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Blistering anticlimax
Curry Kirkpatrick
January 22, 1979
Young John McEnroe outlasted Arthur Ashe to win the Masters after Jimmy Connors retired with a blistered toe
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January 22, 1979

Blistering Anticlimax

Young John McEnroe outlasted Arthur Ashe to win the Masters after Jimmy Connors retired with a blistered toe

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McEnroe didn't need to be reminded that he was 0-4 lifetime vs. Connors. He also didn't need to be told that those matches came before he ravaged the tennis world this autumn and winter, winning four tournaments, embarrassing Borg on his home ground and bringing the Davis Cup home to America.

"John's most important weapon is his slice serve," said Brian Gottfried. "Against Jimmy, that comes right into his strength, the lefthanded forehand."

Which is why McEnroe's victory over Connors on the tournament's second night was far more decisive than it seemed. First of all, about the injury. Even before Connors began limping noticeably late in the first set, McEnroe was more than holding his own. Second, McEnroe served badly throughout the match; he did not win because of his blistering spin deliveries combined with alternately searing and feathery volleys, the way he usually does. McEnroe beat Connors in spite of his off-form service.

In three different service games in the first set, in fact, McEnroe started off with a double fault. He had seven doubles in the eight service games. Nevertheless, he fought off three separate break points in two games and never permitted Connors to break through his serve.

Conversely, in the 12th and deciding game of the first set—game point for Connors to hold serve and tie the set—McEnroe answered a ferocious Jimbo overhead by using his wondrously quick reflexes to slingshot a backhand from the middle of the court past Connors' forehand wing. Jimbo then drove two of his own backhands out of bounds—the first long down the line, the second wide cross-court—to lose the set.

"I hung in there. Even when he pressured me and I could have been broken, I hung in," McEnroe said afterward.

The next day McEnroe said he never would have walked off the way Connors did. "It didn't make me feel great that he didn't finish," McEnroe said. "You should give a guy the satisfaction of beating you. If you're a competitor, if you want to play the game for a long time, you shouldn't do those things.

"This doesn't diminish my respect for him as a player," McEnroe said of Connors. "But he's the type who needs to be mentally ready, charged up. If he's not that way, he's not as good."

For his part, Connors at first admitted that he took too long a layoff and that his "feet were too soft"—his last tournament was in early December. A day later Jimbo started snapping back. "I don't need to fake an injury against McEnroe," he said. "...against anybody. I've never done anything like that in my life. What is he, Superman?"

Asked if McEnroe was good enough to be No. 1, Connors said, "Not as long as I'm playing. Maybe he will be when I retire."

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