Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe reached their appointed date with destiny -- and with each other-today, reaching the final of the U.S. Open tennis championships. But both had to reach deep into their tennis games and their hearts in order to survive.
It is a rare enough day when the No. 1 tennis player in the world must fight from two sets down to beat an unseeded opponent. It is a unique day when such a match is a mere prelude to the main event.
But that was the case at the National Tennis Center today. It took Borg 2 hours 30 minutes to put away Johan Kriek, a talented 22-year-old South African. The Swede, bidding now for the U.S. Open crown for the third time in the most important tournament he has never won, came back to win 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.
That match, and Chris Evert's emotional victory in the women's final were just warmups for the 4-hour 17-minute duel of wills staged by McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
Time and again the match turned around as the two protagonists kept the enthralled 20,086 fans in Louis Armstrong Stadium not just on the edge of their seats but leaping out of them as the battle went into the night until McEnroe finally prevailed, 7-3, in a fifth set tie breaker to win, 6-4, 5-7, 0-6, 6-3, 7-6.
"That was a hell of a match," said a gracious Connors. "We played some real good tennis in the daytime, then we played some real good tennis at night."
The two Americans, who did not speak a word to one another the entire match after their verbal jousting at Wimbledon, took the crowd on an emotional roller coaster, played in streaks the first four sets -- Connors winning 11 straight games at one point. McEnroe six straight later-before finally finding an even plateau somewhere in the stratosphere for the fifth set.
In that final set, which lasted 78 minutes, Connors twice came back from a break down, the second time with McEnroe serving for the match at 5-4, only to as he put it, "play a lousy tie breaker," allowing McEnroe to slip by.
Connors was only half of McEnroe's problem today. The other half was -- as always -- the 21-year-old New Yorker's temper. Almost from the beginning, he was involved in arguments with chair umpire Don Wiley. In the first game of the third set, after a volley of his was called wide when it appeared to be good, McEnroe called Wiley "Mr. Incompetent" when the umpire wouldn't overrule the call.
Twice during the match, McEnroe called for tournament referee Mike Blanchard; once, in the third set, to complain about Wiley. In the fifth set, he asked for Blanchard again after slamming his racket down and watching it bounce and fly over the net, landing at Connors' feet.
"I wanted to tell him it was an accident," McEnroe said. "Some people thought I threw it at him (Connors) but that's insane.Even if I hated the guy, even if I never wanted to see him again, I'd never do that on the court. gI'd do it outside after the match."
"I don't know if it slipped or not," Connors said. "But if it had hit me in the head I would have slipped something on him."
McEnroe's slip/slam/throw came after Connors broke him back to reach 1-1 in the final set. It was only one of several points in the match at which he was loudly booed by the crowd.
Ironically, that was McEnroe's only outburst of the last two sets. During the second and third sets, he complained constantly. Finally, he seemed to realize it was affecting his tennis and, just when he looked ready to be blownoff the court by the charged-up Connors, McEnroe regrouped, settled down and played excellent tennis the rest of the way.
"The second and third sets, I think I was losing my mind," he said. "When you're losing and getting bad calls, you get more aggravated. I tried not to get upset the last two sets."
McEnroe needed every last bit of strength -- physical, mental and emotional -- he could muster today. This was the Connors of old; blasting his return of serve for winners, slapping his thigh, gyrating his hips, shaking his fists at the sky and exhorting himself to keep his game in high gear.
The old bugaboos -- the unforced errors on the forehand side, the weak second serve -- were still there, but this was Connors near his peak, at times taking therichly talented McEnroe to the very limit.
"Sometimes when he starts hitting winners the way he was, he's just so good you're not going to beat him," McEnroe said. "I kept thinking he had to start missing sooner or later. Luckily, he did."
McEnroe won the first set, breaking Connors in the 10th game when Connors netted a forehand at set point. He even looked ready to make the match a rout when he had set point at 4-5 in the second set. But Connors crawled out of that trap with a strong first serve, a running forehand winner and a netted McEnroe backhand.
He then broke McEnroe, getting to 15-40 with two gorgeous running backhands; letting McEnroe get back into the game at deuce, then landing a top-spin lob on the line and coming up with another running backhand winner for the game. As the shot landed in, Connors stopped, leaned way back and shook his fists in the air to celebrate.
He was hot now and McEnroe was distracted, sulking over calls, not thinking about tennis. Connors served out the set at love then blitzed McEnroe in the third set.
