Nothing Bjorn Borg does can be surprising anymore after his domination of a Wimbledon during which he didn't lose a set while learning to serve and volley as well as spray aerosol freeze in all the proper places.
When Borg, the precocious Swede, defeated Ilie Nastase by a shocking 6-4, 6-2, 9-7 in the green furnace of tennis' finest event, he didn't overwhelm the Rumanian with talent as much as expose his opponent's jangling nerves and prove the quality of his own firm steel when it mattered most. Just four weeks past 20, Borg is already the frosty Viking. Nastase? Still goofy after all these years.
Things started off normally enough last Saturday with the 29-year-old Nastase, hypertense in the locker room, needling Borg and railing at him, "You ready, keed? You better be ready, keed." On court Nastase moved to an easy 3-0 lead, as he was expected to do because he, too, had not lost a set leading up to the final, because he had sliced up Borg in their last two meetings and because he appeared particularly devastating while performing some brilliant work against Charlie Pasarell and Raul Ramirez in the quarterfinals and semis.
However, during the two weeks before Wimbledon, Borg had been practicing five hours a day on the lawn of the Cumberland Club in North London. He had worked diligently on the serve-volley game, adopting instant aggression for the grass. "I wolley big and tough now," was how he put it. Daily cortisone injections and courtside freeze spraying had diminished the pain of a pulled stomach muscle so that he was able to grind out impressive victories over Guillermo Vilas (in the quarterfinals) and Roscoe Tanner (semis) en route to the final match.
July 11, 1976
In the fourth game of their first set Nastase had three break points for a 4-0 lead, but Borg fought him off, finally banging in his first volley to win the game. Borg broke back in the fifth, and suddenly Nasty—a model of deportment through most of the fortnight—was screaming at the players' box.
"I was calling to God," Nastase said later. "I think I see Sophia Loren in stands." But what he actually saw was the need to beseech his brother, Constantine; his adviser, Mitch Oprea; his wife, Dominique; even his soul partner, Jimmy Connors; anybody, really, for some sort of help.
Nastase needed it. Recognizing a quicksand victim when he saw one, Borg bore in. "I know Ilie well," he said later. "I see him getting all nervous." Pounding vicious serves, hurling cross-court slingshots and covering the net at every opportunity, the youngster kept Nastase pinned to the baseline. His depth and weight of shot gave the Rumanian no openings to pass or to use his speed and fancy footwork.
"Is dangerous to play around with this guy," Borg said. "I kept hitting hard to not let him up." After Borg hit three winners and Nastase blew an overhead, the Swede had the crucial break in the ninth game and he went on to serve out the set, 6-4.
The second set came easier. Nastase pushed an easy forehand long to lose serve in the third game. He double-faulted and choked on a backhand overhead to lose serve in the seventh. It was about here that he plainly gave up. In a stretch of five games Nastase shuffled around. He clutched his side, mimicking Borg's stomach problem. He stared at the ground, hangdog. He won just five points. Connors, who had sent a note of encouragement to his friend at courtside, appeared in the locker room. "This is unbelievable. I never saw a guy tank the Wimbledon final before," he said.
That was what seemed to be happening until Nastase finally came alive with a spectacular volley off one of Borg's bullet returns late in the third set. Now Nasty was glaring across the tape and slapping his thigh—surely signs of effort—while exhibiting some vintage artistry to save a match point, to break back and even to gain leads at 6-5 and 7-6.
But it was too late. The volatile Rumanian is used to threatening walkouts at a Hampton or an Indianapolis before returning to win, but he didn't dare to try such nonsense at the hallowed All England Club. And he wasn't about to come back against the steely will of an opponent who had dreamed of this moment since he was just a child, which, it seems, was only a couple of hours ago.
Borg kept unleashing vicious first serves, saved the set twice, then broke for 8-7 with a pass off the backhand and a Nastase volley error. After the Swede served out the match at love and hurled his racket on high, Nastase hopped the net to embrace one of the few rivals he genuinely likes. "I don't know what to say," mumbled the dazed new champion. "I think I am the happiest in all time."
