Whether or not the sport of tennis found its heart or lost its soul in New York City last week is a question that the Colgate Grand Prix Masters tournament can take up just as soon as Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas finish beating up on one another. Or defaulting to somebody else to avoid beating up on one another. For the time being, who's No. 1? How about Bess Myerson?
When Connors defeated Borg 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 in as thrilling a match as Madison Square Garden had witnessed since, well, 72 hours earlier when Vilas whipped Connors, all it did was reinforce the notion that these three young men, who are head and racket handle above everyone else in the game, are separated from each other by only the barest of psychological threads.
It may be that for Vilas to climb to the top he needs six more months under the glowering tutelage of Ion Tiriac, who has shown him how to outthink Connors but has been unable to convince him of the vulnerability of Borg. This will be especially difficult now that the Swede has defeated Vilas for the 12th time in their 16 meetings, most recently in the Masters semifinals, 6-3, 6-3.
On the other hand, while Borg dominates his once-close amigo from the Argentine, the pair's mysterious ailments and shameless disregard for the ticket-buying public during the tournament's preliminary round robin demonstrated that neither man (or for that matter, neither of their coaches, Lennart Bergelin and Tiriac, who are the suspected culprits) is prepared to deal with these showdowns without resorting to some connivance, be it a sore ankle, a fever or anything else they can come up with on the spur of the moment. In chronological order, to recover from Connors and to get ready for him, Vilas and Borg, undefeated and having already qualified for Saturday's semifinals, defaulted their third-round matches (Vilas to rest a "strained tendon," Borg to recover from "severe flu") but were allowed to continue in the tournament, presumably because there was no rule against it. All that this medical buffoonery (sing, "I can do anything sicker than you can; I can get sicker, much sicker than you") did was disgrace the sport and—irony of ironies—turn Connors into a white knight. Or, as the Masters sponsor might prefer, the Ultra Brite Knight.
January 16, 1978
"It's good to see somebody else on the barbecue pit," said Connors, who leads the world in defaults with four in 1977, 13 in the last four years.
And that was not Jimbo's final comment on Borg and Vilas, either. Before his match with Brian Gottfried in the other semifinal, Connors arrived on the court hobbling on a crutch, which engendered loads of hilarity in everybody but Gottfried, who lost a tense 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 struggle.
In the final on Sunday, it appeared as if Borg would need at least a crutch, if not a whip and chair, to stop an aroused Connors. "I wanted to come out creaming everything," said Jimbo. Connors was devastating in the first set, breaking service in the third game as well as strings on two different rackets as he won 6-4. By then, however, Borg's penetrating first serves were beginning to take effect, and he began to vary his speed and depth of shot, working on Connors' forehand to break serve three times and grab the second set by 6-1. Despite the lopsided score, Borg lamented, "I don't feel 100% O.K. in my head, you know?"
Nonetheless, he went quickly ahead in the final set with an early break and held serve for a 3-1 lead. Then he faltered. Connors broke back to even the deciding set at 3—all with a lunging forehand volley and then a net-cord winner. "It was big point, for sure," said Borg. "Jimmy so tough unless you stay ahead. After that, I feel very strange."
After that, Borg's first serve deserted him—he missed 27 of 42 in the last set—and he had to fight off three break points in the eighth game. By the time Borg served in the 10th at 4-5, 15-0, both men had won 40 points in the set. But Connors was still hitting some amazing rockets and Borg was not. Jimbo had a few more left: a forehand down the line, a backhand stab drop volley, a cross-court forehand, another volley. It was over.
"That's the best I can play," Connors said afterward. "Who's No. 1? It looks like we'll have to go out and do it all over again, doesn't it?"
Well, yes. Having lost Wimbledon to Borg and the U.S. Open to Vilas, Connors must have looked on the Masters as a close encounter of the third kind. Third place in the world rankings was staring him square in the face, even though the USTA computer ranked him first.
Let's look at the numbers. Though Connors won eight of the 21 tournaments he entered, his match record for the year was only 70-11, not as good as Borg's (13 victories in 20 tournaments, 78-8 in matches) and Vilas', who played just about every waking minute in compiling his 139-14 match record and 21 wins in 34 tournaments.
Borg's percentage, then, is slightly the best and he won the world championship as well. But Vilas won the U.S. and French titles and put together a streak of 55 clay victories while winning 83 of 85 matches on all surfaces. But Connors won the big bowl game at the end. What now? Head-to-head? Borg is 5-1 against the other big two, while Vilas is 2-3 and Connors a woeful 1-4.
If the Masters did not entirely decide who is No. 1, it did bring big-time tennis back to the Garden and, in the process, show everybody that the Masters is the Super Bowl of the game and the only real conclusion a tennis season has.
Perhaps because the tournament had only twice graced American soil, the Masters never had caught on. But this year Colgate—those same wonderful folks who invented Dermassage, Handi-Wipes and Dinah Shore—took over the tournament, signed a three-season deal with the Garden, moved the affair to an off-week for pro football, sold it to TV and promised to make the Masters an event. Among other marvelous arrangements, Colgate raised the total prize money to $400,000 and spent another $400,000 on advertising.
