McEnroe and Lendl, Roland Garros 84

Extract: Serious by John McEnroe

It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: sometimes it still keeps me up nights.

It’s even tough for me to do the commentary at the French – I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match. Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.

Connors had two Wimbledon titles and five US Opens at that point, but he’d never won the French. Borg had won the French six times, and Wimbledon five but never the US Open. Besides the Masters – which, because of the limited field, was a different kind of test than a regular tournament – Lendl had never won a major. Lendl choked away majors. Everyone knew that.
I had two Wimbledons and three Opens. A French title, followed by my third Wimbledon, would have given me that final, complete thing that I don’t have now – a legitimate claim as possibly the greatest player of all time.
Looking back, I try to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty – otherwise I’d tear out what little hair I have left, and work myself into a tizzy every day of my life, playing that match over and over and over again in my mind. I try not to do that, because? god knows, I’m an intense enough person as it is.

It was meant to be mine – even though the French is on slow red clay, which favors baseliners like Borg and Lendl, even though I’m a serve-and-volley player, and my best surfaces were always grass and hard-court, where my serve came off the ground fast and I had that extra fraction of a second to get to net and punch the volley. On red clay, the ball bites into the surface, and you lose that fraction, even with the fastest serve: the receiver gets extra milliseconds for a passing shot if you come in.
But I was at the top of my game that spring, and my game plan was this: don’t change a thing. Serve and come in. I knew my volley was the best in the business. I knew I couldn’t lose. Peter Fleming was planning a victory party even before the match began.

When I was introduced on Center Court at Stade Roland Garros, I got the greatest hand I’d ever received at the start of a match – a huge roar!

And by the end of the match, in my own inimitable way, I had somehow managed to get the entire crowd against me once again.

I had not only won the first two sets, I was ready to take over the third. Everything was perfect – it was astonishing how well I was playing – and then it happened. An NBC cameraman had taken his headset off, and it was sitting there, squitting, while I was trying to play. […] I know the squawking headset was an innocent technical glitch – it wasn’t as if anybody had said ‘Let’s screw McEnroe up’, but that’s how I took it – and, just like that, my concentration was shot.
I got very angy, because nobody was dealing with the situation. On the changeover, I went over to the headset and screamed into the little mike, ‘Shut the fuck up!’. Then , as I went over to my side, I thought, What the hell am I doing? If you start lashing out when things are going well, you may be letting your opponent think that you’re not as sure of yourself as you seem. […]

I went from two games to love in the third, to losing the set 4-6. But then I was up 4-2 in the fourth, serving a 40-30. And that, to me, is where I really lost the match.

Tony Roche had been coaching Lendl for a while , and they had worked on how to play me. They knew my left-handed slice serve in the ad court was a killer for most right-handers – the guy would be in the stands before he got his racket on it. Even Lendl, as good as he was, couldn’t drive that serve back.
So he and Roche determined that whenever I served wide to his backhand on the ad side, he was jus going to chip it crosscourt. The ball would be sinking, with backspin on it, and I’d have to hit my volley up instead of punching it deep. That let hil stay in the point and try to take back the offense with his big goundstrokes. That was his plan, and I knew it. So I served wide, and sure enough, he chipped crosscourt, and I was right there. My first inclination was to hit a drop- volley and go to the winner, but then I decided, no, no, just play it a little safe, because even though I’m known as someone with pretty good hands, a soft touch, the drop-volley is a low-percentage shot. I decided just to float the volley deep, make him pass me. I went against my gut. And I missed the volley. I pushed it the tiniest bit, and it floated out.

I don’t remember the points after that. It goes in a blur. It’s now eighteen years ago, but I’ve never watched that match once. I can’t bear to. So I can’t tell you the exact details of what happened next. It’s too sickening to me.

[…] Against most other guys, I would have won that French anyway. I have to give Lendl (grudging) credit for being who he was, and for being fit enough to be able to get better as the match progressed. It’s the only match in which I ever felt I was playing up to my capacities and lost.
But he didn’t beat me. I beat myself. Lendl got his first major, and I took his title, Choker-in-chief, away from him.
Temporarily.

