If the tennis had been half as enthralling as the myriad reports from around the globe concerning the late, great Bjorn Borg, the Grand Prix Masters in New York might have been quite a tournament. According to the last dispatch on Sunday, which was datelined Bangkok, Borg, who is all of 26, will retire from the game and jump to the USFL. Or fight Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Or do something equally astounding. If this seems a trifle outrageous, how about the allegation that Ivan Lendl can't win the big ones? True, he has yet to win one of the Big Three (the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), but under a roof he's nails. In 1982 Lendl won both major indoor titles—the Masters and the WCT Finals in Dallas—and with his 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 victory over John McEnroe on Sunday he joined Borg and Ilie Nastase as the only players to win the Masters in consecutive years.
The press has often censured Lendl for his lack of charisma and his dour, bullying manner—Nora McCabe of the Toronto Globe and Mail described him in her Masters copy as "the salivating Doberman pinscher"—but, in fact, it was left to Ivan to put some bite into the Masters. Forget for a moment his defeat of McEnroe, an exercise that has now become as routine as the loser's pouting and squawking. Lendl's seventh straight win over Mac—the score is 19-1 in sets—proved once again that his power and length are too much for the lefthanded finesse artist to handle. What Lendl did on Saturday in the semifinals against Jimmy Connors shall be remembered much longer. Over a stretch of approximately 10 minutes, while winning 12 straight points with an electrifying display both on serve and off the ground, Lendl not only blew the defending Wimbledon and U.S. champion off the court but also stirred veteran observers' memories for comparisons. The one most often cited was Ellsworth Vines slashing his way to the 1932 Wimbledon title with a 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 romp over Henry Austin.
Lendl's astonishing salvo came just in time because the entire tournament had heretofore been one dull Doberman. Possibly that was because of the rumors, or maybe New York's preoccupation with its beloved Jets, or even the perpetual interruptions from the Madison Square Garden P.A. announcer, who kept informing everybody of the presence at courtside of LeRoy Neiman: "We are pleased to have with us...welcome if you will ladies and gentlemen...the foremost number-one sports artist in the world today...capturing the Masters as only he can...." And then LeRoy, obviously beside himself with humility, would tear himself away from capturing the Masters as only he can, put down his brushes, check his wallet and wave to his friends, fans and/or prospective customers, who were attempting to figure out who the foremost runnerup sports artist might be. Whatever the reason, this Masters seemed to lack anything vaguely resembling excitement until Lendl started launching his rockets.
Rudely stung in the past by the players' manipulation of the double-elimination format, the tournament organizers increased the field from eight to 12 and made the Masters a straight knockout event. Under the old format, questionable injuries, defaults and tank jobs had plagued the event, and Lendl was a prime offender. In 1980 he blatantly threw a match to Connors to avoid facing Borg in the semifinals. On that occasion Jimbo called Ivan chicken. But what the format change did mostly was ensure the participation of some real, live turkeys—in particular, clay-court aficionados like Jose Higueras and Andres Gomez, who felt about as comfortable on the Garden's synthetic Supreme Court as they would on a high wire above it. Higueras doesn't even bother playing Wimbledon or Flushing Meadow. Jose, can't you see?
Then there were the three Masters rookies who were were struck by a case of Gardenitis. Mats Wilander took one look at the famous arena and said, "This place makes a difference. We have one at home that's big but not like this." Steve Denton had to be flustered when a black cat crossed the court during a key break of his service. (Where is Martina Navratilova when we need her?) And Yannick Noah admitted that he was "pretty scared" minutes after falling splat on his face on a match point.
Meanwhile, Connors and Lendl spent most of the week answering questions concerning Borg's supposed retirement; their first matches weren't until Friday. Because both players are slow starters, preferring to work their way gradually into the rhythm of a tournament, both were out of sorts. "The round robin stunk," said Connors. "That was proved. But this showing up just to wait around is plain stupid."
As for Borg, early in the week it was reported that Fila and Diadora, his clothing and shoe sponsors, respectively, were canceling contracts with him because of his imminent retirement. That story came out of Kitzbühel and Rome. Next it was reported that Borg had withdrawn from Grand Prix events in Brussels, Rotterdam and Milan and had petitioned the Men's International Professional Tennis Council for a "limited commitment" to tournaments. That came out of London. Then it was learned that Borg said never mind, only kidding, he was not retiring and still wanted to win Bangkok and the U.S. Open. Bangkok! That came out of Bangkok from Sugar Ray Bjorn himself, who, for all anybody knew, may have been in Thailand rehearsing to take over for Yul Brynner in the road company of The King and I.
Come Friday, formerly Tank Day, and who should be waiting for Connors but Johan Kriek, old Deep Tank himself, who at least is man enough to admit when he's dumping, which happens to be quite frequently. Conversely, a Kriek who tries is one of the game's most dazzling players and maybe the quickest as well. On this night Kriek provided the only suspense of the quarterfinals by zoning to a 4-1 double-break advantage in the first set before Connors slowed the pace, forced Kriek into long rallies and caught up. Still, Kriek saved 10 set points before succumbing 7-5 in a tiebreaker. Alas, Kriek appeared to hail a taxi early in the second set, which he lost 6-2.
A rather subdued McEnroe—if one can call screaming at the crowd to "act like human beings" subdued—used his first two Masters matches as a tune-up for the upcoming U.S.-Argentina Davis Cup tie by carving out victories over Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc. McEnroe's semifinal meeting with Vilas, whom he calls Willie, was merely a continuation of their recent "Tennis Over America" exhibition tour. Only this encounter wasn't accompanied by rock music, light shows and smoke bombs. Once when Vilas hit a glorious passing shot, Johnny Mac screamed, "C'mon Willie, let's get real!" confirming the suspicion that McEnroe has been hanging around the Valley too much with Moon Unit Zappa. But mostly Willie was impatient and strayed too often into net, where he was duck soup. Final score: 6-3, 6-3.
All of this routine stuff did nothing to prepare the Masters for the thunder that bolted off Lendl's strings in his showdown with Connors. Jimbo had won eight of their nine tournament matches, including last September's U.S. Open final, but this time Lendl wasn't intimidated. Said Connors after losing, "When the guy just throws it up and whacks it and it goes in, he's too tough. You have to get the ball in play to stay on even ground."