WIMBLEDON WAS NEVER BETTER

To celebrate its 100th birthday and the Queen's Jubilee, Virginia Wade finally won for England, and Borg edged Connors in a match that will be legend—until they meet again
July 10, 1977

If Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors continue to stride atop the game of tennis as they did during the 100th year of Wimbledon and as they expect to do for maybe 100 years more, somebody should get them to sit down and admit a few things about one another.

If true to themselves, Borg, 21, would say: "Ya, I used to give up like little baby. I quit against Jimmy because I am so scared. Now I am grown up, sinking about sings so well, and pounding wolleys all over place. Sometime my big serve go past Jimmy's face like toonder."

And Connors, 24, would say: "Who else is there but me and the Swede sonuvabitch? Sure, he's bigger and knocks the fuzz out of the ball. But give me a good thumb to return serve with, and I'll kill him. It's only me and him for all the marbles. Wait till next time."

We shall all be waiting. If it wasn't readily apparent before Borg's 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 final-round victory over Connors on the verdant lawn of the All England Club, it is now. When Borg outlasted Connors in one of Wimbledon's more amazing fifth and final sets, it became clear that the winner is now mature enough and the loser proud enough for them to take this rivalry on to heights reached only by names in history books: Tilden-Johnston, Perry-von Cramm, Laver-Rosewall.

The brutally fought matches of Borg and Connors could have been foretold as far back as 1973 and 1974 when they split titles at Stockholm and at the U.S. Clay Courts in Indianapolis. When Connors defeated Borg in the thrilling final of the U.S. Open last summer and Borg turned the tables in the Grand Slam at Boca Raton, Fla. in January, the gauntlets were dropped for Saturday's confrontation. The two best in the world—No. 1 and No. 1A—in the finals of the championship of the world on God's own grass in tennis' temple. Neither blinked.

While Borg unsheathed his vicious new serve and prepared for the defense of his Wimbledon title by whipping up on defenseless seeds like Wotjek Fibak and Ilie Nastase, and by surviving a glorious semifinal with Vitas Gerulaitis, Connors appeared to be struggling against a bunch of mystery guests (excepting a rejuvenated Stan Smith, who took him to five sticky sets) as well as with the pain of his much-discussed bruised thumb.

It was the right thumb, the one that steers his double-fisted backhand, and Connors kept pulling a splint on and off, insisting it was O.K., he could still grip his wallet, and then scattering service returns into the hedges. It was with some shock, then, that the Centre Court crowd watched on Saturday as Connors blazed 21 clean winners past Borg in a 6-3 surgery job of a first set. Bjorn had been whaling his ground strokes with a fury all tournament long, but now he was tentative on the attack, and he hung his head, downcast.

But Borg no longer bends like a willow in the face of a storm. Taller and stronger than he was as a teen angel, he also has learned how to think his way out of a crisis. In the third game of the second set he withstood four break points simply by exploding that remodeled huge first serve. The champion also began varying the pace, mostly with slices and chips to the middle of the court, where Connors was forced to rely on his forehand approach, a glaring weakness in his otherwise solid arsenal. "Jimmy always love my game," Borg said later. "He kill top spin. He kill high balls. So I keep low."

Low they came, and low they went back—too often into the net. From 2 all, Borg won eight straight games and 10 of 11 while taking the next two sets, 6-2, 6-1. In that period Connors was broken five straight times.

In the fourth set Connors righted his serve but his ground game was falling totally apart as Borg mixed deep, top-spin floaters to the corners with hard, angled drives, plus those inviting little midcourt numbers. If the right thumb still hurt, it was no excuse; it was the one-handed left-handed forehand that betrayed him throughout. Connors survived only by finally remembering to go to his serve-and-volley power; attacking, he broke at love for the set, 7-5.

So it was that the two came to sundown. As the women and children dispersed to safer ground, a bizarre scenario unfolded in an already strange contest of shifting tides. First Borg appeared to have won the match so easily (by sweeping the first four games of the set) that his mother, Margarita, seated in the competitors' box, started weeping tears of joy.

Then it was Connors' turn to win the championship of the world.

Jimbo had been ticking off net-cord winners all afternoon long and a backhand off the tape saved the fifth game. Next Connors broke Borg with a volley. He held serve, and broke Borg again, positively creaming a swinging forehand volley past Bjorn's ear.

The score was now 4 all. Connors was raging, slapping his thigh and rolling his head like a toy doggy in a car window. But as suddenly as Connors got back in the match, he took himself out of it. "If I hang in and play a tight game, maybe it's a chill factor on Bjorn's nerves," he said of the sequence. "But I got excited and rushed. I played the ninth game like a dummy." As Borg would say, "For sure."

At 15-0 Connors double-faulted. "Badly double-faulted," he said. "I don't know where that came from." At 15-30 he sailed a backhand 10 feet over the baseline. "A ridiculous shot" was his critique. Then Connors lost the game on a sloppy forehand that landed in approximately the same spot as the backhand.

Momentum having veered sharply to his side of the net once again, Borg pumped himself up and served out the game, set and match at love. At 30-0, he came down the middle with a howitzer serve. The gamble to hit to Connors' forehand worked so well that Borg actually slammed his thigh in elation. This extraordinary display of emotion shocked the crowd as much as the serve had. Then, himself again, Borg coolly rifled a backhand past Connors for the match.

