Arthur Ashe was fatigued when he walked onto the tennis court at the Spectrum this afternoon to play the final of the $225,000 U.S. Pro Indoor Championships. He was more weary two hours later, having been bashed and thrashed, slugged and mugged by Jimmy Connors, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1.
"I feel like somebody beat me with a stick," said Ashe, 35, stiff and sluggish after his 3 1/2-hour climb back from two sets down against Vitas Gerulaitis in the semifinals 24 hours earlier.
Not a stick, actually. The weapon Connors used to commit assault and battery on Ashe in their first meeting since 1975 -- when Ashe upset him in the Wimbledon final and seized the No. 1 world ranking -- was the tightly-strung steel racket he wields like a lead pipe, driving the ball with more concussive pace than any other player.
When the carnage was over, Ashe had this to say about playing Connors, and how the experience is different from encounters with the game's other modern wuperstars:
"Jimmy hits the ball in a straight line, while everybody else hits it in a parabola. He hits so hard, you have a second less to get to the ball than you do against anybody else.
"(Bjorn) Borg, (Guillermo) Vilas, (John) McEnroe, Gerulaitis -- they all hit the ball hard, but it rises and then comes down. Jimmy takes it on the rise and hits it in a straight line, like a bullet, so you have to go after his shots without thinking."
The laws of gravity dictate that this is not strictly true, but the point is well taken.
Connors hits the ball flatter, with less topspin, than other contemporary top players. He is slight of build (5-10, 150 pounds), but his balance and timing are flawless. When he uncoils with the metal racket whose radical weight distribution and trampolinestyle stringing make it impossible for most players to control, the ball explodes on an opponent with fearsome suddenness.
Ashe, who designed a tactical masterpiece to upset Connors with soft balls in the '75 Wimbledon final, didn't have a chance to do much thinking today, He served poorly, had little feel for the ball, and was on the defensive throughout a match that was less a contest than an ordeal.
Connors' bruising service returns -- he clubbed 12 returns for outright winners, and forced errors with eight more -- quickly discouraged Ashe from his usual net-rushing style.
In the second game of the match, an ace and a good second serve to the backhand lifted Ashe to 30-0. Then Connors forced a low forehand volley error, ripped a buzz-saw forehand return for a clean winner, cracked a backhand down-the-line return winner as Ashe tried to follow a second serve to the net, and crackled a forehand cross-court return that Ashe lunged at forlornly, spraying a forehand volley long.
After that, Ashe tried to follow even first serves to the net only occasionally. "He stayed back more than he ever has against me," said Connors, who recently decided to move in closer to return serve, the better to attack the ball early. That is like Jaws deciding to invest in a teething ring.
"I decided it's no good for me to take the ball five or six feet behind the baseline because that gives me more court to cover," Connors said. "This way, I cut down on my angles, my reach doesn't have to be as great, and I can short-hop the ball if I get in trouble."
Ashe decided he had no choice but to respect Connors' returns, although the odds of him beating the 26-year-old left-hander from the back court were slim.
"The way Jimmy takes the ball on the rise, if you want to serve and come in on him, you'd better serve well," Ashe reasoned. He didn't. He put only 50 percent of his first serves in court in the first set, 60 percent for the match.
"I didn't serve well in any match after they changed from the two-court configuration to the single court in the arena," added Ashe, who beat Marty Riessen, Vilas, Brian Gottfried and Gerulaitis during the week to earn the $20,000 runner-up prize. "If a right-hander tosses the ball in the right place, he looks straight into the lights. When I did get my first serve in, it was mosty from memory."
Ashe was erratic on his ground strokes, several times getting the ball to the net on one or more bounces. He mis-hit many shots, butchering one overhead so badly that even playground hackers shuddered.
Occasionally he tried to hit soft and short to Connors' forehand, a tactic that has worked sublimely against Connors, but he didn't have enough touch today to pull it off. He needed a scalpel in his hand, but had a heavy wrench instead. Connors covered almost all of his "dinks" comfortably, and slugged forcing shots off them.
"I felt really loose physically. I got to a lot of balls," said Connors, who won this title for the third time in four years, collected $40,000, and earned the grudging admiration of a crowd of 15,587. Most of them were pulling for Ashe, who has played this tournament 15 times, but they acknowledged Connors' virtuosity.
"The crowd was trying to get into the match. That's good. But the way I was playing, I didn't let the crowd or Arthur get into it," said Connors, who lost his serve only once, at 5-2 in the second set. He served out that set two games later, then dropped the other tennis shoe by breaking Ashe in the third, fifth and seventh games of the final set.
"I had to play well today, because of what Arthur did against Gerulaitis. That's always in the back of your mind, that he came back from two sets down once and can do it again," Connors said. "I wanted to keep the pressure on when I was two sets ahead. I didn't want just one break in the third set, I wanted two or three."
In the doubles final, Wojtek Fibak and Tom Okker defeated McEnroe and Peter Fleming -- winners of seven tournaments in the past six months -- 5-7, 6-1, 6-3. The victors split $13,000; the losers divided $6,500.