The first year of Wimbledon's second century will end tomorrow with the same men's singles finalists who spectacularly climaxed its first 100 years last July: Bjorn Borg vs. Jimmy Connors. Las Vegas challenge matches and super-hyped television specials aside, this is the real heavyweight championship of tennis.
The two top seeds were in peak form in yesterday's semifinals, which is to say uncompromising in the pace of their shotmaking, the intensity of their concentration and their hunger for crucial points.
Connors - returning serve savagely, boring forward at every opportunity and lobbing as well as he ever has - won a desperately close first set, then trampled No. 3 seed Vitas Gerulatiis, 9-7, 6-2, 6-1.
Borg had too much weight of shot and weight of mind for unseeded Tom Okker, gunning down the 34-year-old "Flying Dutchman," 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Borg reached back for winning serves pracically every time he needed them, and his topspin passing shots had such velocity they practically lit up Center Court with sparks on another chill, gloomy day.
Borg-Connors is the men's tennis rivalry of the 1970s. When they play, it is flat out from first point to last, like Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier with rackets. No matter who wins, the ball bleeds.
"I'm looking forward to it," said Connors, 25, the champion of 1974. He said it the way a man who hadn't eaten in a week might say he is looking forward to a 12-ounce T-bone.
Connors is in the final for the fourth time in five years. He came back from 0-4 to 4-4 in the final set last year, then served one deadly double-fault. That was the opening Borg needed, and he tagged Connors with a 6-4 knockout in the fifth.
Connors has the utmost respect for Borg, but he resents losing their last two meetings and four of the last five in a rivalry that stands 8-5 in Connor's favor.
Borg, 22, has a chance to become the first man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win three successive Wimbledon singles titles. "I'm going to try to do anything to win that final, you know. It's not every year you can have a chance like this," he said."Maybe it's never going to happen again to me."
Borg has won two Wimbledons, three French Opens and two Italian Opens, but he considers tomorrow's match the most important of his career. "Absolutely," he said. "For sure."
He is anticipating it as eagerly as Connors and the spectators who have been camping on the pavement outside the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club since Wednesday to be first in line for the 140 tickets held back for public sale on the day of the final.
"When I play Jimmy, that's something special for me, and he might think the same," Borg said. "He is the guy to beat for me. It's always tough, always coming down almost to the last point to see who's going to win. That's very exciting."
If Connors can sustain the form he showed against Gerulaitis, he will put Borg to a supreme test.
"I'm on top of the ball. I am so prepared that I feel like I have 10 seconds between every shot and the ball looks as big as a basketball coming at me," said the brash left-hander, who has won 18 matches in a row since being sidelined seven weeks by mononucleosisis that hospitalized him in May.
The tennis in the 67-minute first set of Connors' match with Gerulaitis was sensational, as good as anything seen at Wimbledon this year.
Connors came out pumping and blistered five forcing returns off first serves, two for clean winners, to break at 15 in the first game.
Connors had two more break points for a 3-0 lead, but Gerulaitis cleverly started varying his pace instead of giving Connors the speed on which he was feasting.
Having held in that game, Gerulaitis got all cylinders firing. He broke back to 3-3, threading the needle with a backhand down-the-line passing shot after forcing a low forehand volley error for 30-40.
Connors started to miss a few forehands, but he still was smoking. He had a great chance with Gerulaitis serving at 4-4, 0-30, but missed a backhand down-the-line pass with acres of grass open cross court and Gerulaitis out of position after saving himself with a spinning volley.
Gerulaitis fell behind, 15-40, pushing a forehand half-volley long off another of the returns that were exploding at his feet. But he put in four consecutive first serves and covered the net perfectly with the lightning reflexes and agile volleying that are his hallmarks.
This was stratospheric tennis, as flashy and thrilling as that Borg and Gerulaitis sustained for five sets in the semifinals last year. The crowd of 14,000 was enthralled. "Both of us were 'up,' chugging, rarin' to go," Connors said.
He was down a set point at 4-5, 30-40, but kicked a good serve to the backhand. Gerulaitis netted it.
Connors broke for 7-6 in a superb game, full of sprinting "get" and offensive shots on the dead run. He had six break points, Gerulaitis one game point. Finally, after six deuces, a ripping forehand return of a first serve down the middle forced Gerulaitis to pop a backhand volley long.
But Gerulaitis broke right back at 30, his soft, dipping returns leaving Connors unable to hit penetrating first volleys.
Gerulaitis put in five straight first serves at 7-7, but committed two rare backhand volley errors and one on a reaching half-volley. Connors seized the other point he needed with a shot that worked like a charm all afternoon - an offensive lob that Gerulaitis chased down but could not retrieve with a forehand, running behind the baseline with his back to the net.
Connors was bouncing up and down, wiggling his hips, slapping himself on the thigh as he served for the set again. Gerulaitis shoved him to deuce and saved a set point with a flashing cross-court forehand.
But Connors cracked a near ace down the center and took the set with a deep, low backhand first volley.
After losing that heartbreaking set, Gerulaitis was never the same player. He had gotten in 40 of 62 first serves, but then his timing went off. He connected on only 10 of 21 in the second set, 12 of 27 in the third and Connors was clobbering his second serves.