Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors played another one of those Grand Slams in Boca Cola, Fla. last week, or was it Pepsi Raton, Fla.? In any event, while the atmosphere was hardly Wimbledonian, the outcome was the same as when the two rivals annually meet at the All-England Championships.
Borg won again. Won laughing. Won going away. Won, and in so doing repeated his victory of the last two years over the same man in the same event in the same place and with the same soft-drink can being windblown all over the place. The scores this time were 6-2, 6-3 and nobody dared say to Jimbo, "Have a Pepsi Day."
On the other hand, the Sunday that Borg had at BocaWest, which, you guessed it, is due west of Boca Raton, went the way most of his confrontations with Connors have gone lately when they are fought out on any surface other than Jimbo's favorite freeway.
On the Har-Tru Sunday Borg set up camp on the baseline, thrashed his topspins to the distant corners and dared Connors to do anything with them. Early on, Jimbo also elected to stay back and he had four break points in Borg's first two service games. Though he didn't get either break, he did use three delicate drop shots to win the fifth game, a new wrinkle for him. "I could have been up four-love," Connors acknowledged later, "but I wasn't worried. There was a lot of time left."
February 19, 1979
Well, at least 30 seconds. From 3-2 in the first set, Borg began digging welts in the court with his huge serve, obviously trying to bounce the ball past Connors into Cuba. The Swede took five games running, holding serve easily twice and forcing Jimbo into errors—39 for the match—in Connors' own service games.
By this time Borg had won 40 of the first 68 points and had voluntarily come to the net just one time—on the very first point of the match. Connors seemed befuddled; Borg sensed his confusion. "He was hitting high ones, drops, coming in and then going back and hitting with me," Borg said. "I think he don't know what to do. I was a step ahead of Jimmy all day. When I am really psyched up and feeling well in the legs, I can do a lot of things. I was running to the balls just right."
And to the cash. But so what? Just because Borg's victory earned him the ungodly sum of $150,000 and Connors' defeat earned him the not entirely godly sum of $75,000, don't believe there wasn't the devil to pay.
To understand just how dominant a sponsor has become at an event like this, and why, it is only necessary to figure out that the $300,000 that Pepsi-Cola handed over to the four participating players—Borg, Connors, John McEnroe and Guillermo Vilas—last week was about as much money as the entire field will receive at Wimbledon next summer. In exchange for its largesse, Pepsi and your local Pepsi bottlers worked some wonders, which included replacing competitors' products at the BocaWest village grocery with Pepsi's own brands, surrounding the courts with what one executive called "signage" (English translation: Pepsi signs) and covering every living, breathing human being with either a Pepsi warm-up suit or a Pepsi T shirt or both. Then, too, in the event members of the media became forgetful, Pepsi made sure the tournament fact sheet led off:
"Official title: Pepsi-Cola Grand Slam of Tennis.
"Abbreviated title: Pepsi Grand Slam.
"Note: Referring to this tournament as the Grand Slam is incorrect."
Because of its "mobile tennis program," a youth-oriented teaching operation now in 60 inner cities, and its worldwide junior tournament circuit, the finals of which were also played last week at BocaWest, Pepsi feels it has paid its dues to the game. "I'm not interested in tennis politics," said Joe Block, a Pepsi vice-president. "I'm interested in selling Pepsi-Cola." With which sentiment CBS could wholeheartedly agree so long as Connors and Borg didn't run over into prime time on Sunday evening.
Further enlivening the contrived proceedings was the same CBS, which came close to switching the finals from a 4 p.m. start back to 1 p.m. (and a tape-delay showing) for fear the match would gallop into Gone With the Wind, on a ratings "sweep" night.
"Whatever they decide," said CBS publicist Beano Cook, "I guarantee you that at 6:58 Pat Summerall says, 'And now to Atlanta for the Burning.' Jimmy Connors might not know it, but he's only second in our hearts to Rhett Butler."
Connors had reached the finals by way of a conflagration of his own doing, namely a 6-3, 6-4 thrashing of young McEnroe on Friday. This was fiery revenge for the defeat Connors suffered last month at the Masters in New York when he had to retire from his match against the teen-ager because of a blistered foot. At that time the combatants exchanged nasty words, especially after McEnroe had questioned why Jimbo didn't last out the ordeal and take his medicine.
"There are a lot of dead heroes," Connors snapped last week. "Bad feelings? I have bad feelings toward everybody on the court. Actually, it's a compliment when McEnroe is compared to me. But how does he like living in the shadows?"
Ouch. That is precisely what the 19-year-old New Yorker appeared to be playing under in Florida. Since McEnroe's ascension, the kid has preferred a serve-and-volley attack and fast, hardcourt surfaces. However, on the Boca clay, amid the Boca wind and chill, he seemed in a strange land indeed, shockingly unable to keep his service returns under control.
It wasn't that McEnroe played so badly in this, his fifth loss to Connors. It was just that he spent the entire afternoon on Friday in futile, defensive positions, and he never could win a big point. Among the six games he lost in the first set, in fact, McEnroe had a game point to win five of them. Then at 4-all in the second set he reached 15-40 with two break points against Connors' serve again—a golden opportunity to go ahead 5-4 and hold his own serve to tie the match. Instead, McEnroe lobbed wide—yes, wide—then hit another return so hilariously deep that the groundkeepers are still looking for it. Connors ran out the game, then broke a disheartened McEnroe in the next game for the match.
In the other semifinal, on Saturday, Vilas looked as if he had fallen out of a boat the way he struggled and ultimately failed again against Borg, 6-3, 6-3. Though the always-charming Vilas said that with a net-cord here and some luck there, he could have won the first set 6-3. Uh-uh.
"I am ready to accept Borg is better player," said Vilas' coach, Ion Tiriac, before the match, "so my guy has to adjust. Two ways to play the Swede. Stay with him, back and forth, back and forth, which case Borg is younger, faster. But impossible. Or attack, which is tougher still. If this is three-of-five sets and match goes into fourth hour, Vilas has great chance. He have great chance last time on clay against Borg in Paris. But he was a dog. Now here...."
Here, at two of three sets, Vilas did attack Borg more than he ever has. Alas, his net game is still tentative, at times an embarrassment for a player of such craft and elegance otherwise. Again Vilas was made to pay the price. In the first set Borg merely fired salvos directly at Vilas, who made seven outright errors on easy setup volleys. Despite this, Vilas went ahead a break before squandering his next two service games by being too aggressive and rushing the net on every point. The match was over right then, Vilas finally defeating himself with a combination of mis-hit volleys and weak approaches from his sliced backhand.
Upon leaving the court after his eighth straight match loss to Borg, Vilas shook his head. "This just means he will have to do it again next time," he said of Borg, "because I will never stop trying to beat him."
Neither, naturally, will Connors. But maybe the next time he will give credit where due. On Sunday after Borg's sixth victory in the last nine meetings between the two, beginning with the '77 Grand Slam, the champion was asked about Connors' weaknesses. "Just one," he said. "When Jimmy loses, Jimmy can never say other players play well."
Which is as close to a lower-case grand slam as Bjorn Borg ever gets.