In the event you were not a transsexual ophthalmologist or a ninth-grader with braces or a guy who defaulted with a collapsed shoulder or another guy who collapsed with a defaulted forehand; and provided you managed to avoid bomb threats, stray bullets, prayer vigils, spectator sit-ins, racial slurs and penalty points; and if you were able to overcome cynical remarks about your two-tone bowling shirts, your pink racket handles and your lack of guts, you might have won the wackiest U.S. Open of all last week.
You might have, that is, if your name was Guillermo Vilas and you came from Mar del Plata, Argentina and you were playing the best, most fearsome tennis of your life, tennis that all but dismantled the opposition and left eyewitnesses believing you might go on winning on clay forever.
But last Sunday afternoon down there in the pit of Forest Hills stadium, the 25-year-old Mild Bull of the Pampas used his head and his heart as if he had been born on nearby Queens Boulevard.
Behind in what seemed like dozens of crucial situations, and with none other than Jimmy Connors across the net in the final, Vilas held on through a dispiriting first set, turned tough and agressive in the second and snatched Connors' last remaining big title away from him by the astounding score of 2-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-0.
September 18, 1977
If the final set went fast, it was nothing compared to the speed with which Connors' Sinatrian entourage cleared out of the West Side Tennis Club. As Vilas was being carried around the court on the shoulders of a delirious crowd, only eight minutes elapsed between the time Connors left the court and the moment he was driving away from Forest Hills searching for his lost forehand.
It was that forehand, which on approach shots he all too frequently hits low and into the net, that Bjorn Borg worked on to beat Connors at Wimbledon. Vilas chose to test it the same way, switching from his classic, looping, bolo-punch backhand to a softly sliced stroke that forced Connors up and into the middle of the court.
Early in the third set Connors had six opportunities in three different games to win his fifth game—the first would have given him a 5-1 lead in the set—but each time Vilas held firm. Still leading at 5-4, Connors had a couple of set points to put his left-handed adversary away again, but Vilas hurled an ace at him and then a backhand drive which Connors could not handle at net.
But with a chance to serve for the set himself, Vilas double-faulted and made three more errors to be broken back at 6-all. Surely now this sensitive poet and artist, who was under the immense strain of a 45-match, seven-tournament winning streak on clay, who was in against a street fighter he had never beaten and who had embarrassed him badly on this same surface last year—surely this Guillermo Vilas would be bullied again.
But he was not. "If I think back, I have to live back," Vilas said later. So instead he kept consulting with and accepting hand signals from his bearded, brooding Romanian mentor, Ion Tiriac, who glowered at courtside. Vilas kept pawing at his scraggly locks and adjusting his headband. He kept digging in and putting his own pressure on the defending champion until, remarkably, Connors, not Vilas, fell apart.
In the third set tie breaker Vilas took command and won it 7-4 after he blasted a forehand to the baseline tape and then covered a weak Connors' volley. Though nobody knew it then, the match was over.
"It was very important time for me," Vilas said later. "If Jimmy having trouble with forehand, I'm stupid not to play it. I was pushing him to miss the thing."
No kidding. In the last set Vilas aimed his chip shots to Connors' vulnerable left wing like a man floating darts at the corner tavern. "You like that shot?" Vilas was to ask later. "I practice that one nine hours or something last few days."
Connors' loss of his Open championship began with three forehand errors in the first game of the final set. He lost the third, fourth and fifth games on similar mistakes and then fell on the seat of his pants while skying still another pitiful forehand practically into the cheap seats.
The new champion won the whole thing when Connors drilled a forehand just wide which nobody knew was out until the linesman made a tentative gesture. Then pandemonium. Vilas jumped high in the air and the crowd swarmed onto the court and began tugging at his headband. "With my headband, my head was coming," he said.
Though Vilas started his wonderful clay court streak with a victory in the French Open in June, his record has been questioned because of the lack of big names across the net—namely Connors and Borg. But Borg defaulted in the midst of his fourth-round match at Forest Hills because of a shoulder injury, saying he "had not one percent chance" and Connors was unceremoniously driven out when he had all the chances in the world.
"I never got down on myself," Vilas said. "I am very good friend of mine. Now I think I have something to say about No. 1."
This almost certainly was the last U.S. Open in Forest Hills; the USTA has scheduled future Opens at a soon-to-be-completed multimillion-dollar complex in Flushing Meadow, the site of the 1964 World's Fair. If indeed this was the last hurrah for the Tudored, gabled, impossibly cramped West Side Tennis Club, it was from one point of view good riddance to bad rubbish. That is as accurate a description as any for the tennis that yawned its way from the fourth round until Vilas and Connors faced each other Sunday. Of the 30 combined men's and women's singles matches during that period, only four were anything more than straight-set routs, and one of those was Borg's default.
