It was an alley fight in the cathedral of tennis. There is no better way to describe today's bristling, sometimes ill-tempered Centre Court match in which John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, to earn a title shot against four-time champion Bjorn Borg at Winbledon Saturday.
For 3 hours and 5 minutes, McEnroe and Connors went at each other with rackets, snarls, uncouth gestures and angry words across the net. They are both pugnacious left-handers who play the game hard, for blood and for keeps, and their bitter semifinal struggle was a world apart from the game's genteel, white-flanneled past.
The ill-feeling and boorish behavior extended even beyond the ceremonial handshake at match's end. On his way out of the arena the 21-year-old McEnroe -- who is in the final for the first time, and confident that he has a shot at the seemingly unbeatable Borg -- gave the crowd a raised-arm victory salute right out of "Rocky."
Connors, four feet behind him, didn't like that. He flipped his middle finger at McEnroe -- the last crude gesture of a sometimes vulgar contest.
It was a street fight all the way, but McEnroe had the sharper weapons. Connors wielded his steel racket like a pipe, slugging some spectacular return winners, but McEnroe carved him up with his serve and volley. On grass, "Mac the Knife" has the advantage.
McEnroe served well, and Connors did not. That was the big difference between them, and it was considerable.
McEnroe put 71 of 120 first serves in court, a much better percentage than Connors. McEnroe served 13 aces, and clusters of service winners, especially from the left court. Whenever he needed a big serve from that side, he seemed able to produce it, either a wide slice deep to Connors' forehand or a hummer down the middle.
When he served for the third set at 5-3, for example, McEnroe was down, 15-40, then smacked four consecutive unreturnable serves. He put 22 of 30 first serves in court in that set, and served six aces -- "which," suggested a New Yorker at courtside who admires McEnroe's brash style and stiletto net game, "is better than a sharp stick in the eyes."
In fact, if McEnroe had returned serve better, he probably would have won in straight sets. He had 13 break points on Connors' serve in the second set -- three in the first game, one in the third, one in the fifth and eight in the marathon seventh game, which lasted 26 points -- and he couldn't convert any of them. On most, he didn't get his return in play.
In the fourth set, Connors was twice up a break at 2-0 and 4-2, but each time McEnroe broke right back in the next game. By then he had found his touch and was varying pace and spin superbly -- a chip here, a topspin there, a hard, flat drive next and then maybe a drop volley. He broke Connors a third time for 5-4, and served out the match.
They don't celebrate the Fourth of July in Britain. Something about having lost the war, and the colonies. But there were some fireworks in this match between flinty Yankee Doodle Dandies.
McEnroe -- who has attempted to control his temper throughout the tournament in order to concentrate on tennis and shed his "superbrat" image -- couldn't restrain himself when he got a bad call while serving at 4-2, 40-15 in the first set.
He served an ace down the center that was called a fault. The umpire, Pat Smythe, overruled the linesman but ordered a "let" played instead of giving McEnroe the point, as he should have since there was no way Connors could have touched the ball.
McEnroe argued with the umpire as the usually restrained crowd booed and slow-handclapped him. Connors went over to the sideline and looked on disapprovingly. McEnroe asked for the tournament referee.
Finally, the umpire gave McEnroe a warning and ordered him to play. He served another apparent ace, and it was called a fault. When he lost the point by netting a volley, he bashed the ball back into the net in anger.
When he served another ace to win the game, McEnroe made a defiant gesture and started looking for the referee to complain about the umpire. As he crossed paths with Connors on his way to the changeover, Connors wagged his finger at him like a schoolmaster lecturing a naughty boy, and snapped: "Keep your mouth shut out here."
McEnroe continued to glare and fuss and fidget. When Connors lost the set, he offered an obscene gesture to no one in particular -- the first of numerous coarse gestures he was to make as he lost in the semifinals of his fifth consecutive Grand Slam tournament (1979 French, Wimbledon and U.S. Opens, 1980 French and Wimbledon).
Connors held his serve after three break points in the first game of the second set and McEnroe disputed another call. Connors lobbed a ball at him and wagged another disparaging finger. Once again, they exchanged words. "You never questioned a call in your life, did you?" McEnroe said acidly.
It wasn't clear who provoked whom, but in the course of the unpleasantries Connors compared McEnroe's behavior to that of his 1-year-old son, Brett. The rest of what he said, he explained later, would not be suitable for a family newspaper.
Borg is striving to become the first man to win five successive singles titles at Wimbledon since Lawrie Doherty (1902-06), who achieved his feat in the pre-1922 era of the "Challenge Round," when the champion sat out and waited for a challenger to claw through the draw to play him in the final.
Some cynics have suggested that Borg has, in effect, done the same thing, surging through six rounds of a very good draw without untoward difficulty as he waited for one of the three left-handers he respects most -- McEnro, Connors and Tanner -- to come out of the bottom half and challenge him.