There is nothing—not a sleigh ride, not a bowl of homemade ice cream, not Leave It to Beaver—that makes one long for the old days more than a modern professional tennis tournament. Tennis has become a game dominated by men-children who strut and fret their hour upon the stage, full of sound, all right, and occasionally fury, signifying, well...what does a year-end $300,000 bonus to Eddie Dibbs, winner of four tournaments out of 27 entered in 1978, signify to you?
The old days may be gone, but Arthur Ashe, thank God, is not, and neither is his tennis game. The 35-year-old Ashe served due notice of that last week in the U.S. Pro Indoor Championships against what in all likelihood will be the third-strongest field of the entire year, after Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Sixteen of the top 22 players in the world were in Philadelphia, and the only really big name missing was Bjorn Borg, who makes his 1979 debut this week in Richmond. Which meant that there were few easy picks. En route to the finals, Ashe had to upset the likes of sixth-seeded Brian Gottfried, fourth-seeded Vitas Gerulaitis and second-seeded Guillermo Vilas. Waiting for him was defending champion Jimmy Connors, crown prince of the strutters and fretters. The two had not met in a tournament of consequence since 1975 at Wimbledon, when Ashe triumphed by throwing Connors an array of off-speed junk that would have made Luis Tiant proud.
But Connors' game has matured since then, and what little junk Ashe could muster on Sunday was turned against him. Connors defeated the veteran in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, collecting the $40,000 winner's share and his third U.S. Pro Indoor title in the last four years. Ashe tried five drop shots during the match, and Connors converted all five into winners—as well as nearly everything else Ashe threw at him. To be fair, Ashe's undoing was as much a result of his grueling five-set win over Gerulaitis in the semis as it was of Connors' deftness. "My body felt as if somebody beat it with a stick," Ashe said afterward.
He was a step behind Connors' ground strokes all afternoon, and time after time faulty footwork caused him to make numerous unforced errors. "You can only play as well as the other guy lets you play," he said. "Jimmy hits the ball in a straight line. Everybody else hits it in a parabola, which gives you an extra second to get there."
February 5, 1979
Once again it was Connors' service return—the best in the game—that was especially devastating. He has moved in a step and feels he is returning better now than when he won the U.S. Open in September. Against Ashe he hit 15 outright winners off the serve. Ashe hit only one off Connors.
Connors' route to the finals was something of a strut down the yellow brick road. No fret, no sweat. His first two victims—Van Winitsky (6-4, 6-3) and Eric van Dillen (6-1, 6-1)—didn't even qualify for the tournament. They were what is known as "lucky losers"—alternates who wait around at the start of a tournament to replace any qualifiers who drop out for one reason or another. Connors finally had some opposition in his third match, defeating 15th-seeded Wojtek Fibak of Poland 6-4, 7-6. The match was close only because Connors consistently sprayed unforced forehand errors into the net while keeping one eye on the acrobatic Gerulaitis-Johan Kriek match on the next court, one eye on Fibak and his mind on a heckler in the stands. "I wanted to tell the heckler a few things," he said afterward, "then I wanted to watch the other match. I didn't even want to play mine."
Connors wasn't alone. In fact, nearly everyone complained of the distractions. The tournament is held in the Spectrum, and up until the semifinals the matches are played simultaneously on two courts set 12 feet apart. Balls bounce indiscriminately from one to the other. "Let" calls made on Court 1 are adhered to on Court 2. Connors went so far as to admit that the carnival atmosphere gave him an advantage over the field, because he was "flaky" anyway.
But it wasn't supposed to be so easy. After crushing Geoff Masters of Australia 6-3, 6-3 in the quarterfinals, Jimbo was expected to meet the new kid on the block, John McEnroe. It was the match people had been awaiting for weeks, or since Jan. 11, when Connors was forced to default to McEnroe because of a blistered toe when trailing by a set and a break in the Masters in Madison Square Garden.
Connors publicly pooh-poohed any special desire to give McEnroe his comeuppance, but, in fact, he was miffed at several of McEnroe's statements questioning the professionalism of defaulting with no more than a blistered toe. Incidentally, that selfsame toe, cushioned by two layers of socks and a coating of foot powder, was fresh from a victory in Birmingham. For his part, McEnroe was looking forward to meeting Connors, mainly because he was certain he would win.
But something happened. McEnroe has been the world's greatest tennis player the past three months, but in the quarterfinals he faced a southpaw he soon began to wish hadn't come to the party—Roscoe Tanner, he of the howitzer serves. McEnroe lost 7-6, 6-2. Going back to the U.S. Open, McEnroe had won five singles tournaments, a doubles tournament and two Davis Cup matches. But in Philadelphia, Tanner had a streak of his own going; he had held every service after the first game of his first match, a span of 60 games. The string wasn't broken by McEnroe. Tanner hit 20 outright winners off his serve and countless others that provided easy putaways.
It was a very patterned match. Both players served and volleyed every point, so there were no baseline exchanges. The points were short, pitting Tanner's power against McEnroe's quickness and finesse. However, McEnroe repeatedly missed his passing shots on the critical points, and after failing on three set points at 6-5 of the first set, he never came close to breaking Tanner's serve again. Tanner won the tie-breaker 7-3, and broke McEnroe in the second game of the second set when the Stanford dropout netted three volleys. It was more or less typical of McEnroe's night when he laid off an easy putaway at match point, thinking it would go out. It didn't, but McEnroe did.
