If the tennis had been half as enthralling as the myriad reports from around the globe concerning the late, great Bjorn Borg, the Grand Prix Masters in New York might have been quite a tournament. According to the last dispatch on Sunday, which was datelined Bangkok, Borg, who is all of 26, will retire from the game and jump to the USFL. Or fight Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Or do something equally astounding. If this seems a trifle outrageous, how about the allegation that Ivan Lendl can't win the big ones? True, he has yet to win one of the Big Three (the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), but under a roof he's nails. In 1982 Lendl won both major indoor titles—the Masters and the WCT Finals in Dallas—and with his 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 victory over John McEnroe on Sunday he joined Borg and Ilie Nastase as the only players to win the Masters in consecutive years.
The press has often censured Lendl for his lack of charisma and his dour, bullying manner—Nora McCabe of the Toronto Globe and Mail described him in her Masters copy as "the salivating Doberman pinscher"—but, in fact, it was left to Ivan to put some bite into the Masters. Forget for a moment his defeat of McEnroe, an exercise that has now become as routine as the loser's pouting and squawking. Lendl's seventh straight win over Mac—the score is 19-1 in sets—proved once again that his power and length are too much for the lefthanded finesse artist to handle. What Lendl did on Saturday in the semifinals against Jimmy Connors shall be remembered much longer. Over a stretch of approximately 10 minutes, while winning 12 straight points with an electrifying display both on serve and off the ground, Lendl not only blew the defending Wimbledon and U.S. champion off the court but also stirred veteran observers' memories for comparisons. The one most often cited was Ellsworth Vines slashing his way to the 1932 Wimbledon title with a 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 romp over Henry Austin.
Lendl's astonishing salvo came just in time because the entire tournament had heretofore been one dull Doberman. Possibly that was because of the rumors, or maybe New York's preoccupation with its beloved Jets, or even the perpetual interruptions from the Madison Square Garden P.A. announcer, who kept informing everybody of the presence at courtside of LeRoy Neiman: "We are pleased to have with us...welcome if you will ladies and gentlemen...the foremost number-one sports artist in the world today...capturing the Masters as only he can...." And then LeRoy, obviously beside himself with humility, would tear himself away from capturing the Masters as only he can, put down his brushes, check his wallet and wave to his friends, fans and/or prospective customers, who were attempting to figure out who the foremost runnerup sports artist might be. Whatever the reason, this Masters seemed to lack anything vaguely resembling excitement until Lendl started launching his rockets.
Rudely stung in the past by the players' manipulation of the double-elimination format, the tournament organizers increased the field from eight to 12 and made the Masters a straight knockout event. Under the old format, questionable injuries, defaults and tank jobs had plagued the event, and Lendl was a prime offender. In 1980 he blatantly threw a match to Connors to avoid facing Borg in the semifinals. On that occasion Jimbo called Ivan chicken. But what the format change did mostly was ensure the participation of some real, live turkeys—in particular, clay-court aficionados like Jose Higueras and Andres Gomez, who felt about as comfortable on the Garden's synthetic Supreme Court as they would on a high wire above it. Higueras doesn't even bother playing Wimbledon or Flushing Meadow. Jose, can't you see?
January 31, 1983
Then there were the three Masters rookies who were were struck by a case of Gardenitis. Mats Wilander took one look at the famous arena and said, "This place makes a difference. We have one at home that's big but not like this." Steve Denton had to be flustered when a black cat crossed the court during a key break of his service. (Where is Martina Navratilova when we need her?) And Yannick Noah admitted that he was "pretty scared" minutes after falling splat on his face on a match point.
Meanwhile, Connors and Lendl spent most of the week answering questions concerning Borg's supposed retirement; their first matches weren't until Friday. Because both players are slow starters, preferring to work their way gradually into the rhythm of a tournament, both were out of sorts. "The round robin stunk," said Connors. "That was proved. But this showing up just to wait around is plain stupid."