Any tournament lucky enough to find a Borg and a Nastase cavorting about the premises generates its own heat. But in terms of temperatures rising, this was the hottest Wimbledon of all. In the suffocating first week, mad dogs and Englishmen kept going out in the midday sun to find thermometers hovering around 95°. The second week was hardly more comfortable. Umpires and linesmen were permitted the astounding indulgence of doffing their coats and ties, but there was no respite for ticket-holders who kept lining up in interminable queues and passing out from heat exhaustion. On one day 500 people were reported to have fainted around the grounds.
The seeded players began succumbing along with the spectators, notably John Newcombe. Having struggled through a five-set losing doubles with Tony Roche against the eventual champions, Brian Gottfried and Raul Ramirez, and having survived 42 aces from John Feaver in another five-setter, the old lion did not have enough left for Bernie Mitton, a heavily bearded South African. Mitton played two fine tie-breaks to knock Newk out of perhaps his last Wimbledon.
Adriano Panatta, recently red hot as champion of Italy and France as well as of all the signorinas in sight, retired on the same day as Newcombe. Panatta had barely reached the third round by turning aside a hilariously rotund Australian named Dale Collings, who wore a white baseball cap and wiggled like a beached eel when he served. When Panatta stopped laughing he won, but the dashing Roman was not so amused by Charlie Pasarell.
At 3-all in the fifth set, Panatta halted play to pick up a bird—an injured sparrow, not a squealing schoolgirl—which he carefully deposited in the cupped hands of a spectator. His own wings were clipped when Pasarell broke serve in the ninth game. Panatta pulled one of his escape acts in the 10th, saving six match points, but Pasarell prevailed 8-9, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.
"Watch this guy," defending champion Arthur Ashe said of his close friend. "Pasarell can win if they put him on Centre Court because he raises his game 50% there. When they put Charlie on the outside he's just Charlie."
Unfortunately this was just after Ashe himself had surrendered his title on an outside court, losing to Vitas Gerulaitis. Ashe had been laboring with a wandering service toss all week—CHAMP NEARLY A CHUMP blared one newspaper headline—when he met the curly-haired Gerulaitis, who is weary of being identified as a foot disease.
For such a talented player, Gerulaitis rarely buckles down to take advantage of his athletic ability and some of the finest service returns in the game, but anybody who does amazing things like wearing velvets in his home borough of Queens, N.Y. and driving a white Rolls-Royce in his team tennis home of Pittsburgh can certainly get away with upsetting Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon.
Which is what happened after Ashe won the first two sets only to succumb, by his own reckoning, first to the heat, then to the tension and finally to his opponent's exceptional receiving ability.
Ashe said he was "dead" in the third set. He said he "coasted" in the fourth when he fell too far behind. But in the 10th game of the fifth Gerulaitis rudely snatched the contest from him with four clean machine-gun returns.
"I guessed right four times," Vitas said after his 4-6, 8-9, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 upset. "This match will last a whole year for me." Or at least for two days, until he was defeated by Ramirez.
Ashe, subdued but dignified as always, said, "The thing won't sink in until tomorrow, but I can tell you it hasn't been relaxing going around being called 'the champion.' "
A man whom they weren't calling champion—one of the few things they weren't calling him—and still won't, was Connors. This was supposed to be Jimbo's year. Connors had a new serious image in that he was only making obscene gestures a few times an hour. He had a new sleek girl friend in Margi Wallace, late of Jimmy Brown, Peter Rev-son and George Best. He had a new adviser, a black doctor named Earl Wood. Connors' mother, Gloria, even had a new hair color, Rhonda Fleming maroon.
This terrific crew came rolling into Wimbledon like some Bel Air mafia set to plunder the place and recover what was so rudely taken from their leader last year. Few doubted that the resourceful Connors would do just that. "Ashe and Nastase talk about being 'scared' of Wimbledon," said Jimbo. "I don't understand. I wasn't scared the first time and I'm not scared now. It's like the Olympics. I've won and lost here. I know the difference."
The difference in the quarterfinals was the man with the express-train deliveries, Tanner. Since Jimbo crushed the Tennessean at Wimbledon last year, they have met five times, with Tanner letting Connors off the hook twice but beating him a month ago at Beckenham. Tanner-Connors is all left-handed bazookas and mutual respect. This time, after a slow start, Roscoe kept pulling aces out of his sleeve and throwing 19 of them Connors' way. On defense he mixed slices, chips and other junk—"sloppy stuff," Tanner called it—just as Ashe had done last year in defeating Connors.
