THE BALANCED HAND THAT BEAT 16 ACES

A stubborn Connors defused Tanner's rockets at the U.S. Indoor tournament
February 06, 1978

Just when it looked as if the U.S. Pro Indoor would give us another chapter in the adventures of Jimbo and Bjorn, along came Roscoe Tanner to upset the ballcart.

For a while there in South Philadelphia it seemed as if the only two players in the tournament were Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, so completely was the rest of the draw ignored. But then Tanner began unloading his big serve and blasting the likes of Zeljko Franulovic, Ilie Nastase and Eddie Dibbs (23 aces), not to mention Borg himself, and suddenly Connors had a new challenger on Sunday.

Sort of. As quickly as he had reasserted himself as everybody's favorite ace machine, Tanner disappeared in the finals under Connors' relentless pressure and a flurry of merciless ground strokes. At one stretch during their days as juniors, Tanner defeated Connors five straight times, but his only victory of consequence since came on a golden afternoon at Wimbledon in 1976. Last Sunday Tanner blasted 16 aces past Connors, but he was able to break his serve only once. Good hit, no field, take a hike. Connors won, laughing, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, to collect the $35,000 first prize and to finish the month of January with over $200,000 in earnings.

Before Tanner started firing his rockets, the first big indoor tournament of the season produced a certain amount of ennui for which Connors and Borg could be held responsible. By being so good and so dominant for the past few years and by co-starring in a two-part television drama earlier in the month—Connors over Borg in the Colgate Grand Prix Masters, Borg over Connors in the Pepsi Grand Slam—the rivals had, depending on your viewpoint, either produced the most chilling, numbing excitement in all of sport or were merely boring thousands into switching channels to Celebrity Cockfights.

Because Guillermo Vilas is injured and probably will not play many tournaments before summer anyway, tennis finds itself searching for alternate star attractions, who just don't seem to be there. This is not to say the game lacks quality players. What with Tanner, Brian Gottfried, Dick Stockton, Manolo Orantes, Raul Ramirez, Eddie Dibbs, Harold Solomon and Vitas Gerulaitis making the semifinals fairly regularly, and with Adriano Panatta and Wojtek Fibak contributing upsets now and again, the top 20 look stronger than ever. The problem is, nobody seems to care.

The players' postmatch encounters with the media in Philadelphia reinforced this observation. When Dibbs arrived at the press room fresh from his—what, 497th?—stimulating victory over his bagel twin, Solomon, at least a few reporters interrupted their dinner to talk to him. Earlier in the tournament, while Gottfried was calmly reviewing one of his winning matches—and explaining why none of the spectators seemed interested—a majority of the press continued gobbling sandwiches and tomato pickles at the rear of the room.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all greeted Dick Stockton on the opening day of the tournament. Last year Stockton collected $311,856 while winning several tournaments and making the world's top 10 for the first time. Significantly, he defeated Connors twice in three meetings. More significantly, he was the defending champ in Philadelphia, having beaten Connors the year before in five sets. So defending champion Stockton was rewarded by tournament chairpersons Ed and Marilyn Fernberger with a 2 p.m. first-day, first-round match, guaranteeing him an audience consisting just about wholly of Stockton's wife Sue, the third-grade class of Our Lady of Perpetual Humility grade school and a few local drunks who must have wandered into the Spectrum to escape the snow.

Stockton responded by losing to Tim Gullikson 3-6, 7-6, 6-4. "It looks like they're trying to get me out of here in a hurry," Stockton said. "Jimmy would never play during the day if he was defending champion. The big guys get all the attention."

"What's Stockton complaining about playing at two o'clock for?" said Ramirez. "He doesn't draw anyway."

So now even the other players sounded uninterested in the plight of the other players. "Connors and Borg playing each other every week in the finals is getting sort of sickening," said Dibbs.

Dibbs is always good for one or two spice-up-the-tournament matches, and so, when his quarterfinal engagement with Sandy Mayer, an outspoken advocate of Christian renewal, disintegrated from a 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 victory into threats, name-calling and charges of quick-serving, hardly anybody was surprised.

"Dibbs used to want to punch me out," Mayer said. "He steps into the twilight zone. He irritates and intimidates with his Dibbserisms. Dibbs infringes on my rights in the locker room."

"Mayer is a —— in the locker room," said Dibbs. "He's full of garbage. He's the biggest crybaby on the tour."

While the tournament was busy sinking its teeth into this debate, Borg was in the process of reverting to his personal form sheet, on which it must be written somewhere: "Philadelphia—when in doubt, quit."

Three times—including last year—Borg had been defeated in the early rounds at Philly; two years ago in the finals against Connors he shamelessly threw the last set en route to a 7-6, 6-4, 6-0 loss. As his girl friend, Mariana Simionescu, said last week, "Bjorn doesn't like this place. He cannot concentrate. He wants to get out of here."

Philadelphia uses two courts simultaneously up to the semifinals, but the problems caused by noise, confusion, crowd movement, double microphones and balls rolling onto the wrong courts are the same for every player. Bjorn Borg can concentrate on a Concorde airplane runway if he wants to.

Against the sky-hook serves of 6'5" Peter Fleming in the third round, Borg appeared to want to, rallying from a set behind and two points away from a straight-set defeat to brush off the UCLA dropout by 3-6, 7-6 (8-6 in the thriller tie break), 6-3. But against Tanner in the next round the former teen angel looked like a man dancing on the wrong end of a tango line.

While Tanner used his patented boomers along with newfound discipline and confidence instilled by his coach, Dennis Ralston, to play "my best total match ever," Borg sulked, pouted, twirled his racket in the air and looked generally as if he couldn't wait to go cuddle up with Mariana beside the nearest fireplace.

After Borg lost 6-4, 7-6, he said, "I hit too many short ones. I don't want to say anything against the tournament, but too much noise, too much talking, too much moving. My mind, it is not O.K."

Meanwhile, Connors was totally O.K., except for a lower back strain suffered in the first set of his 6-7, 6-2, 6-1 quarterfinal victory over Ramirez. Jimbo had run through Cliff Drysdale, Panatta and Buster Mottram and was to stage a marvelous comeback in whipping Gottfried in a 3½-hour semifinal match 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-0. Connors was surprised when he was asked how he could keep going against Ramirez while in such pain.

"Everybody's gunning for me," Jimbo said. "What do you want me to do, retire?"

Please, no, Jimbo. Just teach Bjorn not to retire every Philadelphia. And—oh yes—both of you, please learn some Dibbserisms.

PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.For Jimmy Connors, the winner, this year's chapter of the Philadelphia story had a happy ending. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.For Roscoe Tanner it was all hit but no field.

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)