Last year when Roscoe Tanner shook hands with Bjorn Borg after beating him in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis championships, thwarting his ambitions for a first Open title and the third leg of a possible French-Wimbledon-U.S. -- Australian Grand Slam, neither man said: "Same time next year."
But there they are again, the mighty Borg and his occasional nemesis Tanner. Same Tournament. Same round. Same stakes.
Borg -- who so far this year has collected his fifth French Open and fifth consecutive Wimbledon title and lost only one match (to Guillermo Vilas in Dusseldorf) and defaulted one other (to Ivan Lendl in Toronto) -- was close to peak from today in routing talented young Frenchman Yannick Noah, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0. That is to say, he was sublime.
Tanner earned his return bout with Borg by overcoming Californian Brian Teacher with his own kind of "heat" on a sweltering afternoon, serving 17 aces and 20 more service winners in a 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-2 victory. This was a contest of straightforward serve-and-volley power -- all slam, bam, crunch and wham -- but Tanner was able to produce left-handed blurs when he needed them most.
The winner of Wednesday's Borg-Tanner return bout -- under daylight rather than floodlights this year, much to Borg's relief -- will not meet 1977 Open champion Vilas in the semifinals, however, as the seedings had suggested.
Vilas was beaten today by Wojtek Fibak of Poland, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. This was probably the best match of the tournament to date, artistically -- four torrid, sometimes inspired sets of sound tactics and sizzling shotmaking on a slow hard court that enabled both players to attack and counterattack in the ways they felt most comfortable.
The Fibak-Vilas match delighted a capacity audience of 7,000 spectators around the grandstand court at the National Tennis Center. Tanner and Borg won in the 19,000-seat stadium court. If the tennis hadn't been heavenly at times, the Labor Day crowd of 20,132 spectators might have thought they were burning in purgatory, though, for there was no relief from the stifling humidity and 95-degree heat which soared as high as 118 degrees on the court.
Playing on hard courts in such conditions is labor for the players, too but the victors enjoyed the fruits of their toil.
"I think this is my best match of the tournament so far," said Borg, who looked strong, fit, fast -- yes, even cool -- in running the 20-year-old Noah ragged.
Against Peter McNamara in the third round, Borg played two lackluster sets, then exploded in all his swift, unerring brilliance. Today he reduced his hesitant start to five games. From 2-3 in the first set, he elevated his level of play, feeding on the pace that the 6-foot-4 Noah gave him, hammering some remarkable winners on the dead run.
"Even against McNamara I was playing well, but I felt much better today. I was moving very well and timing the ball well," said Borg, who is not given to lavishing praise on himself lightly.
For Tanner, reaching the quarters against Borg affords an opportunity to redeem what he calls "an up-and-down year -- mostly down." Last year he got into great shape, took Borg to 6-4 in the fifth set of a stirring Wimbledon final, and climbed as high as No. 5 in the computerized world rankings. This year he got lazy and fell to his current No. 15.
I probably got a little bit lackadaisical. I wasn't training the way I should have. I put on some weight," he said. "Maybe it was a motivation thing, too. I wasn't as eager. I got tired at the end of last year."
In recent weeks he has rededicated himself, dropping from 179 pounds to 166, working hard to get into condition. That helped today in the heat he said "was like a sauna" -- especially after the discouraging loss of the third set. Tanner had not had a break point against him until he lost his serve for 5-6, and had twice let Teacher get out of 0-40 holes.
"I got a little tired and down after losing that -- but I told myself I was in good shape again, maybe better than last year," said Tanner. "The one thing you've got to keep telling yourself is, 'If I'm tired, he's got to be tired too. Keep going. If you drop, you drop. Somebody will pick you up, hopefully, and pack you in ice. But you've got to believe you're in good shape."
Fibak, a successful tour regular who strangely had never reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament before this year, has now made it to the quarters of the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in one year.
"This tournament, and this match in particular, were very important to me because I have always been hearing from people, including the press, that I'm doing pretty well in the last few years, but I'm never doing well in the major tournaments," said Fibak. "So this was a challenge for me. This match meant to me almost more than any match I had in the past."
Fibak has an excellent chance to go further since he will be favored to win his next match over speedy, cocky Johan Kriek, who survived leg cramps and several warnings for stalling to beat Buster Mottram tonight 6-4, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4. Kriek, a quarterfinalist for the third straight year, buckled with cramps on his way to the net to shake hands at the finish. Mottram -- who suspected him of faking -- turned and walked away without a handshake.
Vilas served superbly in the first set, and Fibak started a little slowly. "I've been playing on Court 16 and Court 27 all the time. Sometimes you need a taxi to get there," he grinned, "and the background in the grandstand is much different. All these shirts, all colors, it takes a set to get used to it and see the volleys."
When he got acclimated, he volleyed superbly, however. The standard of play was exceptionally high. Points were cleverly conceived, well-executed, and uncompromisingly played -- right down to the match point.
Fibak was inevitably asked if the settlement of the general strike that had gripped Poland gave him peace of mind.
"It's strange because when I played in Paris, the pope was there, and there was a lot about Poland and the pope. Now everyone is talking about Poland for a little different reason, but I am happy that people are interested and ask me about my country and want information. I am even more proud than ever to be Polish, and to answer questions, " he said.
"...It seems to me that the problems are over, and it looks like we will get some improvements in our situation, like we did in 1970, when I think we became the most liberal country in the Eastern Bloc....I wasn't really worried because I was in touch every day with Poland, with home, and the Polish press was calling me. I got all the current information, and it looked like it would be settled without bloodshed. It is very good that a compromise has been reached, and it looks like a brighter future, so I'm very happy."