Vitas Gerulaitis needed almost four hours to put away Jimmy Connors, who was far below his best form but typically kept battling to the very end, and Bjorn Borg routinely pulverized Harold solomon today to reach the men's singles final of the French Open tennis championships.
Gerulaitis blew six set points in losing the third set, but hung in, served well when he had to and beat the erring but lion-hearted Connors, 6-1, 3-6, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4.
Borg celebrated his 24th birthday on the red clay center court at Stade Roland Garros, which he calls "one of my favorite courts," and thumped Solomon in an hour and 40 minutes, 6-2, 6-2, 6-0.
Borg never has lost to Solomon in 15 meetings, and has not lost a set to him in nine matches since 1976. Today, on an afternoon when Solomon had a sore back, Borg trounced him.
In sunday's final, Borg will be an overwhelming favorite to win the world's premier clay-court title for a third straight year and a fifth time overall, landmarks no man has ever achieved.
Gerulaitis has never beaten Borg in 18 matches, and doesn't figure to do so on the slow clay that is Borg's best surface. Borg, who has lost only 31 games in 18 sets in reaching the final, buried Gerulaitis in the semifinals here last year, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0.
Defending champion Chris Evert Lloyd will be seeking her fourth women's singles title Saturday when she plays 1978 champion Virginia Ruzici, who has not beaten her in nine career meetings.
The Gerulaitis-Connors match was terribly disappointing for four sets, dominated by errors and long stretches of ragged and surprisingly timid play.
In the final set, the standard of tennis improved markedly, and became quite dramatic as Connors fought back from 0-3 and two service breaks down, saved two more break points at 2-4 and staved off four match points before Gerulaitis sealed the 3-hour 57-minute match with his 13th service ace.
"I felt when the match was pretty tight, I was serving well and volleying well," said Gerulaitis, who won the Italian Open in 1977 and 1979 but never had reached the final here.
"I was pretty happy with that, especially on clay and against a guy like Jimmy, who keeps making those returns no matter how far down you get him.
"The guy's got to be one of the gutsiest competitors I've ever played against. No matter how far down you have him, it's so tough to close him off to nail the coffin shut is virtually impossible."
Gerulaitis beat Connors the first time they played in 1972, then had to wait eight years and 15 matches before doing it again in the semifinals of the Grand Prix Masters tournament in New York in January. Today's triumph was even more satisfying, he said, because it was in five sets in one of the world's three biggest tournaments.
Connors played abysmally in the first set, winning only 10 points. He started hitting with more pace, and committed fewer unforced errors, in the second, but was still very mundane stuff.
Connors led, 3-1, in the third set, then lost his serve by putting four forehands into the net. He kept doing that and lost four games in a row. Gerulaitis was content to merely to float balls back in cautious rallies giving Connors no pace, and reaped a harvest of unforced errors.
Gerulaitis had two set points as he served at 5-3, 40-15, but netted two volleys and lost his serve as Connors came barreling to the net and devoured a shallow lob with one of his primal grunts.
gerulaitis had four more set points on Connors' serve in the next game as Connors' forehand approach shot again went AWOL, but he flubbed the easy shots and was passed once with a blazing backhand.
Six set points, and Connors had to hit only one winner to save them. Gerulaitis looked as if he wanted to strangle himself at this point, and under the circumstances it would have been justifable suicide.
Gerulaitis then saved four break points in the next game, only to lose his serve on a double fault. At 6-5, Connors slugged a volley long and netted another forehand approach to lose his serve again as the comedy of errors continued. But he won the 12-point tie breaker, 7 points to 3.
The crowd of 17,000 -- which included Princess Caroline of Monaco on a gloomy day as the fickle Parisian weather turned cool and gray again -- expected Connors to stomp all over a dispirited Gerulaitis from that point
Instead, Connors came out and, in his own estimation, played the fourth set "like a bum."
Gerulaitis went back to keeping the ball in play, letting Connors make the mistakes off a variety of floaters and softies. "I was a little annoyed at myself for playing those set points so sloppy in the third, but I knew I had gotten that far, and if I just hung in there maybe I could get back into it," Gerulaitis reasoned. "I didn't let it upset me after the set was over."
In the fifth set, Connors kept playing like a bum, losing his serve at love in the first game, sailing a forehand approach shot 10 feet long to lose it again fffor 0-3.
But Jimbo is a fighter. He got one of the breaks back by playing his strongest game of the match, winning it with one of several perfect lobs. Then he had Gerulaitis worried at 2-3, 15-30.
Connors kept pushing, saving two break points from 15-40 as he served at 2-4, fighting back from 40-0 as Gerulaitis served for the match at 5-4. He looked as if he might pull it off as Gerulaitis double-faulted on fourth match point.
"I never felt out of the match at any point until the last ball was hit," said Connors, who was relaxed and gracious in defeat.
Gerulaitis, who has been working on his serve and volley with his coach, Fred Stolle, the Australian who won here in 1966, got to match point for the fifth time with a good serve and backhand volley, then closed the coffin on the resistant Connors with an ace down the center.
Solomon against Borg looked, as so many of their matches have, like a mismatch between a flyweight and heavyweight who is as fast as the smaller man. m
Solomon played well the first six games. Twice, he had break points on Borg's serve. He made some miraculous "gets" and was smacking the ball as hard as he could. But he couldn't put the key point away. Every one was a war, but Solomon lost all the battles.
When he lost his serve for 2-4, after having three game points, much of the fight went out of him. Solomon was stretching uncomfortably, trying to loosen the tight and sore muscles in his lower back, but he had the look of a condemned man.
I watched a little bit when Solomon played Vitas (in the quarter-finals), and I expected a much tougher match," Borg said afterward. "I thought he was playing very well against Vilas, but today he was missing, making a lot of errors. I think against Vilas, he was maybe more patient."
Seeing Borg across the net is just cause for losing patience, specially when the efforts to beat him have been as futile as Solomon's.
"When I walk out on the court against anybody else, I feel confident that I can win, but not against him," Solomon had said beforehand. He's faster than I am, he hits harder, he basically just dominates me physically with his speed and his strength.
"He hits so hard, and with so much topspin, I'm always playing the ball up over my head." Solomon continued . "I have trouble finishing points off against him. I have to hit seven balls that would be winners against anybody else to win a point from him -- seven or eight shots as hard as I can into the corner. So by the time we've played four games, I'm exhausted. It feels like 14 against anybody else."
So it was today. The first six games consumed 40 minutes. After all that effort, Solomon was down, 2-4. He could see there was no way. The rest of the match took only an hour.
Now it is Gerulaitis' turn to go in against Borg, which is a bit like Louis XVI taking on the guillotine. The odds of coming away with his head attached are not good.