The U.S. Open turned out to be the New York Closed. After nearly two weeks of moaning and groaning and complaining and defaulting that both dominated and diminished American tennis' premier event, it was hardly astonishing that a tough New Yorker named John McEnroe was still left last Sunday evening stomping and yapping and punching the lights out of another New Yorker named Vitas Gerulaitis.
Bjorn Borg long since had shown he couldn't handle the local night life, and defending champion Jimmy Connors had been sent back to fatherhood when the 20-year-old McEnroe, from nearby Douglaston, Queens, took the 25-year-old Gerulaitis, from nearby Howard Beach, Queens, and positively nailed him to the green floor of Flushing Meadow by the not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.
By winning the championship of his neighborhood, city, county, state and nation, the kid they call Junior became the youngest male Open winner since Pancho Gonzales in 1948 and—more shocking—picked up some applause along the way.
"It isn't every day that two players who live 10 minutes from the Open reach the final," McEnroe had said. "New Yorkers should appreciate this. It may never happen again."
September 16, 1979
That may be too soon for those denizens of Gotham who hooted and jeered both native sons for much of the two weeks preceding the final. "They hate us," Gerulaitis said. "Popularity-wise, I'm a notch above John, and John is a notch above Son of Sam."
McEnroe was several lengths ahead of his rival in their confrontation to determine bragging rights in the borough. Slugging some monstrous, hooking deliveries that seemed to take one bounce and make an immediate turn down the Van Wyck Expressway, McEnroe easily held his service games, which gave him the confidence to hit out and deploy the full array of his unparalleled shot selection whenever Gerulaitis was serving.
Wristy slices. Sledgehammer returns. An occasional tricky drop shot. A lot of those familiar stiletto-like thrusts off both wings from the net position. McEnroe threw all of his arsenal at the speedy Gerulaitis in an overwhelming display. He broke through the G-Man's serve early in each act: the third game of Set 1, the fifth of Set 2, the second of Set 3. While scoring only 21 points during McEnroe's 15 service games, Gerulaitis was able to break only in the 10th game of the match, when he tied Set 1 at 5—all. But he double-faulted twice in the next game and popped up a volley to lose his serve, following which McEnroe drilled a love game to polish off the set.
McEnroe won five service games at love, four others at 15. Meanwhile, he kept pressing Gerulaitis' shaky offerings and piling up break points. Junior converted five of those, but he failed on no less than 10 others, a clear manifestation of his domination.
"This is the best feeling I ever had [pause for scribes to laugh] in tennis. I volleyed well in the clutch," McEnroe said shortly after hurling his racket some 25 feet high into the sooty Queens night and thereby setting up the only true drama of the evening: would the maniac fan who grabbed the racket off the court be able to steal away before a special clobbered him?
Indeed McEnroe was brilliant at the net as he won his third major championship of the season, the Masters and WCT titles being the others. Earlier, upon the exit of Borg, Gerulaitis had said, "We're all just moving up and jockeying for position. Borg's still in another league." But, after just two years on the circuit, McEnroe is already the game's finest player off the volley and overhead.
Primarily because he has a sprinter's ability to rush the net and jam his Irish mug on the tape before an opponent is able to say "Scat, Brat," McEnroe is no longer just another uppity kid. And particularly because he won the U.S. Open when all others were succumbing to the evils of the New York Closed, Junior has reached that other league.
It should have been obvious all along that if anybody was going to beat the heat, the humidity and the pollution it would have to be a native who knew the territory. That meant either McEnroe or Gerulaitis. And that meant McEnroe, simply because when these two players have faced off, he's owned Gerulaitis.
"Drinking buddies?" said Junior. "Vitas doesn't drink. Oh, he lets me practice over at his house. But we aren't very alike, or close. Studio 54 is Gerulaitis' place. I'm a McDonald's guy."
What they both turned out to be were the lone survivors of the most confused and chaotic national championship in memory. This was the second year of the Open at the USTA National Tennis Center, but the first in which the men played a best three-of-five-set format throughout. The center's brutally testing, rubberized-acrylic surface is known officially as DecoTurf II but it mostly resembles Runway No. 9, which is fair enough because of the squadron of deafening jets roaring overhead on their takeoffs from and approaches to nearby LaGuardia Airport.
While cramps and heatstrokes were knocking off half the draw, ridiculous scheduling was taking out the other half. This U.S. Open included 12 defaults in men's and women's singles. In addition, there were spectators fighting and running on the court; umpires bickering and harassing one another; players griping about playing at night, and swearing and fainting.
Surely the most pitiable victim of the night moves was Borg, whose grand vision of winning a Grand Slam vanished at Flushing Meadow for the second straight year. This time he was beaten by Roscoe Tanner, whose bullet serves shot Borg away, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6.
For months Lennart Bergelin, Borg's coach, had been harping about the USTA's scheduling of matches at night. "Is not tennis. Is not tennis. Cannot see at night," Bergelin kept telling everybody, including his ever-alert pupil. Though Bergelin was and is right, such verbosity ignored the reality of two-session gates and was hardly the proper preparation for Borg, whose game is rooted in confidence, positive attitude and security of mind.
"Bergelin psyched out his own guy," Peter Fleming, McEnroe's doubles partner, said upon learning of the Borg-Tanner matchup. "Bjorn will be negative. I guarantee he'll be out of this tournament."
He was just that. Tanner blasted away—11 aces plus 17 other service winners—broke Borg five times and, shortly before the end, actually broke the net itself with two bombs, one a let, the other a fault. At one point, Borg complained to Bergelin in their native tongue, speaking of his opponent's vicious service: "I cannot read it. I just don't know." Deep into the lost, weeping night, only the Shadow knew.
The same could be said of the first two sets of the glorious Tanner-Gerulaitis semifinal, which Tanner won 6-3, 6-2. Besides his dynamite deliveries, Tanner was hitting out with authority from both sides, taking batting practice against Gerulaitis' weak second serves. On the final point of the second set Tanner sent Vitas scrambling into the sideline geraniums, where, the prevailing feeling held, Gerulaitis would be wise to remain rather than return to a faceful of Wilsons.
To start the third set Gerulaitis foot-faulted and then had his serve broken. He also rapped a ball at the baseline judge; maintaining his daylong consistency, it missed. "Excuse me," Vitas said to the female spectator whom the ball had struck, "I was aiming at this——." But suddenly the tenor of the match shifted as the G-Man broke back. Gerulaitis elevated his game to remarkable heights—especially on serve. Tanner managed only nine points in his opponent's next 11 service games, plus the excruciating third-set tiebreaker, and Gerulaitis vaulted ahead of the slumping, puzzled Tanner to finally serve out the match 3-6, 2-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-3.
"Vitas will get to the final," the prescient Fleming had said after Borg lost. "But McEnroe will be there, and then it will be all over."
Given his bosom friendship and doubles partnership with Junior—the pair won an Open title to go along with their Wimbledon championship—Fleming can be excused some partisanship. But he is, above all else, brutally frank, and what he said about the McEnroe-Connors semifinal also held up. What he said was, "John goes in thinking he is the favorite. Jimmy will be out of here in straight sets."
And that he was. Belatedly claiming a "bad back," Connors was thrashed (6-3, 6-3, 7-5) by his heir apparent, just as he was in the WCT semifinals in Dallas the last time the two met.
"What the hell? He had an off-day," said Junior. "He hits the ball so flat it has to rise. If I'm at the net I've got it." And now John McEnroe's got a lot more than that.