Skillfully stroking his way through $200,000 worth of Pepsi-Cola cans, not to mention weather out of Ice Station Zebra, Bjorn Borg proved at the Grand Slam of Tennis that if you punish a child enough he'll learn to do things right.
What Borg finally learned to do last Sunday afternoon in a Boca Raton, Fla. condominium nirvana called Boca West, which seemed more like Klondike South, was defeat Jimmy Connors. In their eight previous matches Borg had won only once—the first time they met back in 1973—but this time he combined well-chosen lobs and a clever little low backhand chip shot with his characteristic looping topspin forehand to upset Connors 6-4, 5-7, 6-3.
The victory avenged Borg's only significant loss of 1976, the U.S. Open, but more important was the way he threw the monkey of self-doubt off his back. No one stroke or series of points could do that. Steel will could, and did. "The difference this time?" Borg said. "This time I was knowing I can beat him."
Heretofore, Borg always has been a man against the field, a boy against Connors. And in the late gloom of the second set it looked as if he would fall apart again.
January 31, 1977
Here Borg was, having won the first set and ahead 4-3 in the second, with three break points against Connors' serve and a chance for a 5-3 lead. But Connors took his opponent's lobs out of the dark sky and pounded them clear for the game. Here Borg was with a 5-4 lead and three match points, but he failed again—once on an easy backhand drive off a short ball with Connors frozen at the net. The ball struck the tape and fell backward, whereupon Borg smashed it with his racket savagely into the net.
It was a unique display of emotion for the normally stolid 20-year-old, and he threw away the set in the next two games. The teen-age Borg would have been finished then. But this Borg came charging back in the third set to break Connors' serve in the fourth game. To withstand Connors' break back in the fifth. To get the key break in the sixth on two gorgeous backhand passing shots, and ultimately to run out the match.
"I play him high ones, low ones," said Borg. "This is unbelievable big win for me."
And a rich one. Borg's $100,000 first prize was more than the entire amount he earned in winning his 1976 Wimbledon and WCT titles. Connors' winner's paycheck of $30,000 at Forest Hills was less than his runner-up Grand Slam take of $50,000.
With all its loot, Grand Slam could have been the ultimate video cum lettuce sports special. Yet this particular event had some legitimacy. To begin with, the Grand Slam had the winners of the four most prestigious tournaments in the world—Borg (Wimbledon and WCT), Connors (Forest Hills) and Adriano Panatta (the French Open). Since Borg had won two of the big four, the fourth player was Manuel Orantes, the 1975 Forest Hills winner who last year won the Grand Prix Masters championship.
Next, the final match was televised live right then rather than seven months later in between the 2 a.m. Veg-o-matic commercials.
Thirdly, the tournament was conducted in a thoroughly professional manner by the sponsor, Pepsi-Cola, which, because of its nine-year sponsorship of a worldwide junior tennis program, as well as lessons in 45 inner U.S. cities, believes it has no apologies to make to tennis.
And finally, unlike many events of this nature, the players were on the scene well ahead of time. They practiced diligently. They were coddled only to certain limits. When Connors made some noise about refusing to play in the windy, 40° first-day chill, he was told in no uncertain terms he would play.
As Pepsi publicist Joe Block said in between hitting some forehands of his own in one of the clinics his company provided for clients, "Hardly a tennis tournament goes by that Pepsi is not involved in putting money back into the sport. We don't believe a four-man event is a threat to tournaments. It's just that when you can get four of the top guys in the world, guaranteed, why take pot luck on the finals of some tournament?"
But is it a TV show, Joe?
"If it was a TV tape, we wouldn't do it." Block said. Then he grinned. "But if there was no TV, it wouldn't exist either."
Naturally the players loved the Grand Slam. And defended it. "Listen," said Connors, "the public is getting great tennis cheap. [Would anyone outside Palm Beach call $20 tickets "cheap"?] I'm on the title trail now. I just want to win events that will put me in the history books. I think in time the Grand Slam will be one of those events."
Panatta thought otherwise. "Grand Slam is fun, yes," he said. "Maybe it can be No. 1 of four-man exhibitions. But for history title? Never."
On Saturday, Panatta dug his huge serve into the slate-gray clay to come from behind and nearly upset Borg. Having split the first two sets, they struggled through four service breaks in the third before Panatta led 5-4 and held match point three times. But in a game that went to seven deuces, Borg held firm. On the third match point against him, all Borg could do was shiver in his tracks and watch as Panatta aimed a passing shot down the line. But the ball hit the net cord and bounced back. Borg held two ads before winning the game for 5-5. Then he ran off eight straight points to take the set and match 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.
Borg was in the midst of an important period of adjustment at Boca Raton. He and his fiancée, the Romanian player Mariana Simionescu, were sharing a villa with Borg's coach, Lenart Bergelin, in the final days of an idyll which would end when Bjorn and Mariana would have to leave on separate tennis circuits and be apart for the first time since June. They practiced together and ate Mariana-cooked meals in their villa every night. On the other side of paradise Connors was enjoying a rare piece of solitude. Unencumbered by his usual footmen, lackeys and gofers, he played golf and kibitzed with children. The fact that he was unaccompanied by everybody's favorite sports starlet, Marjie Wallace, who did not arrive until Sunday, gave rise to inevitable questions about his relationship with Chris Evert, who was at home in Fort Lauderdale 20 miles down the road.
"Chris and I are doing fine," Connors said. "We talk on the phone a lot. She does her thing and I do mine. We're good friends. People should understand that."
Connors also said he was "into seriousness now. Really, seriously," he insisted. This was just before he postponed practice to catch the Three Stooges on TV and to play minibike chicken with his partner-in-seriousness, Ilie Nastase.
Connors and Orantes had divided straight-set victories in their previous two meetings and, though last week's rubber match was close, it was almost totally devoid of impressive shot-making.
Because of the wind and chill the players were encumbered by windbreakers and sweaters. Entire games would pass with no clear winners struck. Orantes won the first set tiebreak only because he made three unforced errors to Connors' five. Then Connors won five straight games to take the second set 6-2.
Neither player was enjoying himself, and Connors seemed utterly without motivation. Orantes served for the match at 5-3 but, severely hampered by a cramp in his left thigh, played four loose points to drop his serve.
Orantes carried on despite the pain and came to match point in the next game, but Connors did the kind of thing he always seems to do in the crunch. He aced his man. After Jimbo held for 5-all and led 15-40 in the 11th game, Orantes pulled up, unable to move.
Connors jumped the net and started massaging Orantes' leg. "Can he sit down to rest?" Connors asked Umpire Florence Blanchard.
"No," she said.
Orantes limped off to his default, pausing to shake Blanchard's hand.
"What an amazing person Manolo is," she said. "Such pain and hurt and, you know, he's not a very handsome man. But when he smiled up at me, his look was just, well, beatific."
Bjorn Borg, the game's coldest warrior, never has been called beatific. But as he demonstrated at the Grand Slam, he may be ready to be called the best.