Blistering anticlimax

Young John McEnroe outlasted Arthur Ashe to win the Masters after Jimmy Connors retired with a blistered toe
January 22, 1979

If the strange and tenuous relationship between the Grand Prix Masters tournament and the sport of tennis appears to be a bull-matador kind of friendship, it's probably because although the Masters always knows it will get it square in the neck, it never knows just when. The day is coming when none of the eight best players in the world eligible for the year-end showdown will bother to show up. Nos. 1 and 2 will default because they're tired. Nos. 3 and 4 will default because they're overly rested. Nos. 5 and 6 will develop cramps on the way to the bank. No. 7 will develop cramps on the way back from the bank. And No. 8 will run away to join the Moonies. Forever yours, Masters. R.I.P.

While none of this happened in and around Madison Square Garden last week, a few political shenanigans combined with a blister to make this year's Masters worthy of its bizarre predecessors. At the same time, history may view last Thursday night in an entirely different light, that being the evening on which 19-year-old John McEnroe defeated 26-year-old Jimmy Connors for the first time and, more important, that being the same evening on which the two of them—hard-boiled, lefthanded, mean-streaked alike—got a real hate on for each other.

The evidence that McEnroe, from just across the Triborough Bridge in Douglaston, Queens, had dominated his homecoming tournament was hardly noticeable in the finals on Sunday, when for a while it seemed as if he had gift-wrapped the championship and its $100,000 first prize and handed it to Arthur Ashe, of all people.

Ashe had been brutally whipsawed by McEnroe in the preliminary round robin 6-3, 6-1, when the youngster made just one unforced error. But came the showdown, and McEnroe not only double-faulted away the first set three times on set point, but he also scattered his deliveries and normally penetrating volleys into the back alleys of Manhattan.

The calm and crafty Ashe led 4-1 in the third set before McEnroe righted his erratic strokes to break back in the seventh game, to fight off two match points in the 10th, to break again with a dazzling backhand drive in the 11th, and to serve out the match 6-7, 6-3, 7-5. "If you had seen my match with Arthur the other night, you know this was tougher," McEnroe told the crowd. "I just hoped he wouldn't prove what a great player he was today."

Having concluded a literally phenomenal year in which he had lifted himself from the graveyard of rankings (257th to 13th), Ashe had proved that, of course. McEnroe had simply proved that he was even better.

Moreover, until Ashe's valiant performance, the tournament itself had suffered from a certain ennui because of the outcome of the round-robin match between McEnroe and Connors, in which the new champion was leading the old one 7-5, 3-0, when Connors retired because of a huge blister that was hemorrhaging just below the large toe of his left foot.

"What happens if I default now?" Connors had asked Umpire Frank Hammond at 5-all in the first set.

"You're out of the tournament, Jimmy," Hammond said.

So Connors played on. But he lost the next two games to lose the set and then the next three before the tournament physician, Dr. Norman Rudy, inspected the foot and asked Connors how it felt. "It hurts like hell," Jimbo said.

"Got to go now," Hammond called down from the chair.

"If that's the case, Frank, I can't make it," Connors said.

With that, McEnroe, in order, threw down his racket in disgust, walked over to shake Connors' hand, then went back out onto the court and raised his arms on high to the crowd of 16,100 as if to say, "So what? Let's hear it for me anyway." He heard it. Later McEnroe said, "I'll take it. A win over Connors is a win over Connors."

However hollow, that is what it was, all right, a win. And just like that the tournament was over three days before it was truly over, which isn't the most outrè occurrence to befall the event.

Set up to unify international tennis by connecting selected tournaments by means of bonus points and prize money, the Grand Prix originated in 1970, with the Masters as its culminating playoff. The first two Masters were uneventful: then, chaos. In Barcelona the ball boys punched holes in the balls with ice picks. In Boston the line umpires went on strike just before the final. In Melbourne swirling winds and 120° temperatures plagued the contestants. Then came the defaults: in Stockholm Ashe and Ilie Nastase were defaulted from the same match. In Houston Raul Ramirez was defaulted, then reinstated by the then-sponsor, the Commercial Union Insurance Co. Last year, with the tournament now under the banner of Colgate-Palmolive, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas both found a loophole in the rules and, claiming they were suffering from various maladies, defaulted round-robin matches, presumably in order to rest for the semifinals. Thus the new rule which eliminated Connors this year: any player who fails to start or finish a match is out.