It was done: "My tiredest match ever I play," Borg said. He raised his arms to the heavens, and on the sideline he smashed his racket to the ground in yet another record burst of passion. "For sure, my happiest win," he said.

The Wimbledon centenary did not start too happily, at least in the area of protocol, when Connors saw fit to skip the opening ceremonies, honoring past champions on Centre Court. For this, Jimbo was censured by the All England Club and lustily booed and hissed for a couple of days running. But to be damned one minute is to be blessed the next. When England's John Lloyd bounced the sonic boom-server, Roscoe Tanner, out of the tournament on opening day, it meant that the man who beat Connors at Wimbledon last year and who figured he could beat him again was finished before Jimbo even started.

Tanner, the fourth seed, was only the first of a raft of unlikely early disappearances. Brian Gottfried, seeded fifth and sporting the season's best record, was beaten in the second round; Guillermo Vilas, seeded third and fresh from the French Open championship, was ushered off in the third. The boorish Nastase should also have gone early, but cowed officials let him get away with some obnoxious delaying tactics when he was losing to Andrew Pattison of Rhodesia, in the second round. Distracted and upset, poor Pattison folded.

This saved Nastase for a quarterfinal pairing with Borg, a repeat of last year's final. In the next sad episode, the delightful Romanian threw a ball at the umpire, shoved another ball between the man's knees, questioned everybody's ancestry and sexual proclivities and even tried to decapitate his opponent with a lip shot when the entire court was open.

Borg stared across at Nastase and said angrily, "What you do?"

What Borg did was embarrass, humiliate and bury Nastase 6-0, 8-6, 6-3.

Through all the upsets and upheaval came the rocking, rollicking, finger-popping Gerulaitis, knocking off such people as Tom Gorman, Dick Stockton and Billy Martin. And in the other half of the draw came a pouting, snarling, racket-heaving rascal named John Patrick McEnroe. A red-haired left-hander from Queens, with the complete Jimbonian repertoire, McEnroe, 18, kept scrapping and scrambling through a tournament he very nearly didn't get into, and by the time he encountered his older alter ego, James Scott Connors, in the semifinals, he had defeated eight opponents—three in the qualifying rounds and five in the tournament proper.

The youngest semifinalist in Wimbledon's first 100 years, McEnroe (pronounced MACK-en-roe) charmed the Europeans with some Andrew Young-inspired diplomacy. Of Paris he said, "It would be a nice place if you took all the people out of the city." Of London, "I'd go sight-seeing, but I don't think there's much to see in this place." On the court, McEnroe kept screaming things like "Jesus, how much longer before I get a call here?" He was soon enough warned and threatened with penalties.

But his game spoke of maturity, especially his backhand and volleys, which were nothing short of extraordinary for one so young. (Connors and Borg, to draw a couple of names from the hat, never exhibited such net play at that age.) This is not even to mention McEnroe's courage, confidence and raw guts. Against Connors, he retained his fiery aggression even in the face of Connors' routine control of the first two sets, and then, using all his street smarts, he started junk-balling Connors and beat him a set before Jimbo closed it out in four. "This kid is difficult to play," Connors said. "He tees off on everything and makes shots from impossible places."

But if McEnroe stirred the masses, the other semifinal moved poets. In a match that will be remembered long after Gerulaitis and Borg have exhausted the world supply of exotic cars and pinstriped tennis shirts, Borg finally prevailed by 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6.

Borg won the first set with an ace. Gerulaitis took the second with an ace. But that said nothing. In the fourth game of the third set the two longhairs drifted about the grass as if on wings. Side to side, back to front; here delivering rocket drives, there issuing drop volleys; here racing down delicate lobs, there serving and volleying away heavy artillery. Fourteen of the game's 22 points were clean winners, before Gerulaitis, saving six break points, held serve.

The fascinating thing was that the entire match proceeded in this manner. BBC Commentator Dan Maskell called it "the finest match for sustained brilliance over five sets I've ever seen at Wimbledon." Maskell has seen more than 50 Wimbledons.

After Borg and Gerulaitis had exchanged breaks in the fifth set; after Gerulaitis had served to save the match twice at 4-5 and 5-6; after Vitas had finally succumbed in the 14th game; after all that, it was finally over to applause that may still be resounding through the ivy-covered halls.

Though Saturday's final could not be expected to duplicate that caliber of tennis, Lennart Bergelin, Borg's coach, pointed out something perhaps shared in the two separate contests. When asked, now that his protégé was rid of Gerulaitis, did Borg really, truly want Connors or, rather, wasn't he still a bit afraid of him, Bergelin answered, "I believe that is over. Bjorn is thinking about Connors the way Gerulaitis was thinking about Bjorn. That is, he lose his reverence for other player. Not scared no more."

So that made two of them, Borg and Connors, not scared of nobody no more. This deal could take a long time to work itself out.

TWO PHOTOSThumb splint and all, Connors fought back to dead even in the rousing fifth set, but Borg hammered out a win in the last two games. PHOTOMcEnroe's behavior was as fierce as his tennis. PHOTOGerulaitis' magnificent semifinal against Borg may have been the finest ever played at Wimbledon.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)