mild Bull of the Pampas had fought through two sets and two service breaks in the third, it came to Vilas serving at 5-5, 15-40. Their competition is always a fascinating study in strokes and tactics; now, as the ball passed over the net 84 times, one point mirrored the entire match. The players pounded top-spin drives, sliced delicate backhands, ran down lobs, chased drop shots. It was power on power, then soft stuff countering soft stuff. Suddenly Borg rushed the net, and Vilas, momentarily stunned, sliced a forehand down the line, but wide.
May 16, 1976
Having gained the key break, Borg served out the set and quickly broke in the fourth, taking advantage of Vilas' fading forehand and a questionable line call. "One ball does not make difference," Vilas said. "Bjorn was too deep on approach, very high balls, no good angles for me."
At the end one dashing blond right-hander had simply outhit and overpowered one dashing brown-haired lefthander again, but they still were world-ranking best pals.
"What so strange about this?" Vilas said. "Cannot be friends and tennis players too?"
Before Borg and Vilas came to grips with their top-spin artillery as well as their friendship, the tournament belonged to Ashe. For about two hours. That's how long it took the spunky, 5'6" moonballer, Harold Solomon, to eliminate Arthur on opening night.
Ashe had started his brilliant run in WCT play last season and had won 61 of 69 matches during a two-year span, including five tournaments this year. He was the proud owner of two 13-pound solid gold tennis balls as WCT's two-time point leader and he had won the fairly outrageous sum of $218,500 in four months. Yet there were signs that the defending champion was in for trouble.
He had finished his regular WCT season in Caracas a long four weeks ago. Since then he had played in one challenge match in Hawaii and in the WCT doubles in Kansas City, so he was not tournament sharp. Friends say he did not seem the hungry, eager, new Ashe who had shown up in Dallas last year.
Indeed, against Solomon, he was the old Ashe we had all come to know and be puzzled by, the tentative, confused, erratic, even lazy Ashe. After losing the first set 7-5 by blowing two late service games in which he led 40-15, the world No. 1 seemed to recover by taking the second 6-3. Then Solomon, who was forced to win his last two tournaments (beating Newcombe, Ilie Nastase and Ken Rosewall among others) just to qualify for this moment, took control.
He hit double-fisted backhand service returns by the ton—low and skidding away. He made Ashe overanxious with long baseline rallies, and took advantage of the champion's weak drop shots to triumph in cat-and-mouse confrontations at the net. He won 20 of 23 points in one stretch as his opponent missed shots, Ashe later admitted, "a 14-year-old could make. I embarrassed myself." Solomon ran out the match by a shocking 6-1, 6-3.
In the semifinals against Borg, a man he had never beaten, Solomon didn't have it. Giving away five inches, 30 pounds and half the speed of sound on groundstrokes to the Swede, he battled him through a service-break-marred first set, losing 7-5. But he was punished in the second set 6-0—he won only five points—and in the final set 6-3.
"I'm reaching up all the time to get his top spin; he exhausts me," Solomon said. "The kid is so much stronger than I am. Just look at him. I don't think I'll be ready to beat Borg for at least two years."
By that time Borg's right arm will be shriveled like a Swedish meatball and embalmed in formaldehyde, so hard does he whack everything that approaches, so often does he compete when stray exhibition cash is on the line. A lot of people are beginning to wonder if Borg is being burned out and sabotaged by his own schedule makers. The Teen Angel is coached by Lennart Bergelin, but he is managed by Mark McCormack, whose people seem to be under the impression that a day off will turn their prince into a frog. Last year Borg played almost 10 full months, including 12 singles victories leading to the Swedish Davis Cup triumph. The week before the WCT finals his itinerary resembled a campaign schedule in the Stop Jimmy Carter movement.
Borg literally played his way halfway around the world to Dallas: Wednesday, challenge match in Copenhagen; Friday, exhibition in New Jersey; Saturday, exhibition in Chicago; Sunday, exhibition in Oklahoma City. After Dallas, Borg was to play exhibitions in Kalamazoo, Mich. and Durham, N.C. before flying to Hawaii, Germany, France and oblivion.
"I am not like all these exhibitions," said Bergelin. "I cannot control. Bjorn have to slow down. This is too much stupid. All time I am seeing him, he look more or less half dead."
Meanwhile in the other half of the draw, Vilas, 23, was alternately pounding backhand drives and lofting tantalizing lobs in impressive destructions of Bob Lutz and Dick Stockton. The latter had upset Mexico's Raul Ramirez, but he was quickly dispatched to his suburban Dallas home in straight sets by the perplexing variety of Vilas' shots. "It was a matter of whether he screeched the ball by me or I lunged at it," said Stockton. "Vilas can hit three different directions off one motion. It got to be a guessing game."
Lutz, who won the first set 7-5 before succumbing 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 to Vilas, was more graphic about the effects of his opponent's relentless heavy ammunition. "I got cold," he says. "My ears started popping. The rubber came off my shoes. I got a cramp in my leg. My contact lens started shooting around in my eye. I was falling apart."
Of all international court eminences, perhaps the least is known about the swashbuckling Vilas. In the two years it took him to streak to the top, he went through a mystical stage, quoting Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, and Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, as well as doing some writing of his own. Entitled 125, it is a volume of poetry, short stories and the like. It sold out its first two printings of 20,000 copies, in Argentina.
"Poetry used to give me peace of mind on court," Vilas says. "But sometimes not. Now I am leaving poetry aside to concentrate on tennis."
Until both men reached the finals, it was not generally known how close Vilas and Borg had become. In fact they had been friends for a long time. "Our friendship go back five years to when he a star and I not even winning," says Vilas. "Sure, sometimes I hate him on court, but we are never enemies."
As last week's events in Dallas demonstrated, with stars like these, who needs enemies?