Junior jolts his elders

Playing superbly, John McEnroe took on the world's best players, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, back to back and overwhelmed them to win the WCT championship
May 13, 1979

Waiting For John McEnroe. That play has been running for some time now. Since summer, 1977: TEENAGER REACHES WIMBLEDON SEMIS. Since fall, 1978: KID UPSETS BORG IN SWEDE'S HOMETOWN. Since winter, 1979: JUNIOR STOPS CONNORS ON DEFAULT.

It was in the warm springtime of Dallas last week that the waiting ended. In two extraordinary matches that should be frozen forever, or at least replayed in every teaching clinic, the 20-year-old McEnroe positively overwhelmed Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg back to back to win the WCT finals.

On Friday night, after McEnroe rid the tournament of his personal demon Connors in straight sets, the loser was sufficiently humiliated to hire a private plane to whisk him out of town before midnight. Then on Sunday afternoon McEnroe took the fight to Borg, ripping apart the green Supreme Court surface with his stiletto service, deftly maneuvering his opponent to every nook and cranny of SMU's Moody Coliseum, ultimately using his deft touch and angled placements to defeat the world champion 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6.

Through the first 27 games of the final, both McEnroe's and Borg's deliveries were so effective that only two games got to deuce. Then, from 2-2 in the third set McEnroe swept four games, at first slowing the pace with balloon balls to confuse Borg and break him in the sixth game, then warding off two break points to hold serve in the seventh.

"I could see Bjorn was tired, mentally tired," McEnroe said. But the dogged Swede kept throwing aces and serving out love games. Two of those earned Borg a 5-3 lead in the fourth set. At deuce, on McEnroe's serve, Borg was two points from tying the match, but again he couldn't handle Junior's slashing spinners from the service line. A game later at 5-4, Borg aced McEnroe and passed him down the line to come to deuce twice more. But he could come no further. After Borg's backhand approach flew long and a McEnroe backhand drive grazed the line, Junior had the sixth, the last and the most crucial break of the match.

"I felt slow and always too late," Borg said later. "When you play John you have to be absolutely on top of your game, or you lose immediately."

Though the tie-break was taut and fiery, Borg's first serve had long since deserted him. When McEnroe kept hauling out his trunkload of shots in the overtime session, Borg must have realized—as Connors had two days before—that McEnroe's immense talent and court sense had brought him to the top much sooner than expected.

World Championship Tennis has fallen on hard times, what with a curtailed circuit of eight tournaments plus a championship and no live network television contract. But, surprisingly, last week Lamar Hunt and his brown-blazered minions were throwing lavish parties, providing cushy limousines and trotting out fabulous celebrities—Tom Landry, Princess Caroline and old, back-from-the-dead himself, Frankie Avalon. Just as surprising was that Borg, Connors and McEnroe were ready, willing and able to play in the same tournament for the second week in a row.

Before the first serve had been delivered, however, sure enough Connors informed tournament officials that he had suffered an infected callus on the little finger of his left hand while playing the previous week in Las Vegas, where he lost to Borg in the finals of something called the Alan King Caesars Palace Tennis Classic. Connors' finger got him a day's delay for his first-round match against Gene Mayer, and the McEnroe-John Alexander match was moved up to open the tournament on Tuesday. On cue, the younger of tennis' lefthanded children of churl began to squawk.

"I thought I was getting two days' rest," McEnroe beefed. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm still playing Wednesday. It's not my fault he's got a blister. I've got things wrong with me, but I'm not going to hope people feel sorry for me. I've got a callus on my hand. I've got blisters on my feet. I'm calling my father. He'll handle it with the WCT people."

Presumably John P. McEnroe Sr. couldn't handle it: McEnroe played Tuesday, but not before Connors contributed his own obligatory verbal barrage.

Arriving at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport with his pregnant wife, Patti, but without a bandage on his left hand (uh-oh), Jimbo turned down a photographer's request for a picture of the finger by saying, "If someone had a hernia, would you take a picture of that?" Thinking fast, the photographer instead snapped a picture of Patti, which he correctly figured beat fingers and hernias combined.

"This is a corn," Connors announced. "I've had it for a long time. I'm playing here because I have a commitment." Later, Jimbo defined the difference in the way he and McEnroe expressed displeasure. "If you're going to get off, get off," he said. "And do it like a man, don't back off. McEnroe's young and has a way to go before he's done what I've done. He's won some titles and is now expected to win. Let's see what he does with all this pressure."

