The U.S. Open turned out to be the New York Closed. After nearly two weeks of moaning and groaning and complaining and defaulting that both dominated and diminished American tennis' premier event, it was hardly astonishing that a tough New Yorker named John McEnroe was still left last Sunday evening stomping and yapping and punching the lights out of another New Yorker named Vitas Gerulaitis.
Bjorn Borg long since had shown he couldn't handle the local night life, and defending champion Jimmy Connors had been sent back to fatherhood when the 20-year-old McEnroe, from nearby Douglaston, Queens, took the 25-year-old Gerulaitis, from nearby Howard Beach, Queens, and positively nailed him to the green floor of Flushing Meadow by the not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.
By winning the championship of his neighborhood, city, county, state and nation, the kid they call Junior became the youngest male Open winner since Pancho Gonzales in 1948 and—more shocking—picked up some applause along the way.
"It isn't every day that two players who live 10 minutes from the Open reach the final," McEnroe had said. "New Yorkers should appreciate this. It may never happen again."
That may be too soon for those denizens of Gotham who hooted and jeered both native sons for much of the two weeks preceding the final. "They hate us," Gerulaitis said. "Popularity-wise, I'm a notch above John, and John is a notch above Son of Sam."
McEnroe was several lengths ahead of his rival in their confrontation to determine bragging rights in the borough. Slugging some monstrous, hooking deliveries that seemed to take one bounce and make an immediate turn down the Van Wyck Expressway, McEnroe easily held his service games, which gave him the confidence to hit out and deploy the full array of his unparalleled shot selection whenever Gerulaitis was serving.
Wristy slices. Sledgehammer returns. An occasional tricky drop shot. A lot of those familiar stiletto-like thrusts off both wings from the net position. McEnroe threw all of his arsenal at the speedy Gerulaitis in an overwhelming display. He broke through the G-Man's serve early in each act: the third game of Set 1, the fifth of Set 2, the second of Set 3. While scoring only 21 points during McEnroe's 15 service games, Gerulaitis was able to break only in the 10th game of the match, when he tied Set 1 at 5—all. But he double-faulted twice in the next game and popped up a volley to lose his serve, following which McEnroe drilled a love game to polish off the set.
McEnroe won five service games at love, four others at 15. Meanwhile, he kept pressing Gerulaitis' shaky offerings and piling up break points. Junior converted five of those, but he failed on no less than 10 others, a clear manifestation of his domination.
"This is the best feeling I ever had [pause for scribes to laugh] in tennis. I volleyed well in the clutch," McEnroe said shortly after hurling his racket some 25 feet high into the sooty Queens night and thereby setting up the only true drama of the evening: would the maniac fan who grabbed the racket off the court be able to steal away before a special clobbered him?
Indeed McEnroe was brilliant at the net as he won his third major championship of the season, the Masters and WCT titles being the others. Earlier, upon the exit of Borg, Gerulaitis had said, "We're all just moving up and jockeying for position. Borg's still in another league." But, after just two years on the circuit, McEnroe is already the game's finest player off the volley and overhead.