By the time Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg finish up their series of Great Debates, which continued on a dusty patch of clay in the borough of Queens last Sunday, both should be old enough to require wheelchairs and wise enough to give the game of tennis back to somebody else. This is the only conclusion to be reached following a season in which Connors and Borg divided all the spoils in sight, and inevitably came face to face across the net at the West Side Tennis Club in the finals of the $416,600 U.S. Open. They are magnificently matched adversaries and they thrust and parried each other through four sets of spellbinding tennis.
When Connors defeated Borg 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 over three hours of pace and power, he not only won his second Open in three years but also stopped Borg's run of 19 straight match triumphs which had threatened to eclipse all of Jimbo's own achievements.
Connors is now 6-1 in career matches with Borg, but the kid is getting tougher. "I have a few years left to win this tournament," he said after losing by the margin of a thrilling third-set tie-break, which Connors admitted was "the best I've ever played."
The gap between the two is probably as narrow as that. Connors won all of two games more than Borg, but the official score sheet showed Borg with the edge in points, 123 to 121.
September 19, 1976
So the race for No. 1 in the world is hardly settled. "I feel I've dominated the game this year," Connors said. "But Bjorn had WCT and Wimbledon so I wanted him here." Ultimately he got Borg by smashing low liners, pinning him in the corners and never permitting him enough time to unleash his topspin artillery with any consistency. The immense effort this required appeared to exhaust Connors in the first set, and he lost the second before he could regain control.
The crisis arrived in the third, after Connors had blown a 4-2, 40-0 lead to let Borg back up for the sixth service break in seven games. They continued through service to the 12-point tie-break, in which Borg had four set points at 6-4, 6-5, 8-7 and 9-8. But as 16,000 spectators sat enthralled by the drama, Borg played it too cozy and Connors crunched for broke, thrice drilling approaches deep enough to set up knock-off volleys. To rescue the fourth set point, Connors shot a forehand bullet down the line that Borg could only stare after.
But Bjorn had his moments. Last February, when he lost the U.S. Pro Indoor to Connors in Philadelphia, he had quit in the third set. Now he has his Wimbledon championship behind him and the confidence to face up to Connors' relentless pounding. He got up from a nasty spill in the third set to work smartly on Connors' faltering forehand. He saved a set point himself in the tie-break before carelessly pushing a backhand wide to lose 11-9. And he made a battle of the fourth set after falling behind 2-4 and 15-40. Though his subpar serving continued to plague him, Borg won two more games and saved two match points in the final moments before it was over.
"He hits 20 or 30 balls back coming at him a million miles an hour," said Connors of Borg. "I can't count him out anymore. It was five seconds after the last point that I realized the match was over."
Connors was asked where Borg had improved. "Everywhere," he said. "I have to play great to beat him. Every time, we kill each other. Those people saw some of the best tennis today they'll ever see."
By the time Connors and Borg came to grips with one another as well as with No. 1, they had become much more than mere finalists in the world's richest tennis tournament. At an event beset by confusion, catcalls, near anarchy and the demoniac Ilie Nastase, Connors and Borg were a pair of exorcists as well, their energetic performances serving to rid the Open of some of its most distasteful moments.
This was the year of the changing of the administrative guard at Forest Hills. The USTA had stripped its popular tournament director, Billy Talbert, of most of his duties, so Talbert had resigned. A marketing firm, Capital Sports Inc., had been brought in to make improvements and the esteemed referee, Mike Blanchard, was named tournament chairman.
Normally this kind of alteration elicits well-deserved yawns from everybody but the bottom-liners. However, in this case, what the transition meant to the public included more restrooms and water fountains, a new walkway from the stadium to the clubhouse, fewer court-side commercial interruptions and a glorious new public food tent featuring such culinary treats as quiche, cheesecake and strawberries and Devonshire cream "direct from the Bronx," as Blanchard put it.
The administrative shakeup hardly could be blamed for some of the chaos. Nevertheless, as soon as the tournament began peculiar things started happening.
Harold Solomon, 10th seed in the men's division, was upset in the first round after which he complained he should have been granted an extra day's rest following his exhausting loss to Borg in the final at the U.S. Pro Championships two nights earlier. Then the Dynamic Defector, Martina Navratilova, third seed of the women, was upset in the first round and complained she shouldn't have had to play on a wet court after sitting around all day. The ex-Czech's postmatch breakdown in which she sobbed violently all the way to the dressing room was the first absolutely pitiful scene at the Open. But not the last.
Oh, there were some basic early surprises: the usual NCAA champion upsetting the fourth-seeded international clay-court heartthrob, in this case young Billy Scanlon of Trinity University and Dallas, who beat Adriano Panatta of Rome, 6-3, 7-6; the average obscure Rhodesian defeating the dashing Mexican Davis Cup hero, in this case Colin Dowdeswell, who stung Raul Ramirez 6-4, 6-4; and the famous big-serve grass specialist rapidly playing himself out of tennis and into a successful TV announcing career, in this case Arthur Ashe, who lost to Jan Kodes.