Afterward, McEnroe gave Tanner his due and talked numbly about cutting back on his schedule. He had been in Las Vegas the week before, filming a movie with Dean Martin Jr. and Ali MacGraw, which is hardly recommended as a way to rest. McEnroe plays himself in the movie, uttering three lines, easily the most difficult of which is "Don't choke, Pancho." He also spoke about the Supreme Court surface being "a little faster than I thought." When asked about the remark, Ellen Fernberger, a tournament official, pointed down to Court No. 1. "You see that court. That isn't just the same type of court he won the Masters on two weeks ago. That is the court." It had simply been rolled up and shipped from New York to Philly. Maybe McEnroe really meant that Roscoe's service was faster than he thought.
Once the Connors-McEnroe match failed to materialize, Ashe was the one consistently bright spot of the tournament. He had won this event once before—way back when Lyndon Johnson was President—and had the crowd solidly behind him throughout. Ashe seems to have completely recovered from a heel injury that required surgery in February of 1977 and kept him out of action nearly an entire year. "I never dreamed I would come back this far," he said early in the week. "My original goal was just to make it back to the top 20."
Seeded 10th, Ashe opened the tournament by beating South Africa's Bernie Mitton (6-2, 7-6) and Marty Riessen (6-1, 4-6, 6-4) and protesting newspaper accounts that made it sound as if he had one foot in the grave. "I'm tired of all this," he said. "I'm not coming back from anywhere. I'm just playing tennis."
In the third round he faced Vilas, who was coming back from Down Under, not the grave. Vilas has been making a concerted effort to improve his play on faster surfaces, and in December he went to Australia, where he won that country's Open on grass against a mediocre field. But Ashe proved that Vilas has a long way to go before he will win anything big on a surface other than clay, beating him 6-3, 7-5. The one thing Ashe wanted to avoid was long baseline exchanges. "I'd lose 80% of those against Vilas. I need to play as many points as possible on one-third of the court"—meaning from the service line in.
That's exactly what he did, coming to the net at every opportunity, including behind Vilas' shallow second serve, and volleying, as he put it, "decisively." His serve, as is always the case when Ashe is on his game, was humming. The rout of Vilas enabled him to advance to the quarterfinals, where he beat Brian Gottfried—strong, affable, with an unenviable knack for giving away important points—6-4, 7-5.
Gerulaitis was Ashe's opponent in the semis, having advanced there with wins over Zjelko Franulovic of Yugoslavia, Kriek and Harold Solomon. By far the best of these was his match with Kriek, who may be the tour's fastest player. Gerulaitis is probably the second-fastest and, without question, is the whining-est, stomping about after every close call like the Little League pitcher who can't believe he has walked the bases full. Kriek was up a set and a break before Gerulaitis lifted his game and won 7-5 in the third, in the most scintillating tennis of the tournament.
And it seemed that the momentum Gerulaitis gained there would carry him right into Sunday's finals. In the best-of-five semifinals, he steamrolled over Ashe in the first two sets, 6-1, 6-4, and was serving for the match at 5-4 of the third. Ashe is the best strategist in the game and one of the few players who can effectively alter his style of play to counter his opponent, but his game plan of drop shots and lobs left little margin for error against a speedster like Gerulaitis. Ashe's normally reliable serve was zooming in and out, and to that point in the match he had double-faulted 11 times.
Gerulaitis went up 15-0 on a service winner, but then, shockingly, Ashe put away an overhead and made two dink passing shots that even Gerulaitis couldn't catch up with, making it 15-40, Ashe. Gerulaitis saved three break points, but on the fourth Ashe delicately feathered a backhand by him at the net. Both players held serve, and in the tiebreaker Ashe overcame yet another double-fault to win, 7-4.
In the fourth set the momentum had clearly changed. Ashe found the range with his serve, and Gerulaitis began playing tentatively and defensively. Both players held service until the ninth game, when Ashe hit a backhand passing shot down the line that gave him the crucial break. Ashe served out the set, 6-4. In the fifth set, with Ashe serving for the match at 5-4, it appeared things might take a final turn in favor of Gerulaitis. He held four break points. Twice Ashe brought it back to deuce on big serves, and twice Gerulaitis hit passing shots out. On Ashe's first match point, Gerulaitis hit a backhand cross-court return that Ashe never touched, but a moment later Vitas netted a second serve to give Ashe the 3½-hour match and send him to the finals.
"I thought the gods owed me this one," Ashe said afterward, thinking of the two match points he held against McEnroe two weeks ago before losing.
The other semifinal match pitted last year's finalists, Connors and Tanner, who both spent much of the match at the baseline. In sharp contrast to Ashe-Gerulaitis, there were no cat-and-mouse tactics here. "There's no one else on the circuit who will stand there and slug it out with you like Jimmy," Tanner said with no small measure of admiration. There is also no one who will beat you more surely at that particular game. Connors returned Tanner's serves with incredible force and regularity in coasting to a 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win, setting up Sunday's finals.
And there, with more than 15,000 fans in his corner, Ashe looked like something he had not resembled all week—a 35-year-old tennis player. Asked again, yet again, what his reaction was to the stories being written about his returning from the dead, Ashe sat back, smiled and shrugged his shoulders resignedly. "Everyone keeps bringing it up, so I decided this morning I'm just going to go along with it. There's nothing else I can do."
Welcome back to the living then, Arthur. Do tennis another in a long series of favors and keep your foot out of the grave for a while.
As for Connors, who so seldom shows insight into another player's talents, he had this to say after Sunday's finals: "I played well today, but I had to, because of what Arthur did yesterday. It's always in the back of your mind that he'll do it again."