In the men's division, both Ilie Nastase and Brian Gottfried lost to Corrado Barazzutti, called Soldatino—the Little Soldier—in straight sets, Barazzutti winning 30 of 43 games. In the women's division Martina Navratilova and Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade lost to Wendy Turnbull of Australia and the late and great Minnesota Buckskins. "Wendy's not that good technically," said Wade, "but they don't call her Rabbit for nothing." Wade won three games in two sets. Rabbit, run.
These were just random samples of the kind of spine-tingling action that threatened to drive most observers to a mass reading of Bert Lance's financial statements for their excitement.
Chris Evert, of course, with her annual share of whompings, contributed to the boredom. "Why aren't you guys coming to my press conferences?" she asked two media friends early in the first week.
"Don't worry," they said. "We'll be there for the finals."
By that time Evert had lengthened her improbable clay court winnning streak, taking her 113th straight match and 23rd straight tournament over four years. She also won her third straight U.S. Open. In the midst of all this, Chris had these quickie statistics: she won her first 12 points of the tournament; she won a match at love in 36 minutes; she won nine straight games from Billie Jean King and closed out their non-contest 6-2, 6-0; she skinned the Rabbit, Turnbull, in the final by 7-6, 6-2, and never once looked inspired. "Chris could play these things in her dreams," said Billie Jean.
"I'm thrilled about the clay streak," said Evert. "Now I need new goals. I don't think I'll be in tennis a whole lot longer, but I'll stay till something better comes along." Waxing sentimental over Forest Hills, Evert said, "I'll never forget my first year here [as a 16-year-old schoolgirl she captivated New Yorkers by getting to the semifinals]. I feel sad this is the last Forest Hills."
The last Forest Hills also provided a barrel of firsts. This was the first Open to (sometimes) enforce the new penalty-point system, which discourages outrageous behavior. This was the first Open to be subjected to bomb threats and to a prayer vigil protesting the participation of South African players.
This, too, was the first Open to feature Mike Fishbach and his magic wand—a tennis racket strung with nylon monofilament fishing line, rope strands, tubing, adhesive tape and maybe a bit of pepperoni. The racket took Fishbach 30 hours to string. Then he went out and beat Billy Martin and Stan Smith before losing to John Feaver. "Of course it's legal," Fishbach said about the "spaghetti racket." "I could play with a shoe or a tree or a bottle of apple juice and it would be legal."
Undoubtedly this also was the first Open in which a spectator looked down to find a bullet wound in his leg. And the first in which a whole stadium full of anarchists refused to budge when told the matches were finished for the afternoon. "We won't go! We won't go!" they chanted, until tournament officials chose discretion over riot and ordered the Vilas-Jose Higueras match to be played as scheduled rather than during the evening session that followed.
Further enhancing the public relations between West Side and the tennis community was William McCullough, a member of the board of governors of the club, who called a press conference and proceeded to chastise the USTA for moving the Open next year to a neighborhood (Corona, Queens) which he said was 95% Negro. In fact, it is more than 80% white.
Arthur Ashe, the one black among West Side's 1,000 members (and he had to win the Open to get an honorary membership) labeled McCullough's remarks "institutionally racist" and said he would resign "as soon as my wife has her chance to play tennis on the grass." As it was, McCullough resigned as the club's chairman for the Open the next day.
What also kept the U.S. Open from wallowing in dullness, in light of the shortage of tennis drama, was the appearance of two people unique to their game as well as to big-time sport, Renee Richards and Tracy Austin.
Richards, the 43-year-old transsexual, was forced to sue to get into the tournament, primarily because of the women players' fear of the unknown, i.e., her physical capabilities. But once her lack of mobility and unorthodox, off-the-wrong-foot forehand were exposed, her first-round loss to Virginia Wade by 6-1, 6-4 was predictable.
Wade's graceless prematch remarks—"I've practiced with a lot of 40-year-old men; if Renee beats me, she should be checked out"—became immaterial as the match progressed on the same stadium court where Richards had lost another first-round match in 1960 against another Wimbledon champion, Neale Fraser. Then, of course, she was a he, Richard Raskind.
Though she won 40% of the points against Wade, Richards admitted she "wasn't ready. I'd like to play down the zoo-like setting," she said. "Virginia played like a house afire."
Out of the spotlight, Richards fared better, reaching the finals of the women's doubles with Bettyann Stuart before losing to Navratilova and Betty Stove 6-1, 7-6.
The sideshow atmosphere of the women's draw continued as long as Austin, the 14-year-old from Rolling Hills, Calif. with the pigtails, braces and pinafores, continued to uncork two-handers and win matches.
"Are you seeing the sights?" somebody asked Tracy.
"I've been to New York 20 times before," she said. "I've seen it all."
In the biggest victory of her career, Tracy absolutely dismantled Sue Barker's vaunted forehand, worked on the Briton's nerves and won 6-1, 6-4. In the next round, against tough Virginia Ruzici of Romania, Austin did the same thing and prevailed 6-3, 7-5.
