Bjorn Borg's effort to become the first man in 42 years to win a third successive men's singles title at Wimbledon nearly came to an abrupt end yesterday in the first round of the world's premier tennis championships.
On a day the breeze had a Siberian bite and intermittent drizzle curtailed the bulk of the opening-day program at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Borg's championship instincts surfaced at his most perilous moments, allowing him to escape the clutches of massive, determined Victor Amaya, 8-9, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Only 19 matches were completed, and there was one distinguished casulty, No. 10 seed Dick Stockton, a semifinalist here in 1974 and at the French Open three weeks ago. Tight and off-form in the damp, chill wind that did little for his chronic bad back, Stockton was routed by John Marks, the 18th-ranked player of Australia, 6-2, 9-8, 7-5.
It was Amaya, 6-foot-7, 220-pound left-hander from Holland, Mich., who treads heavily on size 15 sneakers, who caused the tremors that almost turned into shock waves on the slippery grass of Centre Court.
Borg survived by only the margin of one nerveless second serve and two supberb backhand service returns when he needed the most.
Amaya, crunching his serves on the slick, spongy turf and barreling in to cover the net with his long reach, was able to deny Borg the rhythm that had brought him 33 victories in 33 outings since March, including the Italian and French open titles on slow clay.
An improving 24-year-old and a quarter-finalist in Rome, Amaya led, two sets to one, 3-1 in the fourth, and had 30-40 on Borg's serve in the fifth game - one point away from another break.
Borg, who had been struggling with his serve throughout the bleak afternoon missed his first delivery. The 14,000 spectators crammed into the Elizabethan-style stadium hushed, numbed by Borg's sudden and unexpected vulnerability, and one could almost hear their hearts pounding in nerve-wrack unison.
Amaya - who because of his imposing stature, not his personality, sometimes has to answer to the nicknames "Lurch" and "The Incredible Hulk" - started inching in, intent on whacking his return and smothering the net again. But the boldness of Borg's second serve as such a desperate moment caught him off guard. The icy 22-year-old Swede, who longs to duplicate the feat of three consecutive Wimbledon singles titles that no man has accomplished since Fred Perry in 1934-35-36, hit the ball hard and deep to the southpaw's forehand corner. It kicked up menacingly, exploding at the inrushing Amaya, who overhit his return on a line into the net.
Borg went on to hold serve, but he was still a break down and hardly out of the grasp of the terrifying "Hulk." In the next game, Amaya thumped two unreturnable serves but needed an excellent backhand cross-court return, then an even better one, to seize the advantage. Amaya served what both players thought was another full-bore ace. Borg started to walk to the deuce court, but the ball was called a fault.
Amaya served again, a rally ensued, and Borg came in on a short ball and put away a volley. He was back to 3-all. Those two games, the combatants agreed were the match.
"If he won that one point for 4-1, I think he would never lose it," relieved Borg said later. He had been scared. At 1-3 in the fourth set, he insisted, he honestly thought he was going to lose.
Amaya admitted later that he wanted to "go back to my hotel and kick myself." He thought he had played well enough to win. He had been admirably unawed by the No. 1 player in the world, by circumtances and surroundings that had turned more fluid players' knees to jelly.
"I had played on the center court in Italy and Forest Hills a few times," he said. "Once you've played in front of 16,000 people, it doesn't make much difference where it is." "I felt I had to keep the pressure on, and I thought I did, but at 1-3, 30-40, in the fourth he hit the best second serve of the whole match, and at 40-15 in the next game he hit two of the best returns of the whole match.
"He played better that I did on the important points, and that's always the difference in a five-set match . . . He won the match. He took it away from me with his play . . . He came up with great shots like that on crucial points, and that's why he is great."
Borg held serve at 30 for a 4-3 lead, broke at love with a topspin lob in a game in which Amaya double-faulted twice, then held at 30 again for the set. They went on serve to 3-3 in the fifth set, then Borg broke from 30-0. He got to 30-40 with a beautiful backhand cross-court pass, then Armaya clubbed a good serve to the backhand but overhit his backhand first volley.
As tha ball sailed long, Amaya's head dropped. His heart was undoubtedly even lower. He walked to the sideline for the changeover and buried his head in a towel, alone there with painful thoughts. It was the first time in the match that Borg had crept ahead.
Borg double-faulted to 0-30, then reeled off the last eight points, breaking at love again for the match. Amaya punched another backhand volley wide on the match point. It had taken 2 hours 25 minutes but it seemed much longer.
Afterwards, Borg's favorite word was "survived." He used it a half dozen times in a 10-minute interview: "I was worried about this match. It is the worst you can have in the first round on grass, a lefthander with such a big serve . . . always the first match is a bit nervous. You don't know exactly how you're playing. Today I was lucky to survive. Maybe now I will play a little bit better, more confident."
Amaya, who takes a 38-inch sleeve and looks as if he is serving from atop a mountain, had done the intimidating. "You see him on the other side of the net, and you wonder where you can put the ball that he won't reach it," sighed Borg. "He makes you take chances."
The other seeds who completed their first-round matches won - No. 2 Jimmy Connors over New Zealander Russell Simpson, 7-5, 9-8, 6-1; No. 3 Vitas Gerulaitis over Heinz Gunthardt of Switzerland, 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1; No. 9 Ilie Nastase over South African John Yuill, 6-2, 6-2, 5-7, 6-3; and No. 12 Buster Mottram over Douglas Palm of Sweden 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.
No. 5 Brian Gottfried came back from 2-5 in the third set to take a 2-1 lead in sets over Englishman John Lloyd before their match was halted by darkness after two rain interruptions totalling 42 minutes.