A 3 1/2-hour match on Wimbledon's Centre Court tests far more than tennis skills.
That's what Vijay Amritraj discovered today to his dismay, as he folded before the unrelenting determination of Jimmy Connors, losing 2-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, in a splendid quarterfinal psychodrama.
Connors' triumph of the will moved him into a dream semifinal Thursday against five-time champion Bjorn Borg. The 25-year-old Swede extended his Wimbledon winning streak to 40 matches with his fifth straight three-set romp, a 7-6, 6-2, 6-3 waltz with Australia's Peter McNamara.
Said McNamara: "Bjorn glows when he sees me. I can just see him saying, 'McNamara in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. What a joke.' How could I have beaten him? Well, I'd have had a chance if I could serve about 30 miles an hour faster."
The other semifinal pairing will also be a dream -- a dream for John McEnroe, that is, and most likely a nightmare for the man he will face -- unseeded Australian Rod Frawley, who is ranked 115th in the world and never dreamed he'd see the day he reached the final four in the greatest tournament in tennis.
The No. 2-seeded McEnroe staged his own personal "blitz kriek" at dusk, defeating Johan Kriek, 6-1, 7-5, 6-1. "It's weird playing Kriek," said McEnroe of the hyperfast South African righty. "He seems like he just wants to get it over." So McEnroe, who can glide into the final without playing a seed or any real "name" player, obliged with a victory in 1 hour 47 minutes.
Frawley's laborious, unesthetic 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4), 6-3 win over 20-year-old Tim Mayotte of Stanford marked the fifth consecutive year that an unseeded player has reached the semifinals here.
However, Frawley is a far darker horse than the fellows who preceded him: McEnroe, Tom Okker, Pat DuPre and Brian Gottfried. Frawley, 28, didn't turn touring pro until he was 25 and didn't play singles at Wimbledon until 1979. He still plays club tennis for a German team, the equivalent of tennis' minor leagues. Frawley is so bound to his team that, even should he win Wimbledon, he would not be able to break his commitment to the club and play in the U.S. Open in August.
Of his chances against McEnroe, Frawley says, "We played twice last year within two weeks. The first time I extended him, losing 6-4, in the third set on grass. The next time, he was out for a bit of revenge. He blasted me, 6-1, 6-2."
Borg and McEnroe's matches were terminally soporific after the first set. "I expected a much tougher match, or maybe, for sure, I didn't expect to play this well," said Borg. "I am very, very happy with my game."
Those two sleepers, and the nervous, error-filled Frawley-Mayotte contest, were far more than outweighed by the Connors-Amritraj duel, which took the Centre Court crowd to the very heart of competitive tennis.
Connors, 28, and Amritraj, 27, a 6-foot-3 Indian from Madras, are of the same generation, and close to the same general level of talent. With his coiling serve, his lightning reflex volleys and a bent for strategy so bizarre that Connors says. "I've never come close to figuring out the guy," Amritraj is an ideal grass-court attack player.
Connors, pounding from the baseline, returning service like no other man of his era and slashing passing shots like counterpunches, is the ideal stalking mongoose, always protecting his weakness, a flawed serve.
Connors and Amritraj had played nine times before today, Amritraj winning a startling four. Thus, each knew the day's scenario in advance.
And each, per chance, knew the final scene as well. Connors has a reputation: he never quits. Amritraj, whose first name means "victory," is one of the tour's most popular and sportsmanlike players; his smile lit up Centre Court many times as he politely applauded Connors' best shots. But Amritraj is, and always has been, a blithe spirit with broad interests, many friends and a love of parties.
Connors burns for one thing -- victory on a tennis court. Amritraj is content to simmer. When you play for 212 minutes, the truth will out.
For the first two hours exactly, from 2:04 p.m. to 4:04 p.m., Amritraj laid the foundation for the sort of truly significant victory that he has never had, despite his consistent money-winning totals ($256,654 last year).
Surely, this would be VJ day at Wimbledon -- victory over Jimbo, that is. After all, even Connors said, "I have had some comebacks here over the years, but I've never come back after being down two sets."
While Amritraj was muttering to himself between breaks, Connors was cursing and fuming, smacking himself on the thigh with his racket.
"I told myself," said Connors, "You're going to have to play some decent tennis or you're going to be off (the court) before you're in it."
So Connors got into what he calls "the tunnel." Everything but the ball was obliterated from the world. "That's my job," said Connors. "The level I lifted to, maybe he wasn't ready for. Maybe he thought, 'I've got him.' But I've never rolled over before. So I didn't then."
And at exactly the two-hour mark, Connors broke Amritraj's serve to take his first lead of the match, 3-2, in the third set. "I could feet it turning," said Connors.
Curiously, there was no significant change in strategy between the two hours dominated by Amritraj and the 92 minutes owned by Connors. In both phases, Amritraj tried to serve and volley and take the net away from Connors. "He goes for winners from strange, gambling positions," said Connors. "It breaks your rhythm."
Connors, throughout the match, struggled with a weak first serve, and compensated with superb passing shots off both wings. The style of point play throughout the match was the same; only the results were different. The same shots Amritraj converted early, he flubbed late. Connors, with the tide of battle going his way, simply did the same things better at the end than at the start.
Amritraj never lost his style. At one point, Connors, still fresh in the fourth hour, barreled to the net, lost the point, then hurdled the net to keep from demolishing it. Now on Amritraj's side, back to his opponent, Connors glared at the ground. Amritraj approached softly and put a consoling arm around Connors' shoulder. Connors spun as though mugged and cocked his fist at Amritraj, who countered with his best smile.
It was an old gag. Somewhere, on some continent over the last decade -- maybe in Bangkok or North Conway -- they'd done it before. But it captured them perfectly: Amritraj the artistic gentleman; Connors the sweaty battler.
And here, on Wimbledon's Centre Court, they were both still prisoners of those personas.
In the guests' box sat Amritraj's family in traditional Indian head-to-toe robes with colored caste marks on their foreheads. Next to them, in purple leather jump suit, white leather boots, sunglasses and waist-length orange-blond hair, sat Connors' wife, Patti, the former Playboy playmate of the year.
This odd meeting of East and West ended as the two walked off, bowing to the royal box simultaneously.
As they reached the edge of the court, Amritraj paused, then swept his arm in a gesture for Connors to go before him as an honor. "After you," he said regally.