Bjorn Borg, who seems to have to look to the record books for his stiffest competition these days, drubbed Vitas Gerulaitis, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, today to win the French Open tennis championship. He becomes the first man ever to win the world's top clay court title three years in succession and five times overall.
The remarkable Swede, who has won 106 of his last 107 matches on clay (a string that dates back to 1976), played well below his capacity and still needed only 1 hour 46 minutes to frustrate Gerulaitis for the 19th time in as many meetings.
Borg, two days past his 24th birthday, received the silver cup symbolic of supremacy in the clay court leg of the traditional tennis Grand Slam from 79-year-old Henri Cochet, one of the legendary French "Four Musketeers" and the only other man who had won the singles here four times previously, in 1926, 1928, 1930 and 1932.
Lest we forget what Borg -- who late this month will be seeking a fifth consecutive Wimbledon title -- has achieved at an extraordinarily tender age. Cochet was 25, 19 months older than Borg is now, when he won his first French title.
Asked what Cochet said to him during the brief presentation ceremonies in the Presidential Tribune at Stade Roland Garros, the taciturn but universally respected Borg smiled wryly and said: "He didn't look too happy. uHe didn't say anything, really. Just 'Well done,' that's all."
Borg is mindful of historical milestones and has said he would like to be remembered as the greatest player in the history of tennis. He left no doubt how highly he valued this triumph, which was worth far more in sentiment than the $53,000 first prize check.
"I think my most important victory was Wimbledon last year when I won for the fourth time. This one comes right behind that," he said, "Because no one had won five times before. I wanted very badly to win five times."
For the second time in three years, Borg cruised through seven matches on the slow, red clay here without losing a set, turning what is normally a grueling endurance test into a personal tour de force.
Most of his contemporaries regard Borg as virtually unbeatable on this surface. Gerulaitis, one of the frequent clay pigeons, has said "The French is practically a gimme for Borg as long as he plays."
Borg was asked today if he could envision himself playing long enough to win the singles here 10 times. At first he chucked, but then his closeset eyes took on a kind of serious visionary look, and a bit of a twinkle. c
"I will play as long as I enjoy it, and as long as I am playing tennis I always would like to win the big tournaments," he said. "Before I retire, I wouldn't mind, you know, winning the French 10 times. Maybe that's my goal, even if I can't do it. If I'm going to play another six or seven years, for sure I'd like to win it every single time I play."
Borg acknowledged that he didn't play quite as well this year as in 1978, when he conceded only 32 games. This year he gave up 38. But he didn't have to be at his peak, because he didn't come up against a single opponent who has ever beaten him.
Gerulaitis, who for four years has been Borg's favorite sparring partner in practice, employed different tactics from the ones Borg has come to know so well in past matches, but they proved as futile as all his previous game plans.
Gerulaitis tried to mix up his game. Sometimes he followed his serve to the net, sometimes he stayed back.He tried to hit short, bringing Borg to the net with drop shots, dinks, and short-angled volleys. Gerrulaitis lobbed frequently, and tried to play cat and mouse.
But he couldn't really do any of this well enough to seriously trouble Borg, and he did not serve well. After serving 13 aces against Jimmy Connors in a five-set semifinal, Gerulaitis had no aces and only a handful of service winners today.
"You can't let him get in a groove. You can go back there to the baseline and play like a (Harold) Solomon or a (Guillermo) Vilas, and you'll stay out there six hours and lose, 6-0, 6-0, 6-1," said Gerulaitis, a two-time Italian Open champion.
"You can't keep rallying with him, and you can't keep coming in all the time, or he'll kill you. You have to try to hit short, jerk him around, ruin his rhythm. This if the first time I've really tried to play him that way, and I think that's what you've got to do on clay. I think it was working at the beginning."
Gerulaitis seemed to be the only one who thought his strategy was even remotely effective. They played some lovely, full-court points, but Borg is faster than even the quicksilver Gerulaitis, much steadier, and hits with more pace and more margin for error off both sides.
Borg had answers for practically every question Gerulaitis put to him except for one uncharacteristic lapse in the first set, when he let a 5-1 lead slip away and had to save two break points to keep Gerulaitis from leveling the set at 5-all.
Gerulaitis said he thought Borg's brief period of difficulty was because he was "jerking him around." In fact, Borg -- who was a regular pulse rate of only 35 and corpse-like blood pressure of 70 over 30 -- simply had a rare spell of nerves. He netted three overhead smashes, failed to put away several others, and mis-hit several service returns as Gerulaitis won three straight games and got back to 4-5, 15-40, on Borg's serve.
"I got a little bit tight. I was scared to hit through, I was just pushing the ball back, and he took advantage of that," said Borg. "I was a little bit nervous there, because I kept telling myself it was very important to win the first set, and maybe I forgot when I got to 5-1."
Whatever he had forgotten, he remembered at 15-40. He saved the first break point by whacking a forcing shot off a dink and putting away an overhead. He saved the second by lacing a backhand down-the-line passing shot after Gerulaitis darted in and played a top spin looper. Then Gerulaitis floated a backhand long, and couldn't make a running backhand down-the-line pass off another exchange of short angled cute stuff. Set to Borg, 6-4.
"It was very, very important for me to win that game," said Borg. "Mentally it could have been very bad to lose the set from 5-1. I think it was important for him too, because the last three games he played very, very bad."
Borg was never in the slightest trouble thereafter. Gerulaitis played some good points, but as often as not Borg trumped them. He hit outright winners or forcing shots off Gerulaitis' teasers, nailed some service returns and passing shots, and made his side of the court look small with his exceptional speed and anticipation.
One point will serve to illustrate. Serving at 1-3, 30-40, in the second set, Gerulaitis put in a good serve and drilled his backhand first volley down the line, a sure winner against anyone else. Borg not only go to the ball, but at full stretch whistled a forehand cross-court passing shot at an acute angle. Gerulaitis was stunned, but he joined the full house of 17,000 spectators in admiring applause.
By the time he was 2-5 down in the third set, Gerulaitis was so exasperated that he flipped his racket on the dusty court, and kicked it all the way to his chair for the changeover. He was annoyed at his own inconsistency -- which Borg figures was inevitable with a change from his normal style -- and out of ideas for new things to try.
Gerulaitis did save two match points in the next game but that merely delayed the inevitable. Borg clinched the match with another screaming top spin passing shot, this one a forehand, and raised his arms jubilant with his newest historical landmark.
For the first time since 1950, Americans won four of the five events at the French. No American has won the men's singles here since Tony Trabert in 1955. Chris Every Lloyd won the women's singles; Victor Amaya and Hank Pfister the men's doubles; Anne Smith and Paris newcomer Kathy jordan the women's doubles and Smith and Billy Martin the mixed doubles.
Borg left tonight for a Davis Cup series against West Germany at Baastad, Sweden, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, then will go to London Friday to begin practicing on grass for Wimbledon. His practice partner? Gerulaitis, for the fourth straight year.
"We made arrangements before the French started," said Borg with a grin "I hope he hasn't seen enough of me."