Well the game of tennis finally got a new Jimbo. Yes, sir. Just in time to make the new U.S. Open, too. First the new Jimbo bared his rear end to the spectators. Then he raised his middle finger to the sky, pointing out something or other to the officials. Mostly the new Jimbo refused to talk to some people with pencils and microphones. And he cursed and ran off to hide in a big car with his friends. Oh, yeah, the new Jimbo also kicked the living daylights out of Bjorn Borg to win the tournament. What's that? Oh, it was the old Jimmy Connors who did all those things? Oh. Sorry.
There have been as many new Jimbos as new Nixons, of course. But old or new, Jimmy Connors last week did what a lot of people were saying he was no longer capable of doing. When his nearly perfect 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 dismantling of Borg was over, Connors had not only blurred his nemesis' grand vision of the Grand Slam, but he had also lifted himself back onto that lofty plateau that both men seem to take turns occupying high above their fellow practitioners of the sport.
To explain the charade that Connors and Borg made of still another major championship, it is necessary to understand that the U.S. Open—which this year moved to a new stretch of New York cement from its old Har-Tru home at Forest Hills—could just as well be played on parquet, Sealy Posturepedic, Crunchy Granola, anything—and it would still come down to the same two finalists.
There would be Connors raging and snorting and charging himself into a frenzy, and there would be Borg shrugging his shoulders and falling asleep as they marched in tandem into the record books. This time the man marching in front turned out to be Connors.
September 17, 1978
Surely Borg's straight-set thrashing of Connors at Wimbledon last July was an embarrassment that Jimbo seemed determined to exorcise in the very first game. Connors came out blazing, forced five break points, and though he didn't win the marathon 20-point game, he gave notice that there was more of the same to come.
Relentless on the attack, Jimbo broke Bjorn's serve early in each set—the fifth game, then the third, then the third again. He slashed penetrating returns, brushed the corners with ground strokes and covered all of Borg's angled offerings with lunging volleys. Connors' pressure had Borg looking hangdog even before he could decide how much his blistered right thumb would affect the outcome.
Borg had taken an injection in the thumb ("a long-acting anesthetic," the doctor called it) earlier, and the thumb undoubtedly bothered him—he double-faulted five times and on two other serves the racket flew from his hand, landing by the net. But in the face of Connors' spectacular performance—"such great tennis, such force, such aggression. I don't know if I've ever put on so much pressure for so long," Jimbo said afterward—Borg might have looked all thumbs anyway. Not once did Borg break serve. Not once did he even earn a break point against Connors' improved flattened-out deliveries. In a reversal of their usual form, Connors fired in 80% of his first serves, Borg 58%.
'The thumb didn't make any difference," Borg said afterward with a less-than-reassuring grin. Of the lightning-quick rubberized asphalt court he had been complaining about all week, he said, "Jimmy was born on this stuff. This is his court. I saw he was on top of his game from the beginning. There was not much I could do."
For those who wished to avoid the scenes of carnage left by Connors and Borg en route to the final, there was plenty to do just concentrating on the pluses and minuses and question marks of the USTA's all-new, all red-white-and-blue National Tennis Center, a $10 million, 16-acre, 34-court (indoors and outdoors) complex to which the American championships had been moved after 54 years on the hallowed grounds of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills.
Flushing Meadow is barely a topspin lob over the delicatessens from Forest Hills, so of course there is no meadow. (There was no forest and no hills at the tournament's old home, either.) But what with large, open plazas, scattered groves of sycamores, wide walkways and the towering eight-story Louis Armstrong Stadium seating 20,000. Flushing Meadow seemed to have solved the problem posed by Forest Hills' small, impossibly cramped facilities. As to how the U.S. Open could possibly maintain any tradition in this bustling, noisy new site, an obscure 20-year-old South African named Johan Kriek said it all after he had won his fourth match of the tournament. "I can't believe I'm in the quarterfinals at Forest Hills," Kriek said. Kriek had never even seen Forest Hills, much less played there.
"If people want tradition, I'll plant some ivy," said USTA President Slew Hester, the man most responsible for the transformation of the Open. And with that, Slew did. Right out in the middle of the main plaza in a container that suspiciously resembled a garbage can.
Hester's memorial garden would have received far more attention from players and spectators alike if they had not been so preoccupied with calming senses constantly battered by the rumbling of the Long Island Rail Road, the screeching of New York subways and the roar of planes arriving and departing from nearby LaGuardia Airport. When all of these noises converged at once, center court sounded like a pit stop at the Indianapolis 500. "Once I thought a plane was going to land on the court," said Rejean Genois, a Canadian player. "I threw the ball up to serve and it never came down. The ball must still be in the wheels."
Other players were not as bothered because, as defending champion Guillermo Vilas noted, "the noise, it is a constant." The Open's switch of surface to Deco-Turf II, the speed of which allegedly was somewhere between the claylike composition of Forest Hills and the concrete of an interstate highway, was another matter.
This being the U.S. championship, the USTA polled U.S. players as to their desired surface before the Open changed sites. The overwhelming choice was asphalt, which is similar to what most Americans grow up playing on. What everybody got was a hard, slick court predictably advantageous to serve-and-volley specialists. However, it turned out to be faster and harder than anyone suspected.
