Fourdown—immortality to go.
What else can bein prospect for the astonishing Bjorn Borg? By the time he has won his finalWimbledon sometime in the next century, Borg will have learned how to balance aracket on his nose, to serve from the cartwheel position and to topspin abushel of strawberries over Westminster Abbey. At this point anything would beappreciated conducive to altering the scenario for a tournament which, storiedand marvelous though it may be, simply is being whaled to an unappealing pulpby the consistently magnificent play of the snagglehaired Swede.
In fact, if it hadnot been for the oppressive, pounding service and otherwise splendid all-roundeffort of Roscoe Tanner in the final last Saturday, Wimbledon 1979 might havepassed into history as the most tedious fortnight ever.
As it was,Tanner's blazing deliveries and newly developed backhand nearly thwartedhistory before Borg prevailed in a gripping five-set match, 6-7, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3,6-4. Having played most of his matches "in the country"—which is whatthe players call the non-show courts—as more recognizable challengers such asJohn McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis and Arthur Ashe were being ushered out of hishalf of the draw in the earlier rounds, Tanner was something of an enigma. AsBorg said, "You never know what Roscoe's going to do. Hit aces and winnersall over the place, or what."
July 15, 1979
But, come theduel, there was no mistaking the positive attitude and ground-strokeaggressiveness that sometimes have been sorely missing from Tanner's game. Thestocky 27-year-old lefthander, nicknamed "Scoe," is from LookoutMountain, Tenn., and that's what opponents usually do against his 999-mphserves: look out.
When Tanner wasn'tdrilling aces past Borg—he hit 15—or scoring with service winners that thechampion barely touched, he would storm the net, even on second serve, andvolley away Borg's setup returns. Tanner's backhand, which he can now roll overthe top as well as hit flat, kept him in many rallies and bothered Borg rightup through the fifth set, but the Swede's counterpunching—he whiplashed 32clean passing winners during the overcast, windy afternoon—ultimately took itstoll.
Not exactly apitty-pat server himself, Borg had been slugging his own toonder balls atTanner, allowing him a mere four points against serve in the second set, sixagainst in the fourth—only one break game in the entire match. And when hebroke Tanner in the opening game of the fifth set, he had only to hold servefor victory and another terrific rendition of the fall-to-the-knees-in-prayerroutine he seems to have reserved for the occasion.
But in the secondgame of that tense final set, Tanner came to the verge of a break threedifferent times. Borg, spinning deliveries into his opponent's now-suspectbackhand, rapped service winners to turn him away on each try.
In the eighthgame, Tanner had two break points after a difficult touch volley. At 15-40 hehad Borg trapped at the net, leaning to the crosscourt side, with a setupforehand down the line staring him in the face. Poised to tie the match, Tannerwas too careful. He held, aimed and fired. Wide. "I played it toofine," he was to say later. "The match might have come down to thatpoint...basically...probably."
Or the next one:another breaker that Tanner wasted at net or, rather, Borg snatched from thebaseline by unleashing a double-fisted backhand down the line that cameskimming over the tape, then bolted downward like some fuzzy, miniature Skylabgone berserk. "He dipped it on me," said Tanner. "The big topspin.I never saw the ball."
Borg held for 5-3and ran out the match, but not before Tanner saved three match points from 40-0with some ferocious, not to mention courageous, drives off both wings. Tannerhad scared the champion into "being never so nervous in my whole life. Icould hardly hold the racket. If he takes that game from 0-40, no way Iwin." In the finest performance of his career, Tanner had made Borg workhis headband off for every glorious inch of his fourth glorious Wimbledontrophy, and had proven him, finally, thoroughly human.
Or had he? Beforethe final, the suspicion prevailed all over London, and wherever else one mighttry to lay an insane wager on Tanner, that he would have to get an early jumpon Borg. Which he did. That Tanner would require hard, dry turf for his mortarsto explode off of. Which he got. That Tanner would have to play out of hiscurly-haired skull to even stay on the court with Borg. Which he also did.
Still Borg won."In the fourth and fifth sets I win all the big points, every singleone," he said. "I don't know. In this tournament I am always winningthose points. It is very strange."
Point of order.Practically every day of a very un-strange Wimbledon brought reminders of whatBorg has been doing to this tournament and, in tandem, to tennis itself.Namely, dominating the day-and night-lights out of it.
There was Tannerhimself, hardly concealing his postmatch joy. At what? Yes, at coming so close."Hah," he kept chuckling. "Just being in the final ain't all thatbad. Hah!"