The most significant thing Colgate did, however, was persuade the eight best players in the world—Gottfried, Manuel Orantes, Raul Ramirez, Roscoe Tanner and Eddie Dibbs also were on hand—to show up, a feat previously considered impossible unless you guaranteed each of them $100,000 first-place money and a position at the head of the line at Studio 54. When Connors, who had skipped this tournament the past three years, barely qualified for the final berth and agreed to play, tournament organizers knew they had a winner.
The last time New Yorkers had seen—and been obnoxed by—Connors was when he stormed out of Forest Hills last September, claiming that his U.S. Open title had been "stolen" because of rude crowd behavior and bad line calls while he was losing the championship match to Vilas. Connors' return last week was less stimulating. He merely disrupted a player picture-taking session, walked out on a TV interviewer and snapped at a journalist who had the effrontery to ask why Connors was finally gracing the Masters with his presence. "Because I feel like it," he snorted.
Not surprisingly, Vilas, who had won the regular-season Grand Prix points race and its bonus pool of $300,000, did not seem to feel like it.
One day Vilas ripped the tournament to shreds in his soft, charming voice. "This Masters used to mean very much to me when it was in December and changed continents every year," he said. "Hopefully, someday it will be on clay. I don't prepare for this. If I don't have to come to collect $300,000, I no come. How badly I want to win? No badly."
Vilas' last remark would come as a shock to the crowd of 18,590 that packed the Garden on Thursday night to watch his 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 repeat victory over Connors.
To begin with, it was one of those remarkable moments the sporting world comes up with every now and then when whatever game is being played is transcended by the emotion and suspense of the event. Boston, 1975: the Reds-Red Sox sixth game. Augusta, 1975: the Nicklaus-Miller-Weiskopf fourth round. Stuff like that. Andrew Young, over from the U.N., was on hand, as was Farrah, just out from under the blow dryer. But the attraction was mostly Vilas and Connors, slugging it out and thinking it over down there on the eggshell-blue carpet of the roaring arena.
First, it was Vilas pounding huge serves and floating his sidespin ground strokes into the quicksand where Connors has to use his erratic forehand. Vilas gained two early breaks and ran out the first set. Then it was Connors jumping all over his nemesis in the second set, giving up only two points in the first three games and only five during his five service games.
"I had to change tactics," Vilas was to say later. "It was big casino, but my legs not moving. I no afford to stay back."
So, in the final set the man they call "Willie" became aggressive and occasionally even covered the net after slashing approaches into the corners. Connors had three break points in the third game, but Vilas saved them all at the net and held serve. Next, against Connors' serve, Vilas mis-hit two returns, but Jimbo could handle neither one. overhead, and suddenly Vilas had the break for 3-1.
Vilas took the set to 5-3 and to match point after Connors got a bad call on the baseline. But Jimbo saved himself with a net-cord volley winner. Connors hammered his racket on the net and screamed at the line judge, "That's for you! That's for you!" Not to mention some fairly horrible other words.
By this time the Garden was going wild. One would have thought the Knicks had won another championship or even covered another point spread, such was the thunder from the rafters. "This is as good as the Tiger-Torres fight," said Joe Flaherty of The Village Voice. "The Fleischmann bottles will be coming out of the upper deck any minute."
And so, like a vicious prizefight, the match went on. After a shaken and groggy Vilas double-faulted and was wide with a forehand, the score reached 5-4. After Connors held serve easily, it was 5—all. Abruptly, with the American crowd now clearly favoring the American, Vilas summoned up the heart he had found somewhere last summer.
With love-30 against him, he hit a glorious backhand pass to win the most spectacular point of the evening (now morning) and eventually took the game. Then, after staggering to his chair on the changeover, Vilas went back out to hit one more winning backhand, to watch one more Connors forehand sink into the net and to break serve and win a match that may one day be legendary. It was 42 minutes after midnight. "I hope next time we can do this in a bigger stadium," Vilas mumbled.
They might have done it two days later in the same arena, were it not for some nifty one-downmanship by Borg in the hospital sweepstakes. Knowing that Vilas, who was scheduled to meet Dibbs, had-been granted a default and a day's rest because of his "hurt" ankle, Borg suddenly came up with the flu, defaulted from his match with Gottfried and got a day off himself. Moreover, because a default counts as a loss, he wound up playing Vilas instead of Connors in the semifinals. Hmmmmmm.
"If you not think I am sick, I am sorry," Borg said. The point is that the loose tournament format worked in favor of the two walking wounded, led to cynicism and infuriated both the press and the public.
On Saturday morning when the two sickies began their Profiles in Courage challenge match, what is believed to be tennis' first banner was unfurled near the top of the Garden. It read: BORG AND VILAS. WE WERE HERE LAST NIGHT. WHERE WERE YOU?
Tennis had finally made it in the Big Apple.