It was a coronation and a rejuvenation and a crack in the Mac. It was Bjorn Borg's Big Apple Breakthrough and Jimmy Connors' Apocalypse Now. Above all, the Colgate Grand Prix Masters, which took place last week in New York's Madison Square Garden, might have been the best and the brightest and the most exciting tennis tournament anybody ever saw.
Long before King Borg ended the whole thing in the final on Sunday with another in his long line of demolition jobs on Vitas Gerulaitis, this time by 6-2, 6-2 despite Vitas' new vigor, the Masters had proved that when the four or five or six finest players in tennis gather in the same place to engage in what has become known as, to coin a phrase, "the super bowl" of the sport; when Borg, Connors and the wunderkind John McEnroe show up fit and brazen enough to disagree on which one of them is leading the polls; and when Gerulaitis, the forgotten fourth, boogies out of the sanctity of Studio 54 to interrupt things, anything can happen.
On Sunday, for instance, who would have thought that Borg would have such an easy time of it after what Gerulaitis had done in the previous 36 hours? Namely, defeat McEnroe—after having lost their last three tournament meetings by a combined score in sets of 0-7. And then defeat Connors—after having lost 16 straight matches to him. "Nobody beats me 17 straight," Gerulaitis said.
But Borg is Borg, and on the last day the stoic champion made a meatball out of his practice partner. The only crisis came early: Game 5, hometown boy serving. Gerulaitis, playing beautifully, albeit without much weaponry, kept having to use his notable speed just to hold. Borg had one break point, two, three. The G-Man saved nine in all, but lost the game on the 24th point when he mindlessly attempted a low volley from midcourt off a Borg looper. Gerulaitis had three break points in the next game, but nothing would fall for him. Vitas kept running but Borg kept passing, and it was all over in 76 minutes, a brilliant confirmation that the Swede is the master of masters as well as the No. 1 player in the world, that world finally embracing the island of Manhattan.
January 21, 1980
Having gone scoreless in the U.S. Open (including his finals losses to Connors in 1976 on clay and in 1978 on a hard court), and having lost the '78 Masters final to the same nemesis, Borg might have said he had a "New Jork Yinx." Instead, he insisted that his career was "not missing anything" without a tournament victory in Gotham and that it was "no big deal."
But his performance last week belied such nonchalance. In two of the more breathtaking matches of, well, this decade, Borg first nailed Connors in a tiebreaker, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6. Then he nailed McEnroe in another tiebreaker, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6. If this sounds confusing, what with both Borg and Gerulaitis having to defeat both Connors and McEnroe to reach their destiny, it isn't. What it takes is a minimal understanding of the Masters' round-robin format.
This maligned system—two years ago Borg and Guillermo Vilas concocted injuries and defaulted matches in order to remain fresh and stay in the hunt, and last January Connors legitimately pulled up lame and defaulted, then recovered only to be eliminated because of a rule put in to foil the fakers—worked perfectly this time because there was no contrived nonsense.
Before Borg-Gerulaitis, the tournament had risen to giddy heights with no less than four upsets, four matches decided by third-set tiebreakers and enough tension and high drama to satisfy even the most jaded of those howling, catcalling Gardenites, who seemed to have shown up under the mistaken impression that the Rangers were facing off against the Bruins.
In truth, there was suspense at every crossroads; a watershed match in each session.
•Wednesday afternoon. Vilas, the romantic Argentine who supposedly can win only on slow surfaces, having just taken his second Australian Open—on grass—comes in with a new line of clothing labeled Ellesse and a new serve. He faces flu-ridden Gerulaitis in a rematch of last summer's memorable Italian Open final, which the G-Man won after nearly five excruciating hours.
Vilas wins the first set, 6-4. Gerulaitis holds seven set points before taking the second, 7-6. Vilas earns five match points and survives in the third, 6-3. Form is shattered and so is Gerulaitis. "The Masters court gets faster every year," says Vilas, who longs for the day the sponsor brings the tournament to the mud of Buenos Aires. "If I keep qualifying, someday I'll play the Masters on glass."
•Wednesday night. Roscoe Tanner, the ace machine who extended Borg to five sets in the Wimbledon final and then dashed his Grand Slam hopes one eerie night in the U.S. Open, takes him on again.
Tanner reveals that he has switched hairstyles once more, back to the straight, wet look from his Little Orphan Roscoe perm because it "was burning my hair." That's not all that gets burned now as Borg swamps him. The Swede breaks Tanner's bazooka in the very first game of the first set and also in the second game of the second; he runs out the match with embarrassing ease, 6-3, 6-3, as Tanner connects on fewer than 50% of his first serves.
•Thursday afternoon. No sooner is Vilas being measured for a berth in the semis than he is destroyed by McEnroe, who runs the Argentine all over the court with his exquisite curves and knucklers to win 6-2, 6-3. Two points from the end McEnroe delivers a most spectacular drop shot. Racing for a short ball, he falls onto the net cord, rolls over and drops—hello—himself onto Vilas' side. A few spectators begin counting him out...two...three...four. But Vilas isn't Carlos Monzon, and McEnroe gets up.
"I hit my head on the court," he says. "Actually, that's the best part of me to hit."
•Thursday night. A match to remember. Especially, a match for Connors to remember because this may be Jimbo's last stand. He has lost his last six meetings with Borg, 15 of 17 sets. But he is slimmed down ("150 pounds, the best shape of my life," he says), primed ("My family is my support; the new baby has taught me patience"), and he quickly takes the initiative, pressing Borg on the baseline, running him from side to side and pocketing the first set, 6-3.
