When there was still a tennis tournament to speak of, way back in the second round, it was obvious that the U.S. Pro Indoor was not one of those Grand Heavyweight World Challenge Dynamite Classic Cups played for the television cameras. No, this was a real flesh-and-blood tournament, the kind that people like Bjorn Borg, Ilie Nastase and Manuel Orantes apparently have forgotten how to win, and the sort that Jimmy Connors usually wraps up.
But last Sunday in Philadelphia, a city often rumored to be closed and which, because of the frigid weather and the natural-gas shortage, nearly was, Connors got a case of amnesia, too. After Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp had shut down schools, theaters and other public facilities, a marvelous competitor named Dick Stockton shut down Connors, coming from a set behind, not once but twice, to defeat the defending champion 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2.
Dick Stockton? Isn't he the PGA champion who wears the funny Amana hat and curls in 40-foot putts? Or is he the guy with the voice and the vested suit who hung out in Minneapolis doing Super Bowl color for NBC?
Actually, this is Richard LaClede Stockton, a 25-year-old serve-and-volley power player out of the tennis citadel of Garden City, N.Y. who left behind some heroic records in the junior ranks before he went on to stardom at Trinity (Texas) University and obscurity on the pro circuit. In fact, his biggest win was the Lagos (Nigeria) Classic in 1976, which was interrupted by a military coup and had to be played off in Caracas, Venezuela. Now we're talking obscurity.
February 7, 1977
Stockton was much more prominent in the fourth and fifth sets on Sunday, when he could do nothing wrong in his service games and Connors could do nothing right—not even throw in his usually trusty scare tactics.
The last man to beat Connors in a five-set match was Nastase in 1973, and from the way Connors had blazed through the earlier rounds, it didn't seem anybody would nail Jimbo that way for another four years.
Up until Sunday Connors' most strenuous activity was producing funny lines after his annihilations and accepting accolades normally reserved for hall-of-famers. Indeed, his greatest concern seemed to be the weather.
"I read where they closed the schools," Connors said. "Does the Spectrum have a different kind of heat?"
"They don't sell tickets to schools," somebody answered.
Connors sold plenty of tickets—the advance receipts for the seven-day tournament were announced as "stupendous"—with his own brand of white heat, which embarrassed such notable opponents as Tony Roche, Wojtek Fibak and Cliff Drysdale.
Following the early departure of Borg, Nastase et al., Roche was given the best chance to upset Connors, but though the veteran lefthander put up stiff resistance, he lost his fourth-round match to the defending champion 6-2, 6-2 and afterward admitted he "had no say" in the contest. Roche let it be known that he now rated Connors on a par with Rod Laver at his peak and that the American had only to play and win the European clay championships—Rome and Paris—to become "the best in history." This would not have been a shocking revelation except that it came from one of the great former Australian champions, a breed ever loath to pay Connors his due.
The damage that the new series of instant-hype, four-man quickie exhibition matches can wreak on established tournaments like Philadelphia, which boasts the strongest indoor field every year, was never more evident than on Wednesday. In the space of 90 minutes Borg, Nastase and Orantes (seeds two, three and four) were eliminated.
The surprised losers had arrived on the robin's-egg blue Supreme Court surface fresh from the soft Florida clay of the previous Sunday's Grand Slam. As had Adriano Panatta. As had Connors. While Nastase faked some TV announcing in Florida, the others competed for a first prize of $100,000, which must have made Philly's purse of 40 grand seem like just another Vuitton suitcase.
Connors would be favored under any conditions including, as Sandy Mayer said, "mud in the dark," but the other players simply could not adapt. Or could not motivate themselves. Or would not do either. In the second round Nastase performed his increasingly tiresome "I am a clown" routine before losing to the latest phenom, Bill Scanlon, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4; Orantes was defeated by doubles specialist Fred McNair 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, and Borg aimlessly gave away the last few games while being disposed of by Ray Moore 7-6, 6-4.
And by sundown the next day seeded players five, six and seven were also gone, those being Panatta, Harold Solomon and Eddie Dibbs. Two other possible drawing cards, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, never showed up, both claiming injuries. Yet Smith was seen the week before at the—you guessed it—Grand Slam hitting away in teaching clinics.
This puzzling business contrived to bring about the following exchange, which included the first nastiness ever recorded by the former teen angel, Borg.
John Barrett of the Financial Times of London: "Bjorn, in light of your defeat here, was it worth it to play that exhibition last week?"
Borg: "What exhibition? If you call that exhibition, then I don't answer you."
Barrett had a point, but so did Borg. Aside from his Wimbledon championship, Borg considered his victory over Connors the most important of his career. To label it an exhibition was to belittle the fruits of a magnificent struggle.
Connors, in effect, agreed. "An exhibition is fun, smiles," he said. "I fought my guts out against Bjorn. When we play, it's never an exhibition. It's death."
After most of Philadelphia's seeds had been eliminated, who should emerge into one semifinal but the enigmatic Jeff Borowiak, who followed his victories over Tom Okker, Vitas Gerulaitis, Solomon and Vijay Amritraj by greeting the press in various hooded garb and by staring at the wall for minutes on end.
Borowiak, who has been known to play the flute and quote from flower children, did not disappoint anybody who enjoys smoking his racket strings now and then. He attributed his fine run to "zoning in" on tennis. He said he got his last haircut in "1472, April, but what does it matter?" He said he didn't know "when meditation begins or ends." He was asked whom he would prefer to meet in the final and he answered "Nancy Richey."
Stockton dezoned Borowiak 6-3, 6-4, 7-6, after which Stockton rifled a ball into the stands toward his wife and speculated on his final with Connors. "I haven't beaten Jimmy since before the war," he said.
Whichever war Stockton meant, he seemed to be waging a battle against anonymity for several days. It took the muscular blond four match points to escape a second-round tie break with John Alexander, but then he blitzed his way through Brian Gottfried, Ken Rosewall and Borowiak without the loss of a set. Nevertheless, his victories were accompanied by thunderous yawning. "I don't see my name in the papers much," Stockton said. "Maybe nobody knows me."
Was Connors taking him too lightly or was he dreaming of his own imminent immortality, courtesy of Tony Roche? Whatever, after taking a 2-1 lead in sets, Jimbo fell behind 3-1 in the fourth, looking bored with it all. Suddenly he came to 0-40 against Stockton's serve with three chances to break back, tie the match and then, of course, run it out. Inexplicably, he blew the next three points—one with a terrible lob only you and I hit on bad days—and lost the game.
That was enough for Stockton. If Connors didn't want it, he would take it. Instantly Stockton resumed serving one-bouncers into the seats, volleying to the corners and actually dominating the indomitable James Scott Connors.
After Stockton won the fourth set, he broke Connors in the first and third games of the fifth as the errors came in bunches for Jimbo. Soon the shocking outcome was inevitable, and Stockton—whose angular features and blank stare have earned him the underground nickname of "Equus"—was obliged to announce the obvious.
"I'm not used to this position," he said, accepting the tournament trophy. "But I've never played better for five days in my life."
One day was all Dick Stockton needed to demonstrate that in tennis the horse can sometimes ride the man.