The European clay-court aficionados complained early and often. Manolo Orantes defaulted in the first round, while Corrado Barazzutti of Italy said, "These courts are——" after he was bounced out in the second. Many foreign players threatened not to return unless the surface was made slower. But as Victor Amaya, the "Incredible Hulk" from Holland, Mich., said, "Let them go. We don't ask anybody to speed up the clay in Europe. Why shouldn't we play on a fast surface at home?"
Borg himself kept saying that the court was too fast, that he needed more than 10 days to get used to it. Then he would amble out in his bowlegged way and drill holes in the asphalt with his enormous service. It should be noted that Borg always complains about the grass at Wimbledon, too, and every mother's double-fisted son knows what he has done there.
If some early-round matches didn't prove that Deco-Turf II afforded plenty of opportunities for long rallies, exciting points and admirable shotmaking—namely, Vitus Gerulaitis' 6-2, 6-7, 6-3 struggle over Amaya and the three-set escapes of Borg and Connors from the clutches of Bernie Mitton and Pat DuPre, respectively—then the Labor Day night classic between Vilas and bazooka-serving Butch Walts surely did. Consider this:
•Walts, a tall Californian ranked 54th on the ATP computer, whose temper routinely out-fierces his serve, rocketed 11 aces and 35 service winners even though Vilas waited to receive some 20 feet behind the baseline.
•Vilas stretched his soft-court game to the outer limits by coming back from two sets behind and by saving a match point in the fourth set with an extraordinary lunging backhand volley winner off his shoe tops.
•The match lasted 4 hours and 11 minutes, with Walts and Vilas disdaining quick points in favor of trading topspin bolo punches from their respective baselines.
•In the course of the evening Walts' father. Ken, climbed into the players' box and warned Vilas' coach, Ion Tiriac, about the new, never-enforced "no coaching" rule. The two exchanged angry words, after which Walts Sr. took a position two seats from Tiriac and stared him down the rest of the night as, on the court, a puzzled Vilas searched in vain for his coach's signals.
•After he had surrendered his title, 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7, 6-2, just before midnight, Vilas walked away, painfully concerned about the direction of his career. "This is new kind of game," he said. "I don't know. I have to change. But what is the price?"
Tournament scalpers could have charged any price for the second breathtaking match of the week. Or rather, for the single most breathtaking shot of any week, a stroke of manufactured genius that James Scott Connors happened to pull off just in time to defeat La Dolce Vita himself, Adriano Panatta, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 7-5.
The situation was this. After Connors had blocked back approximately 486 of his opponent's oppressive serves and overheads; after Panatta had forgotten about Queens groupies or pizza parlors or whatever it is that normally causes him to play like a zombie on American courts; after he twice went ahead a break in the fifth set and served for the match at 5-4; after a screaming and strutting Jimbo positively lathered two winning returns to break back, tie the match and then hold serve to go ahead 6-5; after all this, they came to sundown.
In the 12th game, Panatta fell behind 0-40, triple match point. But he saved two of them and then—whap!—he burned in a second serve that Connors couldn't handle. Again it was tied, and again Panatta faltered. Match point No. 4. This one Panatta saved with a ferocious ace.
After two more deuces it happened. Panatta thought he had ended a wondrous rally with a crosscourt volley that went bounding at least 10 feet out. But Connors scrambled desperately after the ball, caught up, reached behind him and somehow managed to rip a rare one-handed backhand on the run around the net post and inches inside the sideline. On the next point Panatta double-faulted to lose the match.
The brilliant save not only lifted Connors over his toughest hurdle on the way to Borg, but it also inspired him to grant an audience to the press, those lowlife sleazes whom Connors had sworn not to recognize for the duration of the tournament. Except for witnessing—and reporting—the charming Jimbo dropping his pants in front of 150 spectators in a practice session, the Fourth Estate had been rendered wordless for two weeks while Connors rushed with his lackeys from the court to a waiting limousine and disappeared into Manhattan.
Following his survival against Panatta, however, Connors relented. "That's as good a match as I can play," he said. "The backhand? I knew I'd get to it but I didn't know what I could do with it. It almost took the net judge's head off. I'm fired up. I've been fired up all summer [his match record up to the final was 38-1]. They're going to have to take this one away from me. They all know that."
That they all did, too. Brian Gottfried, who had not lost a set while cruising through the toughest quarter of the draw, and John McEnroe, the precocious punk next door who had disposed of an exhausted Walts, both collapsed in straight sets before the Connors onslaught in the quarters and semis. Said Gottfried, "Fighting Ali might be tougher."
Meanwhile, Borg was first toying with and then destroying Raul Ramirez, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-0, and Gerulaitis, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6, in his warmups for the final.
"The way I was today I would beat 50 other players," said Ramirez, "but I cannot beat this guy." Then he thought a minute. "Bjorn may be breakable here because of his doubts about the surface," he said. "If Jimmy gets on top of him, Bjorn may say to himself he can't play on this court."
Whether Borg's self-doubts plagued him; whether his thumb pained him; whether the fleet of airplanes that roared over the stadium every 30 seconds disturbed his concentration—all these seemed moot points in the darkness of Borg's bloody Sunday.
To celebrate Connors' fifth straight year in the finals of the Open—and his third victory—Jimbo simply played the kind of game he had invented back in 1974.
"I played like that. Yeah, like a crazy man," said the new Jimbo. "Now I've won this tournament on three different surfaces. It feels good to know I can still play like No. 1."
He meant just like the old Jimbo.