There was BrianTeacher, whose fourth-round match with Borg (6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5) elicited thetennis of Teacher's life—huge serves, stinging volleys, clinic-perfect pointsin which he did everything but pull a knife on his opponent before Borgprevailed. Afterward, Teacher said, "I'm not mad that I played so well andlost. I'm mad that I played the whole damn tournament so well and had to meetup with him."
And there was Tim(The Twin) Gullickson—the righthanded Gullickson—who, after eliminating thesecond seed, McEnroe, in straight sets in the fourth round, said his goal wasto reach the final. Not to win, mind you. Not to—perish the thought—defeatBorg. But to "reach the final."
If this wasn'tevidence enough of the mass fright enveloping the green lawns, teeming walkwaysand serpentine corridors of Wimbledon—a certain feeling that, against all thatis sacred among competitors bold and true, everybody else was playing forsecond place—Vijay Amritraj added more.
It was onlyWednesday of the first week when Amritraj, the elegant stylist from Madras, hadBorg beaten. Finished. Dead. Stone-cold gone and booted out of there. Vijay wonthe first set in 25 minutes. He won the third set with a break in the finalgame, which included a rare Borg double fault. He was ahead 2-1 with serve inthe fourth. When Borg broke back, Amritraj rallied again to 3-2. In the nextgame he had triple break point and thus a chance to serve the seventh game witha 4-2 lead. But at this crucial juncture, Borg casually nailed five outrightwinners past his bewildered opponent. Amritraj quietly collapsed into atie-break, which he lost when Borg scored seven straight points, and into afifth set, which he also lost as Borg won 2-6, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2.
It was only thefirst Wednesday, remember, but Vijay said, "This man is a genius. Any manwho wins a tournament four times on a surface he plays once a year is anabsolute genius."
Well, Borg hadn'twon it yet. There was still Adriano Panatta out there with his raging band ofscreaming Italian waiters over from the restaurants in Chelsea. There was stillthe dark horse, Pat Dupre from Anniston, Ala., conquerer of Gerulaitis (6-3 inthe fifth set) and of Bob Lutz (8-6 in the fifth), not to mention being thehusband of Darcy Dupre, whose father helped found Jack-in-the-Box. Dupre groundup Panatta and all the noisy waiters in a sizzling five-set quarterfinal butwas himself ground up by Tanner in an un-sizzling straight-set semi. By thetime he was through playing 264 games at Wimbledon—10 more than Borg in onematch less—Dupre was, shall we say, well done.
And, oh yes, therewas still a man named Jimmy Connors. Sssshhhh! That's Jimmy (The Quiet Man)Connors who, if some kind soul had handed him a honker, could have communicateda la Harpo Marx. As it was, Connors, angered by the seeding committee'sdecision to rank him third, elected to stay away from the players' tearoom, topass through the locker room only to and from the courts and to say nothing toanybody, not even his good friends, the press. "Blank the press,"Connors announced to a club official shortly after Borg had—once again—beatenhim 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.
The onebreathtaking question that went begging was why Jimbo had worn tassels—you gotit, tassels—on his socks in his match against Jean-Francois Caujolle but not inhis confrontation with Borg. Who cares? Listen, Connors needs anything he canget nowadays, what with Borg bombing him on serve (11 aces), passing him atwill and making a joke out of their "rivalry" with straight-setvictories on clay (Boca Raton), cement (Las Vegas) and grass (Wimbledon).
"Connors isn'tthe same player he was," said Ashe. "He doesn't walk around like he'sgoing to win anymore," said McEnroe. And this was before Borg hammeredJimbo in their semifinal.
"I likeJimmy," Borg said in reply to a question while flashing his biggest smileof the week. "I'm in love with the guy." Honk if you love Bjorn,Jimbo.
Love was here,there, everywhere in the women's draw. There was mother-love: Evonne GoolagongCawley accompanied by her infant daughter, Kelly. There was wife-love: theformer Christine Evert making her first appearance in the championships as thespouse of British Davis Cup player John Lloyd. There was daughter-love:defending champion Martina Navratilova in ecstasy over the arrival fromCzechoslovakia of her mother, Jana, whom she had not seen since her defectionin 1975. And, of course, everybody fell in love with Linda Siegel and Betty AnnStuart, two buxom California roommates who kept popping out of their dressesand into the tabloids under headlines such as WIMBLEDON OR BUST.
