1978 US Open: Jimmy Connors defeats Bjorn Borg
Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison
The swelling began on Saturday night, shortly after Bjorn Borg mastered Vitas Gerulaitis in the semifinal. It grew like a small bubble of pain beneath the callus on the joint of his right thumb. Borg phoned his New York physician late that night and took an oral anti-inflammatory drug. But when he woke up on Sunday morning, the thumb had worsened; the pain increased. When Borg tied to hold a racquet with his customary grip, he found that the pain made it impossible. Once more he called his doctor, who gave the player an injection of Marcaine, a strong anesthetic, at 3:30 in the afternoon, less than three hours before the match.
Borg did not consider defaulting. An international television audience waited. The stadium was sold out. The dim vision of a Grand Slam still flickered before him.
The lights are already on as the men’s final gets underway. It is not quite dark, but it will be soon, and the scoreboard atop the stadium will rear up into the night like a monument to the defiance of Jimmy Connors – American hero, American scapegoat.
It is clear from the start that Borg is not himself. In one of his early servoce games, the racquet flies from his injured hand and clatters along the court. He watches Connors’ winning return with his arms dangling at his sides.
Connors leads the first set 6-4 and leads the second 5-2. It is dark now, Connors is prancing at the baseline, his jaws working over a piece of gum. It is time to throw himself into one final, savage round.
Just moments earlier, resting in his chair during the changeover, Connors had been telling himself,
“Don’t let up in any way. This is how you won in the past, and this is the only way you’re ever going to win? Don’t let up. Set up and 5-2 – hell! This is Bjorn Borg, and he can get back into it at any time. Rip the ball! Don’t let up – rip that fucking ball.”
Connors is still prancing, fixing Borg with a stare as fierce as any volley or smash in his hot, hard world. At the far end of the court, Borg is implacable, his eyes hidden beneath the omnipresent headband. He is too pround to show his pain, too cool to show any emotion, even as he faces Connors’ little dance of death.
The noise from the stands is non longer polite, encouraging applause, but a heavy, rolling din filled with unhealthy mental excitement. It drowns out the thunder of still another jet passing over the stadium. The Swedish boy stands with his weight on one leg and his shoulders slanted, still as Michelangelo’s David. He rubs the grip of his racquet with his fingers.
He knows that look in Connors’ eyes, but he doesn’t want to think about it, because he has won so often and played so well when he ignored things like that. So he just waits, aware of the pain increasing as the anesthtic wears off, sensing that he is about to lose the match and his hope for the Grand Slam. But he is not disturbed by that either, because in the end it is just another tennis match.
The game begins. Both men strike the ball furiously, sending it from corner to corner, line to line, exchanging points until 40-30. The next maniacal rally ends with Connors hitting a forehand just centimeters behind the baseline. He shakes his head violently. It is deuce. The retching sound of his effort fills the stadium, and he hits a service winner for advantage. It is set point. There is a short rally. Borg drives Connors back from the net and then comes forward behind a heavy forehand to the backhand corner. Connors barely manages to float it back; the ball bounces high in the midcourt area but the backhand is mistimed, and Borg bangs the ball into the net.
Connors has the second set. Before long he has the third as well, to win 6-4 6-2 6-2. Borg did not hold a single break pint agasint Connors in the entire match; his opponent put a remarkable 80 percent of his first serves into play. It was a reversal of the Wimbledon final.