When Connors broke in the first game of the fourth set and then held for 2-0 (at love) it looked as if McEnroe was only a few minutes from being dethroned by the three-time champion.
But if John Patrick McEnroe is nothing else, he is a competitor of remarkable grit and courage. With everyone and everything seemingly against him, he dug deep and fought back.
The turning point seemed to come in a match with about six turning points -- with Connors leading 3-2. At deuce, Connors slapped a forehand wide then hit a backhand volley that was called wide on one of many very close line calls in the match.
Now, McEnroe had life. Two games later, after seven deuces, after failing on six break points, he got the second break he needed when Connors, after having a game point, made three straight unforced errors. It was 5-3 McEnroe, Connors talked angrily to himself. McEnroe threw his arms in the air happily. He then served out the set at love and after three hours the two were dead even.
The spottiness that marked the match disappeared the last set as the two slugged at each other, each coming up with a remarkable shot just when it seemed he must be completely drained of strength and emotion.
The tennis reached its peak with McEnroe serving for the match at 5-4. On the first point McEnroe hit a touch volley that Connors reached and just got back. McEnroe netted the sitter for 0-15. The crowd was shouting.
McEnroe got to 30-15 with two good serves. Connors made it 30-all when McEnroe's lunging forehand volley went wide. A screaming forehand got Connors to break point but then he netted McEnroe's second serve for deuce.
Now Connors turned genius. He anticipated McEnroe's first serve down the middle and blasted a backhand past him. The audience screamed with delight. On his second break point Connors got a second serve and crushed a backhand cross court for the game. The stadium was a screaming madhouse as Connors slapped, thumped and gyrated.
"He just played a great game," McEnroe said. "It wasn't like I botched shots or threw in a double fault. He just hit some unreal shots. That's what makes him such a great player. He loves those situations."
On they went, each man holding serve at love to reach the tie breaker. The key point in the tie breaker came at 2-1, Connors serving. Connors had an easy forehand volley and botched it, slapping it into the net. "That one really ticked me off," Connors said. "If I win that point, maybe it's a different story. But that's life in the big city."
McEnroe used that impetus to reach 6-1. Connors saved two match points on his serve but McEnroe got one more first serve in, down the middle for a winner at 6-3 and it was finally over, McEnroe throwing his arms into the air overjoyed and exhausted -- knowing he had only 20 hours to recover before facing Borg.
Borg also played five sets today, but as McEnroe put it, "that match took about an hour."
It just seemed that way. If ever a five-set match lacked suspense this was it. Kriek, 22, an immensely talented but inconsistent South African, served superbly the first two sets. Borg was off, especially at the net, missing easy volleys to lose the 10th game in each of the first two sets.
But Kriek could not maintain his torrid pace, falling apart the last three sets as Borg won his 13 consecutive fifth-set match, a streak that has lasted four years.
This was not a case however of Borg pulling his Houdini act. It was Kriek's game that pulled the Houdini, disappearing in the afternoon heat quicker than the crowd could say, "For sure Borg will not lose."
Borg's one anxious moment came when Kriek broke him in the opening game of the fourth set.
"Right then I was thinking I had to break right back," Borg said. "If he got ahead 2-0 in the fourth it might have been very different. After I got the break I was confident and I played better the rest of the way."
Kriek, who would have been the first unseeded player to reach the final here in 14 years had he won, agreed that the second game of the fourth set was the final turning point in the match. "I was really up for serving that game after I broke," he said. "I was too eager, played too fast, I was trying to get into the net and hit my volleys before I hit my serve."
Once Borg got even he blitzed Kriek, winning 12 of the last 13 games. Compared to McEnroe-Connors he was out for a Sunday stroll, a fact which didn't escape McEnroe's or Connors' notice.
"This had to be exhausting for everyone," Connors said. "The crowd was really in the match. They wanted to see two guys out there killing each other and that's what they saw."
"We take a lot out of each other," McEnroe said. "I hope I have something left for tomorrow.I know I have to serve well to have a chance. Tonight, when I had to I was able to push myself to come up with the big serves. I'll have to do that again tomorrow to win."
The very fact that he will play Sunday is a tribute to McEnroe's ability to push himself to the very limit. He did it tonight. He will have to do it again Sunday if he is to defend his title and stop the seemingly unstoppable Borg in his drive for the grand slam.
"I guarantee I'll be ready for tomorrow" Borg promised after beating Kriek. Those words cannot be encouraging for McEnroe.