Adriano Panatta, Rome 1978

From Inside Tennis, a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo:

The Italians are aware of the suspicion that surrounds their championships; consequently, the difficult task of keeping a match under control is not always entrusted to native umpires. The Panatta-Higueras confrontation will be chaired by Bertie Bowron, a sixty-nine-year-old Englishman with ruddy cheeks and a head of hair as white as a cloud. Bowron is a chipper, independent fellow who has a mailing address in London and lives in his camper throughout most of the spring and summer. He follows the European tournament trail, welcome at every stop because he is a paladin of the game who accepts only expense money for his services; but his impeccable reputation did not prevent Ion Tiriac from grabbing him by an ear and dragging him around the locker room at the Foro one year because of a misunderstanding during a match.

Great expectations fill the Campo Centrale, for Panatta and Higueras are Davis Cup rivals, and their nations hold that competition in highest esteem. The Spaniard cannot match Panatta’s elegance; his service motion is studied and downright unathletic. he prepares for his forehand with a baroque, looping backswing; overall, his style suggests that he is impersonating a world-class player, but his steadiness and accuracy are uncanny. All Higueras lacks is that vital spark of genius that the deity breathes into the most attractive players.

Panatta is nervous again; the grim expression on his face implies that some battle is raging within him. He wins two points in the first game, but then only four more as Higueras, snapping top-spin balls at the lines and passing deftly, takes a 5-0 lead in the first set. The crowd broods as its hero wins only nine points and no games in the twenty-five-minute first set. As Panatta prepares to serve the first game of the new set, the familiar chant is taken up with mounting enthusiasm.
But Panatta cannot respond. When he hits a forehand too deep to give Higueras the first game, he bounces the racquet on its head twice as if to bang some sense into it. Soon it is 3-0, and the prospect of the Spaniard’s winning three love sets become a possibility. Emboldened by Panatta’s struggles, Higueras begins to push his luck. Although he is not a confident attacking player, he begins to press forward at every opportunity. In some players, aggressive play reflects a failure of nerves leading to a premature desire to end the match. With Higueras, a proficient baseline tactician, eagerness undermines his strength.
Panatta finally gets a game, breaking Higueras for 1-3. But the Spaniard breaks back and holds to take a 5-1 lead, four points from a comfortable margin of two sets to none. Panatta holds his service for 2-5, despite three set points for Higueras, and he brushes aside another pair of set points as he breaks Higueras again. When Panatta holds service at love, Higueras finds his margin reduced to a single game. He leads 5-4, and as he prepares to serve the crucial tenth game, the crowd is humming.
Again Panatta attacks. Higueras chips a backhand pass into the net, and the Campo Centrale erupts. The tumult increases through the next point, as Panatta follows a sliced backhand to the net, and it reaches another climax as Higueras misses the passing shot. Now the Spaniard is chagrined. He accepts two balls to serve, but the clamor will bot subside; shaking his head in disgust, he rolls the balls to the baseline.

“Silenzio” Bowron implores. But the crowd has engaged Higueras, who has been proud enough to stand up to it. Now it provokes and bullies him, accepting no plea and giving no quarter.
“Silenzio, cretini!” Bowron commands. The noise abates as the crowd ponders this insult.

Ultimately Higueras gets to set point again, only to see Panatta’s volley eturn the score to deuce. tHe Italian is playing brilliant tennis under extreme pressure. Higueras strikes a good serve, but a let is called. He shakes his head and questions the call, knowing that there is no hope of reversal. Still, he wins the point with a delicious lob that Panatta hits just wide with a backhand overhead. “Vantaggio Higueras.”

All semblance of restraint vanishes from the Campo Centrale when Higueras squanders yet another set point, his sixth, with a forehand error. Jeers and exhortations cascade onto the court. Again Bowron pleads for silence, but this time “per carita” – for pity.

Panatta gains the advantage when Higueras hits a defensive volley and then makes dismal work of Panatta’s equally tentative lob. Boos and whistles echo in the stadium as Higueras prepares to serve; he finally hurls his racquet to the ground, whirls, and hammers his arm at the galleries. This obscene gesture seals his fate. Within moments, a cola can strikes the clay at Higueras’ feet, and a resounding chant of “Buffone! Buffone! Buffone!” rises over the still pines.