For a long time there was some question whether Connors would even be in. Neither Borg nor Vilas nor Jimbo had played in the requisite number of tournaments to be eligible for bonus-pool money in 1978. Angered by this rule, Borg and Vilas gave notice that they would not grace the Masters. Ultimately, however, Connors was prevailed upon to save the tournament and the sponsor and—gasp—tennis itself. (Connors emphatically denied reports that what induced him to change his mind was a chunk of appearance money.) He also must have been prevailed upon to notice that New York and the Masters might be a nice forum to express his displeasure at the 1979 Grand Prix rules, to which he and Borg and Vilas—not to mention McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis—also strenuously object.

Specifically, five of the top players in the game—as well as numerous spear carriers—had refused to sign up for the Grand Prix circuit (making them ineligible for all Grand Prix tournaments, including such mini-events as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), because of their disagreement with several regulations, the most oppressive of which required them to play in six tournaments designated by the Men's International Professional Tennis Council. The Association of Tennis Professionals, the players' union which the five have never seen fit to join, obviously hoped to isolate Connors and convince him of the error of his ways. But the ATP didn't reckon with John McEnroe Sr., a Wall Street lawyer who was incensed by the new rules. He and a group of players' representatives sat down with the Pro Council.

"I'm not used to being dumped on in my business," McEnroe Sr. said. And sure enough, the outcome of the meeting was that the deadline for the players' signing was extended from Jan. 10 to March 5, by which time a compromise may be worked out.

Meanwhile, back at Madison Square Garden there wasn't a whole lot else that Connors and McEnroe Jr. could agree on. The fun started when Connors warned the media against getting excited about his rival. "Remember, he's still a young boy," Jimbo said of McEnroe. "When I was young and won the U.S. Pro, everybody said I was lucky. Maybe luck doesn't mean as much anymore. McEnroe will be good practice for me."

Informed of this compliment, McEnroe replied that Connors "is in a good position to say that. I just hope it's a great match. I don't want to win 1 and 1. I'd rather win 7-5 in the third."

McEnroe didn't need to be reminded that he was 0-4 lifetime vs. Connors. He also didn't need to be told that those matches came before he ravaged the tennis world this autumn and winter, winning four tournaments, embarrassing Borg on his home ground and bringing the Davis Cup home to America.

"John's most important weapon is his slice serve," said Brian Gottfried. "Against Jimmy, that comes right into his strength, the lefthanded forehand."

Which is why McEnroe's victory over Connors on the tournament's second night was far more decisive than it seemed. First of all, about the injury. Even before Connors began limping noticeably late in the first set, McEnroe was more than holding his own. Second, McEnroe served badly throughout the match; he did not win because of his blistering spin deliveries combined with alternately searing and feathery volleys, the way he usually does. McEnroe beat Connors in spite of his off-form service.

In three different service games in the first set, in fact, McEnroe started off with a double fault. He had seven doubles in the eight service games. Nevertheless, he fought off three separate break points in two games and never permitted Connors to break through his serve.

Conversely, in the 12th and deciding game of the first set—game point for Connors to hold serve and tie the set—McEnroe answered a ferocious Jimbo overhead by using his wondrously quick reflexes to slingshot a backhand from the middle of the court past Connors' forehand wing. Jimbo then drove two of his own backhands out of bounds—the first long down the line, the second wide cross-court—to lose the set.

"I hung in there. Even when he pressured me and I could have been broken, I hung in," McEnroe said afterward.

The next day McEnroe said he never would have walked off the way Connors did. "It didn't make me feel great that he didn't finish," McEnroe said. "You should give a guy the satisfaction of beating you. If you're a competitor, if you want to play the game for a long time, you shouldn't do those things.

"This doesn't diminish my respect for him as a player," McEnroe said of Connors. "But he's the type who needs to be mentally ready, charged up. If he's not that way, he's not as good."

For his part, Connors at first admitted that he took too long a layoff and that his "feet were too soft"—his last tournament was in early December. A day later Jimbo started snapping back. "I don't need to fake an injury against McEnroe," he said. "...against anybody. I've never done anything like that in my life. What is he, Superman?"

Asked if McEnroe was good enough to be No. 1, Connors said, "Not as long as I'm playing. Maybe he will be when I retire."

To which McEnroe had yet another rejoinder. "When is Connors going to retire?" he asked. "He may never play another tournament now. Who knows?"

Everyone knows. Jimbo wants no part of this kid unless he's 100%. Even then, it might not be enough. The McEnroe-Connors thing has just started. But already, oh what a lovely war!

PHOTOMcEnroe relied on his deft touch to beat Jimbo.

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)