Slowly the match became a ritual slaughter as Tanner served "harder than I ever have" while Connors became tentative and his own first serve collapsed. Only Jimbo's fortitude and competitiveness stayed with him as he lost the first two sets 6-4, 6-2 and fell behind 2-5, 0-40 in the third. He saved three match points on sheer will that carried him for eight games until a Tanner backhand return screeched down the line to give him an 8-6 victory.
"Why? Why this two years in a row?" said a dejected Chris Evert as she filed out of Centre Court behind dark glasses. "Jimmy's the best in the world. Why does he go around the bend here?"
Evert herself was not about to do the same thing. All eyes were on her as top seed, as leader of the women players' demands for parity in prize money and as Connors' ex. Still she managed to practice hard and keep her mind on a title she wanted more than anything in her illustrious career.
The "Jimmy thing," as Evert called it, would not go away. Every time the two got anywhere near one another, photographers panted, but Connors and Evert merely exchanged greetings and went separate ways—once while a stone-faced Margi looked on from a terrace. One day Gloria Connors came by in the players' tea room and, in an awkward moment, said, "Chris, I think you've really matured." Evert scrunched up her nose and blushed. "Well, what's she supposed to do?" said a friend. "Tell Gloria 'Thank you, you look quite a bit older yourself?"
All along, a meeting between Evert and Evonne Goolagong in the final was as certain as curtsies in the royal box. Oh, there was the obligatory homage to 36-year-old Maria Bueno, the Sao Paulo Swallow who had an arm operation for each year she had been away from Wimbledon (eight), and there was the usual provincialism in support of the home lasses, Sue Barker and Virginia Wade. But young Barker was conned out of a match by the bouncy Czech, Martina Navratilova (later dispatched by Evert) and Wade resumed her annual Ginny fizzle, this time by winning only three games against Goolagong.
What with having never beaten Goolagong on grass and having lost their last two meetings, Evert was hardly favored to win her second Wimbledon. But outsiders do not know the fires that burn inside the Fort Lauderdale princess. Evert agonized for weeks over her loss to Goolagong in the Virginia Slims championships. "I'm not going to play the same way," she vowed. "I'm coming in. I'm pressing Evonne. I'm volleying. I'm going to win."
It is not easy to dismiss the fact that at Forest Hills and Wimbledon Goolagong had lost five of six finals. "Remember, she doesn't play well when she gets this far," Rosemary Casals cautioned Evert the morning of the match.
Indeed, neither woman set off sparks as they split sets. But the two always put on a fascinating study of method vs. mood and, once more, it simply came down to Evert outgutting Goolagong in the crunch.
On several key points Chris startled Evonne by rushing the net. Though she didn't always get to hit a volley, her jaunts were enough to throw Evonne off and confuse her. "I never felt I had any room to pass," Goolagong said.
The crisis for Evert arrived in the 12th game of the final set after she had served for the match in the 10th and been broken at love and after Goolagong had rattled off some winners to lead 6-5. Serving to save the match, Evert easily could have crumbled, but on the first point she crushed a backhand that Goolagong could not handle at net. "Right then I got confident again," Evert said.
The American held her serve to even the set. In the next game she came to deuce with an overhead. ("Billie Jean counted me 22 times at net and 22 points won," Evert said proudly.) Then she broke through on two Goolagong errors to lead 7-6. Finally, in the 14th game at 30-all, Evert rifled a rare service winner, then scooped a lob toward the baseline to win the match 6-3, 4-6, 8-6.
Weeping and trembling in her mother's arms, the Ice Maiden broke down. "Nobody will ever know how badly I wanted this," she said.
Bjorn Borg probably knows. Between them, last week's winners have won seven French and Italian championships. While Chris has three Slims titles, a couple of Wightman Cup team victories, two Wimbledons and her U.S. Open championship, Bjorn has won the Davis Cup, the WCT championship and now Wimbledon, too, all in the last seven months. She is 21. He is 20. A pair of clay-courters who ultimately came in from the dust to do it all on grass.