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There is nothing—not a sleigh ride, not a bowl of homemade ice cream, not Leave It to Beaver—that makes one long for the old days more than a modern professional tennis tournament. Tennis has become a game dominated by men-children who strut and fret their hour upon the stage, full of sound, all right, and occasionally fury, signifying, well...what does a year-end $300,000 bonus to Eddie Dibbs, winner of four tournaments out of 27 entered in 1978, signify to you?
The old days may be gone, but Arthur Ashe, thank God, is not, and neither is his tennis game. The 35-year-old Ashe served due notice of that last week in the U.S. Pro Indoor Championships against what in all likelihood will be the third-strongest field of the entire year, after Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Sixteen of the top 22 players in the world were in Philadelphia, and the only really big name missing was Bjorn Borg, who makes his 1979 debut this week in Richmond. Which meant that there were few easy picks. En route to the finals, Ashe had to upset the likes of sixth-seeded Brian Gottfried, fourth-seeded Vitas Gerulaitis and second-seeded Guillermo Vilas. Waiting for him was defending champion Jimmy Connors, crown prince of the strutters and fretters. The two had not met in a tournament of consequence since 1975 at Wimbledon, when Ashe triumphed by throwing Connors an array of off-speed junk that would have made Luis Tiant proud.
But Connors' game has matured since then, and what little junk Ashe could muster on Sunday was turned against him. Connors defeated the veteran in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, collecting the $40,000 winner's share and his third U.S. Pro Indoor title in the last four years. Ashe tried five drop shots during the match, and Connors converted all five into winners—as well as nearly everything else Ashe threw at him. To be fair, Ashe's undoing was as much a result of his grueling five-set win over Gerulaitis in the semis as it was of Connors' deftness. "My body felt as if somebody beat it with a stick," Ashe said afterward.
He was a step behind Connors' ground strokes all afternoon, and time after time faulty footwork caused him to make numerous unforced errors. "You can only play as well as the other guy lets you play," he said. "Jimmy hits the ball in a straight line. Everybody else hits it in a parabola, which gives you an extra second to get there."
Once again it was Connors' service return—the best in the game—that was especially devastating. He has moved in a step and feels he is returning better now than when he won the U.S. Open in September. Against Ashe he hit 15 outright winners off the serve. Ashe hit only one off Connors.
Connors' route to the finals was something of a strut down the yellow brick road. No fret, no sweat. His first two victims—Van Winitsky (6-4, 6-3) and Eric van Dillen (6-1, 6-1)—didn't even qualify for the tournament. They were what is known as "lucky losers"—alternates who wait around at the start of a tournament to replace any qualifiers who drop out for one reason or another. Connors finally had some opposition in his third match, defeating 15th-seeded Wojtek Fibak of Poland 6-4, 7-6. The match was close only because Connors consistently sprayed unforced forehand errors into the net while keeping one eye on the acrobatic Gerulaitis-Johan Kriek match on the next court, one eye on Fibak and his mind on a heckler in the stands. "I wanted to tell the heckler a few things," he said afterward, "then I wanted to watch the other match. I didn't even want to play mine."
Connors wasn't alone. In fact, nearly everyone complained of the distractions. The tournament is held in the Spectrum, and up until the semifinals the matches are played simultaneously on two courts set 12 feet apart. Balls bounce indiscriminately from one to the other. "Let" calls made on Court 1 are adhered to on Court 2. Connors went so far as to admit that the carnival atmosphere gave him an advantage over the field, because he was "flaky" anyway.
But it wasn't supposed to be so easy. After crushing Geoff Masters of Australia 6-3, 6-3 in the quarterfinals, Jimbo was expected to meet the new kid on the block, John McEnroe. It was the match people had been awaiting for weeks, or since Jan. 11, when Connors was forced to default to McEnroe because of a blistered toe when trailing by a set and a break in the Masters in Madison Square Garden.
Connors publicly pooh-poohed any special desire to give McEnroe his comeuppance, but, in fact, he was miffed at several of McEnroe's statements questioning the professionalism of defaulting with no more than a blistered toe. Incidentally, that selfsame toe, cushioned by two layers of socks and a coating of foot powder, was fresh from a victory in Birmingham. For his part, McEnroe was looking forward to meeting Connors, mainly because he was certain he would win.
But something happened. McEnroe has been the world's greatest tennis player the past three months, but in the quarterfinals he faced a southpaw he soon began to wish hadn't come to the party—Roscoe Tanner, he of the howitzer serves. McEnroe lost 7-6, 6-2. Going back to the U.S. Open, McEnroe had won five singles tournaments, a doubles tournament and two Davis Cup matches. But in Philadelphia, Tanner had a streak of his own going; he had held every service after the first game of his first match, a span of 60 games. The string wasn't broken by McEnroe. Tanner hit 20 outright winners off his serve and countless others that provided easy putaways.