The veteran women had seen enough. "They're scared. I know I was," said Evert, who beat Tracy at Wimbledon.
"The cute 14-year-old in pigtails—what a joke," said JoAnne Russell. "That's no kid's game she plays."
"I'm not fooled by those dresses which are supposed to make us think we're in against an 8-year-old," said Stove. "I hit with Tracy in practice. She hits a firm ball. She has bounce, guts, brains. Now that I think about it, what doesn't she have?"
In their quarterfinal match, what the 5'1", 90-pound dumpling didn't have was enough strength, reach or experience to cope with a red-hot Stove switched to the "on" position.
A foot taller, 67 pounds heavier and 18 years older, Stove kept cracking flat, hard drives onto the lines and into the open spaces where Tracy just couldn't handle them. She lost 6-2, 6-2 and got ready to head back to Rolling Hills and the ninth grade.
"I didn't get tired," Tracy said afterward. "Betty just hit winners. I can hardly get her serve back. I'm still so little, you know?"
Well, we all know. But time flies. Even as Austin's party was ending, Ted Tin-ling, the tennis dress designer, said, "Her mother and I are preparing for the premeditated evolution of Tracy's character." Which can only mean that in a few years this darling little girl will be losing her braces, knocking down millions in clothing and toothpaste endorsements and promoting challenge matches against Steve Cauthen at Disney World.
That would be approximately in the same decade that Connors and Borg will have both keeled over from the sheer exhaustion of out-injuring one another. For a long while at Forest Hills, it seemed as if neither of the favorites would make it through another night, what with Connors' back "wrenching" apart by the minute and Borg's right pectoralis muscle, "exquisitely tender," according to an orthopedic surgeon, combining with tendinitis in his right shoulder. Of course, nobody believed any of this was on the level.
"Borg said the same stuff last year at Wimbledon and he served a dozen aces in the final," said Vitas Gerulaitis. "Connors is hurt in every tournament. He's the best hurt player in the world."
Harold Solomon even charged that Connors told him he was faking an injury to pull out of Boston and practice for Forest Hills. But when a female journalist quizzed Jimbo on the matter, His Gallantness snapped, "I wish you could crawl inside my back." Staring her up and down, Connors reconsidered. "No. Actually I want you in front of me."
Similar doubt surrounded Borg's injuries, which were publicly blamed on a pre-tournament practice session but more likely occurred while water-skiing with Gerulaitis. After the Wimbledon champion had patty-cake served through three matches to reach Dick Stockton, one writer cynically shouted, "Call me when the Swede's arm falls off."
That is about what happened at approximately 3 p.m. on Tuesday when Borg walked away from Forest Hills, carrying his limp right arm like a rag doll. Having split sets with Stockton, who was diligently lobbing to test Borg's feeble overheads, the No. 1 seed sat down on a changeover, gazed over at his coach, Lennart Bergelin, and indicated he wasn't able to continue.
"It's tough to take advantage of an injury when you're playing a nice guy like Bjorn," said Stockton. "But Bergelin practically told me to lob. They asked for it."
With Borg out, and thereby another dream final against Connors; with the Disco Kid, Gerulaitis, gone after having been overcome by Solomon's relentless gravedigger strokes as well as by his own silly tactics; with Stockton also outsmarted by the heady Solly, most attention centered on Manuel Orantes.
The cagey Manolo had destroyed Connors in the 1975 Forest Hills final with his slice and spin artistry and he had done it again four weeks ago in Indianapolis. But twice is quite enough. In a quarterfinal match under the lights, which loomed as the only suspenseful confrontation of the tournament until the finals, Connors took on the look of an enraged bull while Orantes resembled a crippled matador. From the time Jimbo started slashing groundstroke winners all over the place, to the climax when he volleyed setups into the damp green clay, it was no contest. Connors kept Orantes pinned way behind the baseline and won 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.
"If Pancho [Segura] says I'm playing better than '74, then look out," said Connors. "This is my home. I'm moving in here. I'm rollin'." During his easy semifinal victory over Barazzutti, in which the Little Soldier became MIA, Connors screamed to the crowd, "I'm the only one you got left in this tournament. Let's hear it for me."
What Connors chose to ignore was that Vilas was still very much in the tournament, too. Having lost only 28 games in 14 sets, and having disposed of Solomon in a brutal semifinal marred by post-match invective ("What impress me about Harold?" Vilas said. "His mouth. He talk very big. I think too big"), Guillermo was primed for Connors.
Earlier in the week Vilas had explained in his poet's way how it felt to win and win and keep winning. And he had said, "It is like a hungry man who never eats. Then he has piece of bread. Then sandwich. Then a steak. Then he wants to go to the palace."
On Sunday Guillermo Vilas arrived at the palace and Jimmy Connors heard from him.