There is nobody lingering over coffee on the charming patio now, nobody strolling by the field courts to sample doubles matches or the women’s semifinals. The awful lust of the crowd rules; the uproar has magnetized the Foro, drawing spectators as if they were steel shavings. Excited youths are perched in the trees and even on the shoulders of the statuary.
In the ensuing mayhem, Panatta’s coach takes it upon himself to seize the public address system and plead for silence. He is jeered off the court. Eventually Higueras is allowed to serve. He fends off the break point when Panatta earns another game point with a fluky forehand that skips off the net cord for a winner.

As Higueras starts his service motion, a one-hundred-lira coin strikes him on the ankle. The Spaniard holds up play to summon the tournament referee, who has been lingering near the sideline, to remove the coin. This further angers the crowd.
Higueras’ game has gone to pieces; blinded by rage, he denigrates the lineage of the entire audience and nets an easy backhand approach shot to surrender the game for 5-all in the second set. Panatta wins the next game at fifteen holds a set point of his own against Higueras’ serve. The first ball Higueras delivers is a fault, but Bowron awards him two serves because of the noise. Higueras wins the next point for deuce. The tumult accompanying his subsequent fault again forces Bowron to award the Spaniard two serves. But this time, the referee steps from the shadows to overrule Bowron.
A moment of discussion between the two officals ends with Bowron announcing, “Grazie”. He waves at the crowd and climbs down from the chair, refusing to brook his violation of the rules, which clearly state that the tournament referee can only intervene at the request of the umpire. Bowron is replaced by a Roman, but there will be no more controversy. With the only man who stood for him gone, Higueras capitulates; his two feeble backhand errors give Panatta the game and the set, whereupon Higueras stalks to the sideline, yanks his jacket from the back of his chair, and quits the court.

There is pandemonium in the passageway beneath the stadium. Tournament officials gesticulate wildly at each other. As Bowron tries to make his way through the tunnel to the clubhouse, Higueras catches up with him. “I want to shake your hand,” the Spaniard says. “I want to thank you because you did the right thing.”

Kjell Johanssen, the number-two Swedish player, is in the locker room when Higueras barges through the door and cries, “I had to quit or else I would have killed somebody!”
Later Johanssen said,

“Higueras is the most honest guy in the world. There’s no way he would act the way he did without the best reason. It’s unbelievable! Panatta lost every match, but he’s in the final!”

He shook his head but he couldn’t deny Panatta his due. “It’s incredible how well that guy can play under pressure, isn’t it?”
Breathless reporters and amazed officials continued the debate in the pressroom. Marty Mulligan of Fila stopped by, as excited as the rest of the company.

“I know Borg only plays here because of his contract with the shoe company, but if this kind of thing happens tomorrow, he won’t come anymore. This tournament may be finished forever.”

1978 US Open

1978 was the first year the US Open was played at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows after having been organized at the West Side Tennis Club venue in Forest Hill since 1915. It was also the first time the tournament was played on hard courts: it was originally played on grass until Forest Hills switched to Har-Tru clay courts in 1975. Jimmy Connors is the only player to have won the US Open on all three surfaces.

Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison:

By late August, summer weighs heavily on the city of New York; each day seems like one long tepid breath drawn until dusk, then exhaled slowly through the night. The US Open is about to begin.

The USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, Queens, has been completed just in time to host the tournament that will henceforth call it home. A boardwalk leads from the subway to the new facility, which is adjacent to Shea Stadium, the sprawling home of the New York Mets and Jets. This boardwalk crosses over a subway yard, where hundreds of cars sit idle, covered with graffiti. The walk is lined with flags: American flags. Over seventy of them, counting those on top of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. There isn’t a foreign standard in sight, because the USTA is bullish on the American role in international tennis.

The Americans leaped on the treadmill of professionalism faster than their international counterparts. As part of its massive attempt to popularize the sport, the USTA abandoned the West Side Tennis Club in nearby Forest Hills, a site redolent of tradition and all the genteel qualities associated with tennis. Although the stadium at Forest Hills held 13,500, the USTA deemed it to small. The hordes that descended on the 10.5 acres of the West Side Tennis Club created impossibly crowded conditions. Besides, parking facilities were inadequate, and this meant a great deal to some people. When the club rejected expansion proposals in 1977, USTA president Slew Hester decided to move the tournament to a newer, bigger home.

