Primarily because he has a sprinter's ability to rush the net and jam his Irish mug on the tape before an opponent is able to say "Scat, Brat," McEnroe is no longer just another uppity kid. And particularly because he won the U.S. Open when all others were succumbing to the evils of the New York Closed, Junior has reached that other league.
It should have been obvious all along that if anybody was going to beat the heat, the humidity and the pollution it would have to be a native who knew the territory. That meant either McEnroe or Gerulaitis. And that meant McEnroe, simply because when these two players have faced off, he's owned Gerulaitis.
"Drinking buddies?" said Junior. "Vitas doesn't drink. Oh, he lets me practice over at his house. But we aren't very alike, or close. Studio 54 is Gerulaitis' place. I'm a McDonald's guy."
What they both turned out to be were the lone survivors of the most confused and chaotic national championship in memory. This was the second year of the Open at the USTA National Tennis Center, but the first in which the men played a best three-of-five-set format throughout. The center's brutally testing, rubberized-acrylic surface is known officially as DecoTurf II but it mostly resembles Runway No. 9, which is fair enough because of the squadron of deafening jets roaring overhead on their takeoffs from and approaches to nearby LaGuardia Airport.
While cramps and heatstrokes were knocking off half the draw, ridiculous scheduling was taking out the other half. This U.S. Open included 12 defaults in men's and women's singles. In addition, there were spectators fighting and running on the court; umpires bickering and harassing one another; players griping about playing at night, and swearing and fainting.
Surely the most pitiable victim of the night moves was Borg, whose grand vision of winning a Grand Slam vanished at Flushing Meadow for the second straight year. This time he was beaten by Roscoe Tanner, whose bullet serves shot Borg away, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6.
For months Lennart Bergelin, Borg's coach, had been harping about the USTA's scheduling of matches at night. "Is not tennis. Is not tennis. Cannot see at night," Bergelin kept telling everybody, including his ever-alert pupil. Though Bergelin was and is right, such verbosity ignored the reality of two-session gates and was hardly the proper preparation for Borg, whose game is rooted in confidence, positive attitude and security of mind.
"Bergelin psyched out his own guy," Peter Fleming, McEnroe's doubles partner, said upon learning of the Borg-Tanner matchup. "Bjorn will be negative. I guarantee he'll be out of this tournament."
He was just that. Tanner blasted away—11 aces plus 17 other service winners—broke Borg five times and, shortly before the end, actually broke the net itself with two bombs, one a let, the other a fault. At one point, Borg complained to Bergelin in their native tongue, speaking of his opponent's vicious service: "I cannot read it. I just don't know." Deep into the lost, weeping night, only the Shadow knew.
The same could be said of the first two sets of the glorious Tanner-Gerulaitis semifinal, which Tanner won 6-3, 6-2. Besides his dynamite deliveries, Tanner was hitting out with authority from both sides, taking batting practice against Gerulaitis' weak second serves. On the final point of the second set Tanner sent Vitas scrambling into the sideline geraniums, where, the prevailing feeling held, Gerulaitis would be wise to remain rather than return to a faceful of Wilsons.