By the time Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg finish up their series of Great Debates, which continued on a dusty patch of clay in the borough of Queens last Sunday, both should be old enough to require wheelchairs and wise enough to give the game of tennis back to somebody else. This is the only conclusion to be reached following a season in which Connors and Borg divided all the spoils in sight, and inevitably came face to face across the net at the West Side Tennis Club in the finals of the $416,600 U.S. Open. They are magnificently matched adversaries and they thrust and parried each other through four sets of spellbinding tennis.
When Connors defeated Borg 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 over three hours of pace and power, he not only won his second Open in three years but also stopped Borg's run of 19 straight match triumphs which had threatened to eclipse all of Jimbo's own achievements.
Connors is now 6-1 in career matches with Borg, but the kid is getting tougher. "I have a few years left to win this tournament," he said after losing by the margin of a thrilling third-set tie-break, which Connors admitted was "the best I've ever played."
The gap between the two is probably as narrow as that. Connors won all of two games more than Borg, but the official score sheet showed Borg with the edge in points, 123 to 121.
So the race for No. 1 in the world is hardly settled. "I feel I've dominated the game this year," Connors said. "But Bjorn had WCT and Wimbledon so I wanted him here." Ultimately he got Borg by smashing low liners, pinning him in the corners and never permitting him enough time to unleash his topspin artillery with any consistency. The immense effort this required appeared to exhaust Connors in the first set, and he lost the second before he could regain control.
The crisis arrived in the third, after Connors had blown a 4-2, 40-0 lead to let Borg back up for the sixth service break in seven games. They continued through service to the 12-point tie-break, in which Borg had four set points at 6-4, 6-5, 8-7 and 9-8. But as 16,000 spectators sat enthralled by the drama, Borg played it too cozy and Connors crunched for broke, thrice drilling approaches deep enough to set up knock-off volleys. To rescue the fourth set point, Connors shot a forehand bullet down the line that Borg could only stare after.
But Bjorn had his moments. Last February, when he lost the U.S. Pro Indoor to Connors in Philadelphia, he had quit in the third set. Now he has his Wimbledon championship behind him and the confidence to face up to Connors' relentless pounding. He got up from a nasty spill in the third set to work smartly on Connors' faltering forehand. He saved a set point himself in the tie-break before carelessly pushing a backhand wide to lose 11-9. And he made a battle of the fourth set after falling behind 2-4 and 15-40. Though his subpar serving continued to plague him, Borg won two more games and saved two match points in the final moments before it was over.
"He hits 20 or 30 balls back coming at him a million miles an hour," said Connors of Borg. "I can't count him out anymore. It was five seconds after the last point that I realized the match was over."
Connors was asked where Borg had improved. "Everywhere," he said. "I have to play great to beat him. Every time, we kill each other. Those people saw some of the best tennis today they'll ever see."
By the time Connors and Borg came to grips with one another as well as with No. 1, they had become much more than mere finalists in the world's richest tennis tournament. At an event beset by confusion, catcalls, near anarchy and the demoniac Ilie Nastase, Connors and Borg were a pair of exorcists as well, their energetic performances serving to rid the Open of some of its most distasteful moments.