Louis Armstrong Stadium, the centerpiece of the National Tennis Center, is a bowl of epic proportions; its sheer sides give over 20,000 spectators a dizzying view of the main court. But the finest court at the site is in the grandstand, which nestles against one side of the stadium in much the same way that the Number One Court nestles against the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Sunken about ten feet below ground level, the court is surrounded on three sides by seats for about 6,000 spectators, who lean in over the players like aficionados around a bullring.
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1978 US Open champion Chris Evert

Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison

The women’s final is played first, in bright sunshine. Shriver shows no sign of nervousness; although she is broken early in the first set, she hangs on and reaches 3-4. In the next game, when she hits a desperate backhand volley at full stretch at 30-all, her opponent is set up for an easy forehand pass off the high bounce. But Evert‘s stroke is tight, and the ball falls into the net. Shriver has break point. It goes to deuce, then break point again. Twice, three times, four times, five – Evert is nervous, but Shriver is incapable of ending the game. It goes on to three more deuces, and this time it is Shriver who ignoes the advantage points her opponent holds. The last deuce is reached with a portentous double fault. Evert is beginning to buckle under the strain of the long game. An overhead winner gives Shriver break point again. Evert serves; Shriver returns a backhand slice to her forehand corner. At the decisive moment, Evert decides to lob instead of pass down Shriver’s backhand line, but she scoops the ball up short, and Shriver drills it into the opposite corner. She has broken back to even the match 4-4 after a game that contained twenty points.

Shriver has been capitalizing on Evert’s lack of speed. As long as she can control the pace of the match by ending points quickly, she is in good shape. When she lapses, Evert forces her to deuce before the younger girl holds for 5-4. Then Evert holds her own service at love.
In the next game, Shriver is at the point where she can smelle it. The scent makes her nervous. She loses the first point but hits a service winner for 15-all. She attacks again during the next point, but indecisive lobs answered with tentative overheads result in Shriver putting a crosscourt backhand wide. She cuts her next volley too fine, and Evert has two break points at 15-40. She loses one to a fine, deep serve on the backhand side, but gets the break when Shriver puts her first volley of the 30-40 point into the net. It is the classic error of an overeager hand, to which even the most seasoned players succumb now and then. Evert holds the next game easily to take the set 7-5.

A break in the long ninth game of the second set gives Evert the championship, 7-5 6-4. It is her fourth consecutive US Open title.

Evert and Shriver met the press together. Pam looked fresh as a rose, while Chris seemed haggard. Shriver admitted that things had changed for her with the Navratilova match. When she went out to buy a newspaper that morning, people on the street recognized her and wished her good luck. She felt she played well, despite feeling rushed.
In retrospect, she would have tied to slow down the pace of the match without prolonging the actual points.

“It all seemed to go by too quickly,” Shriver said.

Evert felt vindicated. She had won the tournament even though it was no longer on clay. She had also driven a wedge into Navratilova‘s grip on the number-one ranking, and the year was not over yet. The major title had been captured. She was proud of the intensity with which she responded to big points and the match in general. It proved that the competitive spirit was still there.

Later was I saw her in the lounge, she said:
“I know I’ve played better finals. It would have been a lot easier to play Pam in the second round. But I really needed this for my confidence, because it’s been a real struggle with little help from anyone since Wimbledon. When I first played Tracy there last year, I felt like crawling into a hole before the match. I mean, I had everyting to lose. It was like that his time, too, but I felt less uptight, and that was nice.”

Shriver had been adopted as the darling of the crowd. Evert had seen this happen too often to complain, but there was one thing she felt she had to clear up.

“If I was a normal schoolgirl or a housewife or something like that, I’d probably go for the underdog, too. But I know what it’s like for the winners. I know what real pressure is. Now I always find myself rooting for winners, because I know how tough it is to be one.”

Virginia Ruzici

From Inside Tennis, a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo

The women’s final is played in the late afternoon. For Mima Jausovec, her match with Virginia Ruzici feels anticlimatic, especially after the stirring ceremony during which she beamed and bounced out to take her rightful place among the former champions (a parade of champions took place before the final). She is plagued by a sluggishness of spirit as she struggles to find form before an almost disinterested crowd, with one of her best friends playing the match of her life across the net.