Alas, the distaffside was a total bust except for two shining moments, both made possible bythat old war mare, Billie Jean King. Along about sundown of Wimbledon's finalday, the 35-year-old Billie Jean at long last won her 20th All-Englandchampionship (the women's doubles, in partnership with Navratilova), breakingthe record she held jointly with 87-year-old Elizabeth Ryan, who had collapsedat Wimbledon 24 hours before and died on the way to a hospital.
Five days earlier,King had taken center stage in a singles quarterfinal when she found herselfopposite Tracy Austin for the first time. B.J. and the Babe it was—a taut,emotional struggle that one would tend to describe as a war had not thecontestants been a 16-year-old schoolgirl just out of braces and aself-described "old lady" with Frankenstein scars for knees."Babycakes," King good-naturedly called Austin. "I want her,"Austin said, sounding like a punk prizefighter, fleaweight division.
Austin got all shewanted of King, who for two hours and two minutes threw every shot andstratagem she had ever learned at a youngster who hadn't even been born whenKing won her first Wimbledon title. Lobs and drops. Cuts and slices. Topspin,both sides, all speeds. Serve and volley stuff. Still, Austin kept bangingeverything back like a windup mechanical doll. Tough and steely, the kidignored the effects of losing a second-set tie-break and falling behind 2-0,40-30 in the third. Instead, she bore it, started running King up to the SouthFields tube station and back and ultimately won the last six games and thematch 6-4, 6-7, 6-2.
Austin's perpetualground-stroking was not enough, however, in her semifinal against Navratilova,a match won by Martina 7-5, 6-1. Or was it won by Martina's mother? Sometimesit was difficult to ascertain just who was responsible for the Czech woman'svictories, so intertwined were the mother and daughter in the joy of theirreunion.
Austin hasprogressed one round for each of her three years at Wimbledon, but her lack ofspeed and—this time—depth kept her at a disadvantage against Martina, even whenshe served for the first set at 5-3. Right then Navratilova took advantage of abad call against Austin, began attacking and won nine straight games (to 5-0 inthe second set). Martina also had the patience, confidence and nerve to belt itout from the baseline, which produced a striking contrast between herself—talland strong—and Tracy, still fluttery and squeaking like a church mouse as shelunged in vain after Navratilova's power.
Afterward Martinahad some unfinished business to clear up. She had defeated Evert in last year'sfinal, yet she felt her victory was considered a fluke. And she was right. Thena few weeks ago, at Eastbourne, the two rivals played what may have been thefinest women's match of the open era, a 7-5, 5-7, 13-11 victory for Mrs. Lloyd,who saved three match points.
To get toNavratilova again, Lloyd defeated Cawley 6-3, 6-2 over 62 of the longest, leastinspiring minutes imaginable—"The result," one wry Englishmanexplained, "of marrying Englishmen."
Then, on Friday,Navratilova finally proved she is no longer the ultimate choker. Toward theends of two sets that weren't even close—"I was never in the match,"Lloyd admitted later—Navratilova served at 5-3 and was broken both times. Here,with chances to wither and fall apart, she composed herself, hit out withalarming precision and broke back in each set to win her second championship,6-4, 6-4.
"One moretime," Martina screamed to her mother in their native tongue, shortly afterwhich Ted Tinling, the dress designer who has been observing Wimbledon for morethan 50 years, called Navratilova's performance "the most powerfullydominating exhibition since Helen Wills."
Which broughteverybody back to talking history again, back to 23-year-old Bjorn Borg. Thefellow has now won 38 of 41 matches at the All England Club and 28 in a row,which is three short of Rod Laver's record. His four singles titles matchLaver's; however, Rod's did not come in consecutive years. The Rocket won in1961 and 1962, then in 1968 and 1969. As a pro, he was not permitted to competein the interval. But Borg's four straight are otherwise unprecedented becauseWimbledon discarded the challenge-round system in 1922.
A true measure ofBorg's achievement, however, must wait on a comparison with other individualsports and sportsmen. While Borg himself mentioned Eddy Merckx, the Belgiancyclist who won five Tour de France, probably the Swede's awesome streak inLondon stacks up more realistically somewhere between the stunning longevity ofMuhammad Ali and the instant legend accorded Olympians Bob Beamon in MexicoCity and Mark Spitz in Munich.
What, then, hasBorg done? "I don't think the rest of us in tennis can even relate to fourWimbledons in a row," said Tanner.
More intriguingstill, what in the world is Bjorn Borg yet to do?