What McEnroe did was sweep past Alexander in straight sets. Meanwhile Mayer stole a tie-breaker from Connors before losing 6-7, 6-1, 6-4, 6-1. "He was the old Jimbo, putting everything away," Mayer said. "I don't think McEnroe is mentally ready for him."

He thought wrong. Suddenly in their eighth meeting, with Connors up 6-1, it was Jimbo who seemed ill-prepared for McEnroe. Right away in the second game, Junior broke Connors' serve at 30, bringing him into the net and forcing him to scoop a forehand deep, then a volley wide. In the fourth game, McEnroe broke at 15 with a forehand pass and an offensive lob that trapped Connors at mid-court. On serve, McEnroe was devastating, both when slicing his huge left-handed deliveries into the sideline seats or nailing flat liners down the middle.

McEnroe closed out the first set 6-1, with three service winners and an amazing, lunging pickup get, which he lobbed delicately over the thoroughly perplexed Connors' head. "I had a game plan against him," McEnroe said later. "For the first time I felt totally in control."

Which meant that McEnroe alternately kept blasting and feathering the ball deep, blunting Connors' aggressive game so that he himself could attack. The Mac attack, as it were, grew from his effectiveness on serve. "I don't think I've ever served better," McEnroe said, and he may have been right: Connors got only 25 points in McEnroe's 14 service games.

In the eighth game of the second set, Connors finally made a move on a service break to 4 all, but McEnroe broke back on a purely invented backhand retrieve from the baseline of what seemed a certain winning lob. Connors appeared so shocked that McEnroe was able to get the ball, much less flip it back at such a sharp angle, that he swung wildly, knocking the riposte way out of bounds. The same thing happened in the next game, on set point, when McEnroe caught up with another Connors lob, lofted it back and watched as Jimbo's answering overhead flew long.

In the third set only the players' frequent yammering against the chair umpire prolonged the outcome. McEnroe would scream and stall. Then Connors would mimic him, stalling himself or screaming between points. "In or out? You're doing a lousy job," Connors yelled at the chair.

"You going to let this keep up?" McEnroe yelled at the chair.

"Call your daddy," a heckler kept shouting at McEnroe.

But Junior didn't need help. On a last gasp Connors led 4-3 with two break points in the eighth game. Quickly McEnroe smacked another dynamite serve off Jimbo's racket. Then, during a marvelous series of wicked counterpunching by both men, at least twice McEnroe appeared out of the second breaker, and thus the game.

But he wasn't. At the end of the tenuous point McEnroe drilled an angled backhand and Connors dived for it, but late; the game was saved. McEnroe won 10 of the next 11 points—the total spread ended up 98-69—all three remaining games and the match, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.

"Jimmy is an angry young man. He will not talk to the press," WCT spokesman Rod Humphries said. "He asked Patti, 'Who's got the keys?' He has left the building. Maybe the city."

"How about the country?" someone said.

While Connors was en route back to the drawing board, Borg was using the other semifinal to dissect Vitas Gerulaitis. After the two had walloped Geoff Masters and Brian Gottfried, respectively, it seemed that Gerulaitis' newly fashioned, open-stance serve might turn their customary track meet his way. But for the 12th straight time it was not to be, Borg winning 7-5, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2 in their best match since their classic semifinal at the 1977 Centenary Wimbledon.

Borg was asked if he was surprised that McEnroe would be waiting for him on Sunday instead of Connors.

"No," said Borg, who had split four matches with his upstart rival. "He has all the shots. You have to be quick in the legs to play against this guy and his serve. It all depends on him."

It all depends on him. If that's not acknowledgment of how far tennis' bold new prince has come, nothing is. McEnroe had blown eight match points in a loss to Borg earlier this year in Richmond, but when he had—as the pros say—the match on his racket in Dallas, he crushed an ace down the middle to win the tie-break.

"McEnroe is the equal of anyone I've ever played," John Alexander said last week. "I've played them all now, and he's the toughest."

"There is only one true genius in the game, and his name is Junior," said Sandy Mayer.

Who's got the keys? John McEnroe has got the keys.

PHOTOServing torpedoes and firing flat liners down the middle, Junior blew Jimbo and Bjorn away.
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)