As for Borg, early in the week it was reported that Fila and Diadora, his clothing and shoe sponsors, respectively, were canceling contracts with him because of his imminent retirement. That story came out of Kitzb√ºhel and Rome. Next it was reported that Borg had withdrawn from Grand Prix events in Brussels, Rotterdam and Milan and had petitioned the Men's International Professional Tennis Council for a "limited commitment" to tournaments. That came out of London. Then it was learned that Borg said never mind, only kidding, he was not retiring and still wanted to win Bangkok and the U.S. Open. Bangkok! That came out of Bangkok from Sugar Ray Bjorn himself, who, for all anybody knew, may have been in Thailand rehearsing to take over for Yul Brynner in the road company of The King and I.
Come Friday, formerly Tank Day, and who should be waiting for Connors but Johan Kriek, old Deep Tank himself, who at least is man enough to admit when he's dumping, which happens to be quite frequently. Conversely, a Kriek who tries is one of the game's most dazzling players and maybe the quickest as well. On this night Kriek provided the only suspense of the quarterfinals by zoning to a 4-1 double-break advantage in the first set before Connors slowed the pace, forced Kriek into long rallies and caught up. Still, Kriek saved 10 set points before succumbing 7-5 in a tiebreaker. Alas, Kriek appeared to hail a taxi early in the second set, which he lost 6-2.
A rather subdued McEnroe—if one can call screaming at the crowd to "act like human beings" subdued—used his first two Masters matches as a tune-up for the upcoming U.S.-Argentina Davis Cup tie by carving out victories over Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc. McEnroe's semifinal meeting with Vilas, whom he calls Willie, was merely a continuation of their recent "Tennis Over America" exhibition tour. Only this encounter wasn't accompanied by rock music, light shows and smoke bombs. Once when Vilas hit a glorious passing shot, Johnny Mac screamed, "C'mon Willie, let's get real!" confirming the suspicion that McEnroe has been hanging around the Valley too much with Moon Unit Zappa. But mostly Willie was impatient and strayed too often into net, where he was duck soup. Final score: 6-3, 6-3.
All of this routine stuff did nothing to prepare the Masters for the thunder that bolted off Lendl's strings in his showdown with Connors. Jimbo had won eight of their nine tournament matches, including last September's U.S. Open final, but this time Lendl wasn't intimidated. Said Connors after losing, "When the guy just throws it up and whacks it and it goes in, he's too tough. You have to get the ball in play to stay on even ground."
At two all, 30 all in the first set, Jimbo heard the first tremor when Lendl screamed one of his familiar inside-out forehands into the clear and then hit a bullet of a backhand pass to gain the first break. Then at 4-3 the earthquake hit. Lendl was tossing the ball higher now than he had in a sluggish 6-4, 7-5 victory over Noah the previous day. Result: service winner, ace, service winner, Connors error. The next game: two forehand crosscourt winners, a scoop pickup winner off Connors' short volley, Connors error. Lendl wins the set 6-3. Then: service winner, ace, backhand slice winner off a drop shot, Connors error. Lendl wins a third straight love game and leads 1-0.
It was 10 minutes of sheer devastation, a dominating player whaling away at full throttle and in peak form. And the onslaught abated only marginally. Connors, who did the pump-and-rage maniac dance long before Mark Gastineau was invented, never had a chance to perform it. Lendl swept the next three games and then the last six points of the match to win the set 6-1. By the time Connors' heart had given out, Lendl had crushed 15 service winners, including eight aces, and 11 unreturnable ground strokes to Connors' two. "I'd rather give him this one and take back the Open," said Lendl. "But yes, I wanted to beat Jimmy very badly."
Lendl's reaction to his defeat of McEnroe was considerably more restrained, because it's difficult to get oneself stoked up against one's personal punching bag. Keeping McEnroe pinned on the baseline with his lethal forehand and knocking off his garbage collection of short balls for easy winners, Lendl broke McEnroe in the first game of both the first and third sets and never really let him into the match at any juncture. Seldom has a winner treated victory in an important final so solemnly as Lendl, who after striking a service winner on championship point merely strolled to the net hangdog to collect the handshakes, the crystal, the keys to a Volvo and $100,000. "I'm glad I didn't have to spend so many nerves this time," said Lendl, comparing the match with last year's final, when he had to overcome a two-set deficit and a match point against Vitas Gerulaitis before winning. "I was looking for John to try something different, but I guess he did the best he could."
