If the strange and tenuous relationship between the Grand Prix Masters tournament and the sport of tennis appears to be a bull-matador kind of friendship, it's probably because although the Masters always knows it will get it square in the neck, it never knows just when. The day is coming when none of the eight best players in the world eligible for the year-end showdown will bother to show up. Nos. 1 and 2 will default because they're tired. Nos. 3 and 4 will default because they're overly rested. Nos. 5 and 6 will develop cramps on the way to the bank. No. 7 will develop cramps on the way back from the bank. And No. 8 will run away to join the Moonies. Forever yours, Masters. R.I.P.
While none of this happened in and around Madison Square Garden last week, a few political shenanigans combined with a blister to make this year's Masters worthy of its bizarre predecessors. At the same time, history may view last Thursday night in an entirely different light, that being the evening on which 19-year-old John McEnroe defeated 26-year-old Jimmy Connors for the first time and, more important, that being the same evening on which the two of them—hard-boiled, lefthanded, mean-streaked alike—got a real hate on for each other.
The evidence that McEnroe, from just across the Triborough Bridge in Douglaston, Queens, had dominated his homecoming tournament was hardly noticeable in the finals on Sunday, when for a while it seemed as if he had gift-wrapped the championship and its $100,000 first prize and handed it to Arthur Ashe, of all people.
Ashe had been brutally whipsawed by McEnroe in the preliminary round robin 6-3, 6-1, when the youngster made just one unforced error. But came the showdown, and McEnroe not only double-faulted away the first set three times on set point, but he also scattered his deliveries and normally penetrating volleys into the back alleys of Manhattan.
The calm and crafty Ashe led 4-1 in the third set before McEnroe righted his erratic strokes to break back in the seventh game, to fight off two match points in the 10th, to break again with a dazzling backhand drive in the 11th, and to serve out the match 6-7, 6-3, 7-5. "If you had seen my match with Arthur the other night, you know this was tougher," McEnroe told the crowd. "I just hoped he wouldn't prove what a great player he was today."
Having concluded a literally phenomenal year in which he had lifted himself from the graveyard of rankings (257th to 13th), Ashe had proved that, of course. McEnroe had simply proved that he was even better.
Moreover, until Ashe's valiant performance, the tournament itself had suffered from a certain ennui because of the outcome of the round-robin match between McEnroe and Connors, in which the new champion was leading the old one 7-5, 3-0, when Connors retired because of a huge blister that was hemorrhaging just below the large toe of his left foot.
"What happens if I default now?" Connors had asked Umpire Frank Hammond at 5-all in the first set.
"You're out of the tournament, Jimmy," Hammond said.
So Connors played on. But he lost the next two games to lose the set and then the next three before the tournament physician, Dr. Norman Rudy, inspected the foot and asked Connors how it felt. "It hurts like hell," Jimbo said.