Ruzici is pounding her extraordinary forehand all over the court, swarming over the ball with her aggressive, spidery style. Jausovec, who is only five foot three and weighs 120 pounds, is hard pressed to stay in the rallies. The pace prevents her from setting up for her shots properly. Both women have primarily forehand players, but Ruzici is more successful in keeping the ball on her opponent’s backhand side.

Ruzici takes the first set 6-2, and breaks Jausovec for a 2-1 lead in the second. She serves the first point of the next game and hits a forehand that seems clearly out during the rally. But there is no call, and Jausovec distractly drives the next ball into the net. She turns around and looks at the lineswoman, who returns her stare with impenetrable eyes. Jausovec looks at Ruzici, but if her friend has any feeling about the ball, she keeps them to herself. Jausovec just shrugs and walks to the baseline to receive service. The match is all but over. The contested point and Ruzici’s failure to respond to her inquiry have left Jausovec hurt and bewildered. It is unlike Mima to quit, but she cannot challenge Ruzici. She loses 6-2 6-2.

When it was over, I hurried downstairs to catch the contestants. Jausovec had already gone up to the locker room, but Ruzici had just come off the court, bearing an armload of yellow roses. Her eyes were wide with joy, and her words poured forth like :

“I have lost to Mima all the time before. This now makes me feel very, very good. I can’t believe it! I have won Roland Garros. It is too much for me” she cried.

I felt compelled to ask about the incident that seemed to have had so signifiant an impact on Jausovec’s spirit. All Ruzici had to do was acknowledge her friend, even if she did not agree with her. Instead, she had just lowered her eyes and moved to the other side of the court to serve the next point.
Ruzici’s answer rang with anxiety and conviction.

“I couldn’t give her that ball. I was on the other side. It was impossible to tell about that ball! In a final like this, you have to forget about friendship. A point like that, you cannot give it away. It is the one I could have lost the whole match with in the end, if I gave it away.”

Without a doubt one of the biggest upsets in the US Open history.

Extract from Sampras‘ autobiography A champion’s mind:

“Right before the 1994 Wimbledon, I got out of my Sergio Tacchini contract and signed a new clothing and shoe deal, with Nike. Wimbledon was my first official tournament for my new brand, and I was pretty fired up about being with the US-based giant. The color of the money might have been the same in Italy as Oregon, but having your big endorsement deals with companies in your native land is always preferable; it’s just a much more natural connection that can be exploited more effectively for everyone’s benefit.
Nike had developed a nice, classic clothing line for me, along with a shoe that was part of the massive new Air campaign that would prove to be such an enormous hit. Unfortunately, the shoe didn’t agree with my foot, and by the time I left Wimbledon my right foot was hurting and swollen. I went to a doctor and had an MRI, and was subsequently diagnosed with posterior tibial tendinitis.

I was scheduled to play Washington, but had to withdraw. I also pulled out of Montreal and Cincinnati; my summer preparation for the US Open was shot and Nike was scrambling around to find me a shoe I could wear for the American Grand Slam.

I survived three matches at the Open, but my fourth-round opponent was the crafty, slightly built Peruvian Jaime Yzaga. A player with nice touch and nimble feet, Yzaga moved me around, made shots when he most needed them. He found a way to break me enough times on a hot, humid afternoon to drag me into a fifth set.

I was in poor condition and had very little left in the tank, but remembering the pact I’d made with myself, I fought like mad. The New York crowd was firmly behind me, and they really appreciated the lengths to which I went to try and stay in the match. But woozy and clearly on my last legs, I lost, 7-5 in the fifth. The struggle was of such high quality that it captivated many, and by the time it was over, chaos more or less reigned . Jaime and I had turned in the most riveting match of the tournament, providing many with an unforgettable moment.

As soon as the match ended, tournament officials hustled me into the referee’s office, which was alongside the short tunnel through which players entered Louis Armstrong stadium. Attendants there stripped me and hooked up the IV bags. […]
When the IV kicked in for me, the first thing I saw was the familiar face of Vitas Gerulaitis. Seeing the kind of shape I was in, Vitas had rushed down from the commentary booth as soon as the last ball was hit. He volunteered to go over to the locker rooms to get my clothes and incidentals. When he returned, Vitas waited until I was sufficiently recovered to dress, and the he helped me out of the place, carrying my racket bag.
[…]
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last I would see of my friend Vitas. He died in a tragic accident just weeks later, succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in the pool house on a friend’s estate in the glitzy Hamptons on New York’s Long Island.”