In the second, Connors is more tentative and Borg shaky, and a strange, error-plagued pas de deux ensues, 6-3 to Borg. After this the struggling Swede moves out to a 5-2 lead in the third and it's all over, of course. But wait. Borg's own serve is slowly falling apart—"I was scared. For sure," he says later—and Connors comes crashing back. The old Connors. The linesman-baiting, finger-waving, crotch-grabbing Connors. The brilliant one. The crude one. Jungle Jim. Connors races deep into the corner to whirl an impossible forehand off the tape past a stranded Borg, and suddenly it's 5-all.
But that is the pinnacle. In the tiebreaker Borg opens with an ace, Connors makes two quick mistakes, and Borg hangs on to win 7-4.
In the pantheon of golden struggles between Borg and Connors, what this match, which consumes two hours and 38 minutes, lacks in artistry, it makes up for in intensity and importance because it manifests one glaring reality: Connors, at peak form, has thrown everything at a sub-par Borg, but still he has lost. "I'm not out of this thing yet," an exhausted Connors says. But he is. If Borg hasn't taken Connors out of the fight, he has taken the fight out of Connors.
•Friday afternoon. Connors winds up his round-robin against Tanner while practically dead on his feet. The winner will advance to the semis, and Tanner looks like a shoo-in when he leads 4-1 in the third set. Then the dread tennis disease, "elbow," strikes Roscoe. The two men belt and claw, both clutching at straws. But in the tiebreaker Tanner cannot win a single point on his serve, cannot control his volley, and Connors wins, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6.
•Friday night. McEnroe-Gerulaitis is the last round-robin match on the card, the winner to play Connors in the semis, the loser to play Borg. Pick your poison. McEnroe annihilated Gerulaitis, his neighbor from New York City's borough of Queens, in the Open final last September, and this looks just as easy.
Vitas gets three points off Junior's serve in the first set and loses it, 3-6. But McEnroe, who is also playing the doubles (which he and partner Peter Fleming will win), had stayed on court until nearly 2 a.m. the previous night, and now it shows. He stalks about, scowling, yowling at officials and spectators, angrily bouncing his racket on the synthetic surface.
McEnroe has a match point in the second-set tiebreaker, but Gerulaitis saves it with a service winner and rallies to win 9-7. In the third set a more confident Gerulaitis continues steady on serve—he smashes an astounding 11 aces during the match—and holds for 6-all after converting a socks-high volley off a sizzling McEnroe drive. Junior collapses on the court in mock astonishment. When the Disco Kid jumps on top in the tiebreaker and wins it 7-4, McEnroe is even more surprised.
"McEnroe has got a lot more talent than I have," Gerulaitis says, "but now he doesn't own New York anymore. I got some of the Bronx back."
With his stunning 7-5, 6-2 romp over a bewildered Connors in the semifinals, Gerulaitis got back Staten Island, too. The upsets that had jumbled the round-robin were nothing compared to the episode that turned around this match in the ninth game of the first set. Serving at 3-5, ad-out, a second set point against him, Gerulaitis already had been robbed of two service aces (he got one back on a linesman's correction). Now he served another obvious ace. But umpire Jason Smith called "fault."
Calmly Gerulaitis toed the line, delivered again and watched in shock as Connors—recognizing a bad rap when he saw one—tapped the ball across the net and walked over to the deuce court. Connors had given the point away.
The amazing thing was that right then Gerulaitis started taking the game, set and match, too. Vitas ran off four games for the first set. Playing conservatively, he broke Connors' serve in the fourth and eighth games of the second set as an obviously weary (31 unforced errors) but strangely subdued Jimbo never got back down to business.
"I shouldn't have to play tennis and call the lines too," Connors said afterward. "But I don't regret giving the point. I just didn't do anything else out there. I had no zip."
Gerulaitis was asked about crashing tennis' big three. "I've always had this potential," he said, "but there aren't three. There's the rest of us. Then there's Bjorn."
In the other semifinal, however, the first of what should be many classic Borg-McEnroe encounters in the '80s, there was Bjorn barely standing at the end. He survived after a first set in which he led 4-3, 40-0 only to get careless, drop serve and lose a tiebreaker (7-5) on a ferocious McEnroe volley; after a second set in which he actually smiled twice, applauded a particularly devastating return winner (it being his own) and spoke an audible dirty word; and after a third in which he combated McEnroe's brilliant net charges with some well-placed lobs, emphatically changing the complexion of the rallies. This tactic made Junior insecure at the tape and vulnerable to Borg's screaming passes.
When the two men ultimately reached the final tiebreaker, McEnroe slugged an ace, but that was the end of the road. Borg rang up seven straight points—the key one coming when McEnroe lofted a shoulder-high volley nearly into the Hudson River. By the morrow, that is approximately where Borg had left the entire glamorous Masters field. "I put this title very, very high," he said. And no wonder. In five days Borg had beaten Nos. 2 through 5 on the player computer ladder and he may have beaten No. 6, Vilas, in his sleep. Moreover, he is working on winning streaks against McEnroe, Connors, Gerulaitis, Tanner and Vilas that add up to 36 matches—the longest being 15 against Gerulaitis, the shortest, two against Tanner.
And suddenly Borg was king even in New York.