Ashe won only three games in two sets while being knocked around by Kodes, the most recent installment of a disastrous five-month stretch in which he has not made a quarterfinal. "I don't have a chance on this surface," Ashe said in a familiar litany. "I'm too old to change my game. I'd like to be reborn a European."
All of this set the stage for a volatile European who sometimes acts as if he has already been reborn as a vampire.
The mercurial Nastase had been harmless enough up to the first Friday of the tournament—playing games against ball boys after an opponent's default, wandering through the crowd munching hamburgers, dropping his pants when a female journalist was permitted in the players' lounge. Charming stuff like that. But then it happened.
In a second-round encounter with Hans-Jurgen Pohmann of West Germany under a glorious late-summer sky, Nastase exploded when a spectator made an "out" call during a point that Pohmann won in the first-set tie-break. Nastase protested, then won the replayed point as well as the set to the extreme displeasure of the more than 12,000 fans in the main stadium.
In the second set, after Nastase bitterly complained about another line call, his battle with the crowd was joined. Nastase spit, shouted obscenities, made vulgar gestures and swung his racket at photographers. In turn, the crowd cursed back, applauded his errors, screeched his service motion apart and threw tennis balls on the court.
Later, serving to even the match at 6-all in the third set, the gritty Pohmann was stricken with cramps and fell down three times. Umpire George Armstrong mistakenly called for a doctor (the rule book prohibits a player from receiving aid for injury from natural causes), whereupon Nastase screamed, "Is not football. No time-outs."
As the match roared to its conclusion, Nastase screamed and ranted at everything and everybody. He saved two match points; Pohmann saved four, before succumbing to a volley. Afterward, in slow succession, Pohmann refused to shake Nastase's hand, Nastase spit at him and called him bad things. Armstrong refused to shake Nastase's hand. Nastase swung his racket at the umpire and called him bad things. Nastase threatened his audience, and spectators had to be restrained from attacking him.
"Blank you, Hitler," Ilie screamed at Pohmann in the locker room.
"It is animal. Blank you, animal," Pohmann screamed right back. Nastase shoved his opponent and Pohmann threatened to sue. Bystanders broke up the fight.
If the disgraceful episode proved anything it was how woefully inadequate both the rules and their enforcement have become in big-time tennis. While Nastase probably should have been disqualified several times during the match (after the Open the ILTF imposed a 21-day suspension and the tournament committee fined him $1,000), so, too, should Pohmann have been defaulted for receiving medical aid.
"Three times I knock him out," Nastase said of his own passing shots, "but the umpire does nothing. Doctor come out as if Pohmann dead in a box and still they help him so he can run like crazy. If I delay minute, I'm cheater. If I breathe too much, crowd go crazy."
And so it seemed. For the next few days Forest Hills galleries treated Nastase as if he had stolen a bus and driven their children to Chowchilla.
The vigilante atmosphere was so obviously unfair it succeeded in arousing sympathetic responses for Nastase even from some fellow players, a turn of emotion previously believed impossible.
Before their third-round match Marty Riessen stood with Nastase under the marquee, listened to the rumbling of the crowd and said, "God, it's like the bullring. They're waiting for the kill."
Following Nastase's five-set victory over Roscoe Tanner, the loser paid tribute to his opponent's manners. "Ilie didn't pull anything," he said, "but with an audience like that I understand why he acts the way he does."
And Vitas Gerulaitis said, "If Nastase wins this tournament against these crowds, it will be the most monumental accomplishment in tennis."
A more serious problem was that the Nastase syndrome was spreading like brushfire through the tournament. From the moment Nastase and Pohmann walked off the court, the U.S. Open started falling apart. Crowds grew loud and ill-tempered. Umpires and linesmen were either intimidated or power-hungry. Players admitted to paranoia over line calls and rules. Everywhere one looked, there was trouble.
Vitas Gerulaitis called an umpire a "dummy" in the midst of his defeat by Connors, and was reprimanded. Kodes held up a match with Frew McMillan for a full five minutes to protest a line call, and later blamed his defeat by Connors on a bad call.
Among the women, Kerry Reid was defaulted by an official after only 20 seconds of nursing a sore ankle. Even such stalwart sportsmen as Guillermo Vilas and Borg were seen traipsing all the way around the net and deep into their opponent's territory to point out a ball mark to a line judge, a rare action indeed.
"It's the influence of team tennis," said Gerulaitis. "The crowd yells, groans, boos, participates. The lines people are shellshocked by the Nastase thing. They're too nervous to be forceful. The players have to protect themselves."