It isn't as if McEnroe doesn't give his all in these frustrating tussles with his nemesis. He simply has neither the offensive tools nor the armor to combat Lendl's aggressive weaponry. And when the court is slow enough to afford Lendl time to set up for McEnroe's careening, hooking first serves, Mac is practically at the mercy of Lendl's return arsenal. "I prepared myself all week with nothing but tennis," said McEnroe. "I don't understand it. I felt so alive out there." But maybe the answer is for McEnroe to get ready for this otherworldly customer by departing from normal life. Perhaps he should immerse himself in a sensory deprivation tank or listen to Brahms or watch Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.
McEnroe did add some new wrinkles this time. He had new socks with M-C-E-N-R-O-E spelled out down the sides and a new rapport with the crowd. He once raised his racket to orchestrate cheers from the cheap seats. At 3-3 in the second set, McEnroe smashed his racket on the court, breaking it in several places. Two games later he missed a let-cord setup, thought about the error for a few seconds and then slowly turned a somersault.
Nothing seemed to work. By the third set McEnroe had reverted to bickering with the spectators and linesmen. In the opening game, he yelled, "Let me tell you how much fun it is to play in front of you people. At least I'm trying out here." Once he nearly disappeared deep into a corner of the court to seek refuge inside a Volvo partially hidden by potted plants. But the car was locked. "You don't belong on this arena, for Chrissakes!" he bellowed at a service linesman. To another he said, "You're bad, really bad. You're about as bad as I am today." Well, maybe the truth shall set him free.
McEnroe reached break point in the fourth game of the match and then not again until the 24th game. On both occasions Lendl went to his holster for the big flat one to McEnroe's backhand. Boom! Boom! McEnroe barely drew wood on the first and didn't even bother swiping at the second. "Every single time I'm hitting the first serve I'm going for the ace," said Lendl, as if witnesses didn't understand an assassination attempt when they saw one. "I'm glad the match went only three sets. My arm was getting tired."
"The guy played almost incredibly," said McEnroe. "He always had me off balance. He was all over me. And it's not as if Lendl's serve is like Clerc's or Vilas' or anybody's, even mine. My serve is about 30 miles per hour slower than his. In blunt terms, he kicked my ass."
At least Lendl won't have Borg to kick around anymore. Or will he? Just as the Lendl demolition derby was nearing its midpoint, Bob Kain, who handles Borg for the International Management Group, held an impromptu press conference behind a curtain a few yards from the Garden court to translate the global dispatches. Kain explained that approximately everything everybody had heard was true—sort of—except that Borg wasn't going to enter any Grand Slam events this year. He would play only a few more exhibitions—The Bjorn Borg Farewell-Almost Tour—and one more tournament, Monte Carlo. Maybe. And, added Kain, Borg wasn't using the word retire. "Bjorn is very careful with that word," he said.
Does that explain everything? Sure. What's obvious is that, after attempting a comeback with a series of exhibitions this past fall, Borg discovered he wasn't willing to devote the time and work necessary to reach his former status. As for Borg, post-1983, who knows? "Bjorn's an all-or-nothing type of guy," said Kain.
Which is a fairly accurate description of the way the 1982 and '83 Masters champion played last week. In beating America's famous tennis twins, Connors and McEnroe, Lendl dropped but 14 games in five sets. He lost his serve only once in three matches. The Masters also happened to extend Lendl's indoor victory streak to 13 tournaments and 58 matches since October 1981.
"It's very difficult to play a guy who's hitting as hard as he can and not missing anything and all the balls are going in, and he's hitting the lines and the corners all the time," said Lendl of none other than himself. That about covered it.
C'mon Ivan, let's get un-real.