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Whether or not the sport of tennis found its heart or lost its soul in New York City last week is a question that the Colgate Grand Prix Masters tournament can take up just as soon as Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas finish beating up on one another. Or defaulting to somebody else to avoid beating up on one another. For the time being, who's No. 1? How about Bess Myerson?
When Connors defeated Borg 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 in as thrilling a match as Madison Square Garden had witnessed since, well, 72 hours earlier when Vilas whipped Connors, all it did was reinforce the notion that these three young men, who are head and racket handle above everyone else in the game, are separated from each other by only the barest of psychological threads.
It may be that for Vilas to climb to the top he needs six more months under the glowering tutelage of Ion Tiriac, who has shown him how to outthink Connors but has been unable to convince him of the vulnerability of Borg. This will be especially difficult now that the Swede has defeated Vilas for the 12th time in their 16 meetings, most recently in the Masters semifinals, 6-3, 6-3.
On the other hand, while Borg dominates his once-close amigo from the Argentine, the pair's mysterious ailments and shameless disregard for the ticket-buying public during the tournament's preliminary round robin demonstrated that neither man (or for that matter, neither of their coaches, Lennart Bergelin and Tiriac, who are the suspected culprits) is prepared to deal with these showdowns without resorting to some connivance, be it a sore ankle, a fever or anything else they can come up with on the spur of the moment. In chronological order, to recover from Connors and to get ready for him, Vilas and Borg, undefeated and having already qualified for Saturday's semifinals, defaulted their third-round matches (Vilas to rest a "strained tendon," Borg to recover from "severe flu") but were allowed to continue in the tournament, presumably because there was no rule against it. All that this medical buffoonery (sing, "I can do anything sicker than you can; I can get sicker, much sicker than you") did was disgrace the sport and—irony of ironies—turn Connors into a white knight. Or, as the Masters sponsor might prefer, the Ultra Brite Knight.
"It's good to see somebody else on the barbecue pit," said Connors, who leads the world in defaults with four in 1977, 13 in the last four years.
And that was not Jimbo's final comment on Borg and Vilas, either. Before his match with Brian Gottfried in the other semifinal, Connors arrived on the court hobbling on a crutch, which engendered loads of hilarity in everybody but Gottfried, who lost a tense 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 struggle.
In the final on Sunday, it appeared as if Borg would need at least a crutch, if not a whip and chair, to stop an aroused Connors. "I wanted to come out creaming everything," said Jimbo. Connors was devastating in the first set, breaking service in the third game as well as strings on two different rackets as he won 6-4. By then, however, Borg's penetrating first serves were beginning to take effect, and he began to vary his speed and depth of shot, working on Connors' forehand to break serve three times and grab the second set by 6-1. Despite the lopsided score, Borg lamented, "I don't feel 100% O.K. in my head, you know?"
Nonetheless, he went quickly ahead in the final set with an early break and held serve for a 3-1 lead. Then he faltered. Connors broke back to even the deciding set at 3—all with a lunging forehand volley and then a net-cord winner. "It was big point, for sure," said Borg. "Jimmy so tough unless you stay ahead. After that, I feel very strange."
After that, Borg's first serve deserted him—he missed 27 of 42 in the last set—and he had to fight off three break points in the eighth game. By the time Borg served in the 10th at 4-5, 15-0, both men had won 40 points in the set. But Connors was still hitting some amazing rockets and Borg was not. Jimbo had a few more left: a forehand down the line, a backhand stab drop volley, a cross-court forehand, another volley. It was over.
"That's the best I can play," Connors said afterward. "Who's No. 1? It looks like we'll have to go out and do it all over again, doesn't it?"