Charles Hare, the tournament referee who admitted he erred in not taking quicker action against Nastase, spent the remainder of the week watching Nastase's matches from the window of a small green shack in the northeast corner of the stadium. "This is not the jungle," he said. "I'm not going to be the guy to let the players take control. There will be no anarchy here, no riots."
It was indicative of the wackiness of the whole affair that events were put into perspective by, of all people, Connors. "We are professionals," he said. "The crowd must be allowed to participate." When asked exactly why Forest Hills patrons sounded like a Yankee Stadium mob reacting to Billy Martin kicking dirt on Nestor Chylak, Connors said simply, "New Yorkers want blood."
One curly-haired fellow New Yorkers also wanted was the defending champion, Manuel Orantes, who, since his memorable victory over Connors last September, had managed to lose a Vegas challenge match, damage his confidence, destroy his arm and get himself seeded sixth, possibly the lowest spot for a defender in history.
Nevertheless the Catalonian was as cheerful as ever, exposing his enormous thighs, flashing his equally enormous teeth and displaying the easy chips and spins that will keep him around soft-court events forever. It was suddenly last summer, too, when Orantes rallied from two sets behind to defeat Stan Smith, then came from 0-4 in the fourth to draw even with Borg in the quarterfinals.
Everybody remembered how Orantes beat Vilas in last year's semis from 0-5 and five match points down, but as Orantes pointed out, "Borg, he is different story. You look on his face for some emotion and there is nothing."
Indeed, with his cold, relentless hammering, spiced by a few of Manolo's own pet drop shots, Borg outlasted Orantes 4-6, 6-0, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 in the tournament's most riveting competition before the final.
That match set up what should have been some afternoon delights at Forest Hills on Saturday, including the men's semis—Connors against Vilas and Borg against Nastase—as well as the women's final between Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong.
Why it turned into a Dog Day Afternoon of three awful mismatches was not all that difficult to comprehend. First, Connors, who had not played Vilas in four years, is the type who warms to such challenging occasions, especially against a topspin foe who lives on the baseline playing defense all day and whose heart for battle has always been questioned.
On the first point Jimbo came out slugging to wear down Vilas' looming backswing. From their respective positions Connors could hit winners, Vilas could not. Connors so dominated his left-handed counterpart that Vilas reached break point only once on Connors' serve and never did break through. The scores were 6-4, 6-2, 6-1. "Is impossible for player to play so good so long," Vilas said. "If player hitting 200 mph at you, can't hit 400 mph back."
Borg, too, settled matters early with Nastase, much the way he had in their Wimbledon final, i.e., by beating Nastase to death on iron will alone. For once the crowd was fair to Nastase, with a majority even on his side. But there was a swirling wind on the court, just enough to shake his fragile psyche. More important, Nastase, normally a wise tactician, had no idea how to cope with this year's Borg.
In the wind, Nastase's topspin flew over the baseline and his slices were short and wide. Nastase tried everything at the end, even comedy, by dropping a ball from between his legs onto the court. Borg looked up and gave a hint of a smile. Then the ice kid turned his back and thrashed Nastase 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
Later Connors, perhaps taking a cue from Borg, who is six years his junior, retained his tournament-long attitude: sober, business-like and, in fact, all grown up until somebody mentioned 1975 and his failures in the finals of major championships. That struck a nerve. "If you're going to bring up 75, why don't you bring up 74 when I was the greatest player of all time?" he snapped back. "Anyway, who wouldn't take my year in '75?"
Well, Evert for one. She won her first Forest Hills then. And she won her second last week. In truth, Evert may win 10 more Forest Hills before a young lady from California named Tracy Austin is old enough to take the Open from her.
Plain, cold numbers are sufficient to explain how thoroughly Evert commanded the field which turned up to watch her inexorable march toward 101 consecutive clay court victories. Evert won her six matches by a score of 72-13. It took her 302 minutes to win the 30-grand first prize, which is almost $100 a minute. She gave up 188 points, or 15 points a set. She was given a cake after winning her 100th straight. She was given a floral arrangement after beating a horribly off-form Evonne Goolagong 6-3, 6-0 in the final. Nobody gave Evert what she deserved, though, which is simply enough credit.
"I was spacey out there all week," she said. Which was another way of explaining she was in "the zone," that vague and wonderful area players talk about where everything one hits is a winner.
After each slaughter Chris also said "this is not an indication of a talent gap" and everybody had a good laugh about that. But was it so funny? Or is women's tennis in trouble?
If Dr. Renee Richards' legacy to the game is the sex test, Chris Evert's legacy is the talent gap. It is hardly Evert's fault that she is so much better than everybody else. But it is time to break up Chris Evert. The women need somebody. Maybe that is why Billie Jean King confirmed last week that she will start playing singles in tournaments again this fall. Congratulations for now, Chris. But here come de judge.