Mats Wilander, Roland Garros 1982

By Barry Newcombe, Tennis World, July 1982

The first Sunday in June had become a routine operation for Lennart Bergelin, coach to Bjorn Borg. No-one would rise too early, they would practise for about an hour, and then Bjorn would go off and win the French title at Stade Roland Garros. That happened six times.
Everyone knew it could not happen this year. When the French championships began, Borg was handling the controls of a boat he had rented to sail among the Greek islands rather than a tennis racket, and somehow the 128 contenders left in the hunt for the French title knew that things would not be the same.

There was never really that much speculation about the winner. Ninety percent of the press room would probably have opted for Ivan Lendl to move from the runner-up role he occupied in 1981 into the role of champion. The feeling in the locker room may have been more or less the same.
There were considered to be two other strong contenders – Guillermo Vilas, on the basis that he was a past champion and was playing supremely well, and the top-seeded Jimmy Connors who could perhaps count this year as his last reasonable opportunity of a first win in the French.
But nobody mentioned Mats Wilander of Sweden. He had, after all, been a semi-finalist in Rome on the eve of the French championships and although those of us who had been there knew that his eye was sharp and his game in good order it was stretching credibility to expect him to make the last four in Paris. After all, he was not even seeded.

Yet at the end of two of the hottest weeks I can ever recall at Roland Garros, there was Wilander, 77 days short of his 18th birthday, climbing the stairs at the stadium to receive the trophy from Jean Borotra, now 82 years old, who had done it all 50 years previously.
At his home in Sweden, Bergelin had watched Wilander win the final over Vilas 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4 on television and could not believe it. “It is fantastic”, he would say. “Bjorn does not play and now we have another Swedish player as champion. It is so good for the game in our country. I would say to Mats “Remember the first title is the best.” Bjorn always said that.”

When any analysis of Wilander’s career is made, it is clear that one of the critical days came in the fourth round of the French championship when he faced Lendl. By the time this match had reached two sets all, Wilander knew he had already set up one new mark in his career. He had never played a five-set match in his life and his reaction to that task was to open up a 5-2 lead against leaden-legged Lendl whose forehand let him down in these crucial stages. “I did my best”, said Lendl. “I was practising hard, trying hard, and I was outplayed.”

After Lendl, Wilander played Vitas Gerulaitis, the most consistent of the American players on European clay, but not good enough to hold off the teenager with a target. Gerulaitis went in four sets and Wilander moved on to a semi-final against José-Luis Clerc, the fourth seed, who had struggled in Florence and Rome and appeared to be playing with more assurance.

But Wilander was beginning to create a sense of insecurity among the seeds. He broke Clerc’s serve in the very first game as he hoisted his victory flag and he was never in serious danger of losing this four-set semi-final until the second match point at 6-5 in the first set (he had missed an easier one, in terms of pressure, at 5-1). On the second, a forehand from Clerc was called out and the umpire called the match and left his chair. But Wilander went to the umpire and told him: “The ball was good, that’s not the way I want to win.” Both players agreed that the ball was correct so the umpire, Jacques Dorfmann, who is also the championship referee, caught the mood of the moment and ordered the point replayed. This time Clerc found the net with a backhand and it was firmly settled.

Vilas, meantime, was cruising. Round by round he was being fined $250 for an illegal headband but he was punishing all comers in a supreme display of his strength and ability. He reached the final without losing a set and having conceded 39 games. Surely this iron man who trained so hard would end the one-man assault on the top ten which Wilander had produced.

Another burning hot day was the setting for the final. After an hour, Vilas had won the first set 6-1 and I believe it was the time rather than the score which was significant at that stage. The rallies were long and arduous with 60-stroke exchanges commonplace.
By the time the two players had reached the tie break at the end of the second set, a further 90 minutes had elapsed and Wilander, having saved a set point with a top spin lob, took the tie-break by eight points to six. It was, of course, the first set Vilas had lost in the championships and he never won another.
Wilander, whose full fitness had been hampered by a heavy cold, did not lose a game in the third set which saw him accelerating mentally away from the left-handed Argentine. In the fourth, with cramp nagging at his racket hand, he broke through for 5-4 and served out in champion style for victory in four hours and 43 minutes. Ice-cool, like Borg, he had become the youngest winner in any of the Grand Slam titles.

Jimmy Connors wins his 109th and final professional singles title, defeating n°181-ranked Gilad Bloom 2-6 6-2 6-1 in the final of the ATP Tour event in Tel Aviv.
The 109 professional singles titles for Connors is the most of any male player in tennis history and dates back to 1972 when he wins his first title at London’s Queen’s Club tournament.
Ivan Lendl eventually wins 94 pro singles titles in his career that ends in 1994 for second place on the all-time list, followed by John McEnroe with 77 singles titles.

The only players to win more titles than Connors are Martina Navratilova with 167 singles titles and Chris Evert with 154.

Jimmy Connors, 1991 US Open

Excerpt of Top 100 greatest days in New York City sports by Stuart Miller:

Jimmy Connors won five U.S. Opens on three different surfaces at two different places, yet he’s best remembered for a tournament in which he didn’t even reach the finals. That 1991 performance was the third and final act for Connors, who had won as the brash bully of the 1970s and as the curmudgeonly craftsman of the 1980s. This time Connors, seemingly washed up, transformed himself into a feel-good story for a society built on both a Peter Pan complex and the worship of true grit. This aging inspiration captivated even the most casual sports fans, attaining a new level of celebrity and forging an unforgettable legacy with his classic American blend of tenacity and showmanship.

That tournament, Connors said later, was “the most memorable 11 days of my career. Better than the titles.”

And he gave his growing legion of fans not one but three classic matches.

So which is your favorite? Bet you can’t choose just one.

You could select the first-round comeback against Patrick McEnroe on August 27.

Because it seemed incredible that Connors was even there. His iron man records—109 pro titles, 159 straight weeks at number one, 12 straight Open semifinals, and 16 straight years in the top 10—were in the past. Connors had played and lost three matches in 1990 before submitting to wrist surgery. He’d plummeted to 936th in the world, defaulted at the French Open in 1991 owing to a cranky back—the defining symbol of old age—and lost in the third round of Wimbledon; he was ranked just 174th by Open time and needed a wild-card berth just to gain entrance to his “home court.”

Jimmy-Connors 1991 US Open Tennis

Because he beat a McEnroe. Sure, Patrick, ranked just 35th, lacked the skill and artistic temperament of his famous older brother, but he was an Australian Open semifinalist and had beaten Boris Becker that summer.

Because this was the first time we saw Connors’s vibrant Estusa racket flashing through the night, proclaiming the return of the king.

Because he overcame the greatest deficit of all, dropping the first two sets to the steady McEnroe 6–4, 7–6, then falling behind 0–3 in the third. Connors was limping (an act, perhaps, lulling his prey or laying groundwork for an alibi), and the stadium was emptying, everyone writing Connors off. By the next game there’d be perhaps 6,000 loyalists from the original sellout crowd. According to Joel Drucker’s biography-memoir Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, even Connors’s staunchest supporter, his mother and first teacher Gloria, turned away from the television.

Then, at 0–40, one mistake from oblivion, Connors finally turned it on. And once he did, McEnroe could not finish off tennis’s Rasputin, who drew his lifeblood from the screaming, stomping, bowing fans that remained. Connors held, saved two more break points at 2–3, won five of six games for the third set, then snared the fourth set 6–2 and finished McEnroe off 6–4 in the fifth. The 4-hour-18-minute epic ended at 1:35 a.m. “The crowd won it for me,” Connors said. “The crowd was an awful heavy burden for Patrick.”
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John McEnroe, 1981 US Open champion

From John McEnroe‘s autobiography, Serious:

Borg and I split the first two sets, and he was ahead 4-2 in the third. He had broken me twice, and was serving to go up 5-2, but I hit two great topspin-lob winners over his head in that game, and after the second one I could have sworn I saw the air go out of him.

From there on in, it looked as if Bjorn was doing something I had never seen from him before: throwing in the towel. After having been down 2-4 in the third, I wound up winning that set 6-4 and cruising through the fourth, 6-2. In the last set, it looked to me as though he was barely trying.

“There are times – usually in exhibitions, but sometimes even in big tournaments – when you feel so bad physically or mentally that you’re simply not able to go all-out. It’s a tricky situation. You don’t want to lose by just missing every ball, so you hit a shot and leave a part of the court open.
At that point, your body language clearly says “I’m not going to cover that – just hit it there, it’ll be a winner, and the people will think, “Look, he was too good”. That’s what happened with Sampras when he played Lleyton Hewitt in the final of the 2001 Open: Pete had just run out of gas – he looked as if he had glue on his feet.
And that’s what happened with Borg in 81 – except that it did’t look physical to me.”
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