For 104 years, the defending Wimbledon champion has been referred to as the holder.
But there has never been a holder with a grip like Bjorn Borg's.
In what Borg called the greatest comeback of his fabulous career, the Swede won his 41st consecutive match at the championships, arising from the sick bed of a two-set deficit to beat ferocious Jimmy Connors, 0-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, 6-4, today.
That 3-hour-18-minute marathon semifinal gave Borg a chance to win his sixth straight Wimbledon title in Saturday's final. There he will meet John McEnroe, the 22-year-old child of controversy, who stormed and cursed his way to a straight-set victory over Australia's Rod Frawley this afternoon, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, 7-5.
That Saturday confrontation, which has been awaited for 364 days since last they met, will have a preposterously hard time surpassing the performance of Borg and Connors this evening in the dusk, the half-light and the shadows.
"I was lucky to survive," said Borg, who now has played eight five-set matches in his 41-match streak, but never one where he was in desperate straits for so long or against so valorous an opponent.
"It was a great match," added the normally placid Borg, who now has a 22-4 record in fifth sets. "Against McEnroe in the final last year was perhaps a little more exciting for the fans. But for me, there were better points today, more complete tennis."
Was this the greatest comeback of a career whose trademark has been the incredible come from behind?
"Yeah, for sure," said Borg, glowing with pleasure when others would still be prostrate. Then, he paused for a second. Should he denigrate all those other now-legendary days here? After all, he was two sets down to Mark Edmondson in 1977. And he had gone five harrowing sets with so many men: Connors, McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, Victor Amaya, Roscoe Tanner, Vijay Amritraj. Each, on its day, stopped the tennis world in its tracks. "This was one of the best," said Borg with a mischievous grin. He was teasing. And he knew it. This was the best. This match of nearly 2,000 shots -- nearly 99 percent of them concussive blasts and the other day 1 percent drop shots and lobs of killing delicacy -- was one of distinct crisis points. The last of those sublimely tense junctures was the one that both players remembered most vividly, for it transformed the field of battle for the final time. As the briefest preamble to that instant, let us offer this synopsis. Connors won nine of the first 10 games of the match in 43 minutes: his goal was a three-set blitz. And he nearly got it. Burning energy with no thought of the cost, Connors, who now has lost his last 10 meetings with Borg since 1978, broke in the ninth game of the second set and had two sets in hand in just 82 minutes.
However, Connors wasn't fast enough. "When I was down two sets, I thought it would be very, very difficult to win," said Borg, "because I was not really in the match. Jimmy was putting all the pressure and I was making all the errors."
But Borg turned the tide in the third set with breaks in the second and sixth games while Connors could only answer once with a break back in the fifth game.
"The third set gave me a kick," said Borg. "Suddenly, I was back in the match."
More than that, Borg owned the match. "I was not present in the fourth set," said Connors, who was skunked, 6-0, just as he had done to open the hostilities. Borg, like Connors before him, had run off a streak of nine wins in 10 games.
When Connors seemed extinguished, he lifted himself to his highest level in the fifth set. The first seven games were life and death. Try this on for size: In the third game of the set, Borg had four break points against Connors; Connors fought them all off and won.
In the next game, Connors had two break points. Both times, Borg reached back and hit service aces perfectly in the back corner to the ad court against Connors' backhand.
Borg reached love-40 on Connors' serve for the second straight game. Again, Connors responded with incredible base line fury, winning five straight points and the game.
"The first time he came back from love-40, I thought, 'That can happen easily,'" said Borg. "The second time he did it, I started to think about it more."
Borg's thinking had just begun. On Connors' next service game -- the set still precarious on serve -- Borg completed his hat trick, getting Connors down love-40 with a succession of brilliant service return winners at Connors' feet as he came to the net. Again, it was triple break point in the set.
That made 10 break points in the set.
And here came Connors again. Borg hit a backhand passing shot long. An eighth breaker denied. Then Connors whistled a cross court backhand pass. That made nine break points escaped.
"I knew it was nine," said Connors. "I was countin' 'em."
And so was Borg. "The third time," said Borg, both his lips and his voice narrowing, "it was very important for Jimmy not to do it a third time."
Important, indeed. Borg's mystique is that on "the big points," as he says, he is ice-water calm and nearly infallible. Those two earlier aces were an example of Borg reaching an eerie, tingle-along-the-spine level of perfection when other athletes get the yips and the chokes. Borg is the only man on earth without nerves.
However, if Borg had let 10 straight break points slip from his grasp in the semifinals at Wimbledon, it might well have been a mental turning point in his career. No comparable disaster has ever befallen him here. And he was just one point from defiling his own tennis persona. So, this, as it proved, was to be the moment of fate. h
Connors served his southpaw spinner into the ad court, jerking Borg off the court as he tried to return the excellent first serve. As he had so often all afternoon, Borg cracked back a two-fisted backhand that was far more than adequate -- a deep ball that landed well back in Connors' forehand corner.
For the thousandth time in the match, Connors had to make an instantaneous mental choice. And there,in the depths of the mind, is where Borg's edge lies.
"I never feel tired, except in the mind," he said after the match. "The biggest strain in tennis is keeping your concentration through all those shots."
For a millisecond, Connors' concentration cracked.
Connors later grasped, remembering the shot. "For a second, I couldn't decide."
"I was hesitant," confessed Connors. "Three-quarters of me wanted to come over the ball (with topspin), drive it deep, and come flying in behind it. But the other part of me knew he'd hit too good a return for that and maybe I should just put it back in play."
So, Connors did neither. His deep forehand drive to Borg's forehand corner didn't have enough topspin to dive into the court because Connors had not hit the shot with complete conviction. The shot -- the momentous disaster which sank Connors -- was over the baseline. By all of three inches.
That was the difference between these men today.
"He had to play his best stuff to beat me," said Connors. "I wasn't missing by much," he said, holding up his fingers a half-inch apart. "But sometimes that's as bas as being off by a yard."
That break of Connors' serve put Borg ahead, 5-3. The 25-year-old, who, on Saturday, can match Willie Renshaw as the only man to win Wimbledon six straight times (1881-1886), then allowed Connors to win a serve at love while he summoned his energy.
With customary dispatch, Borg served out the match at 15, finishing with a simple backhand volley into an open court as Connors madly dashed toward the grandstand to retrieve one last Borg bullet.
The holder had held, again.
In the greatest matches between players of the most thoroughly tested championship quality, only particulars give a proper sense of the players' ability to rise to crisis, rather than shrink before it. A few examples:
Borg was being smashed as Connors served at 6-0, 4-3, in the second. Borg made a spectacular stand, breaking Connors for the first time in a 19-minute game that saw six game points for Connors and five breakers for Borg. Connors had 26 first serves in the game and missed only three. Yet Borg broke. What did Connors do? He broke back in the next game, finishing with a hail of cross-court service return blasts that landed at Borg's feet like pistol fire throughout the match. Connors then arrogantly served out the set at love.
Borg, of course, wouldn't stand for such humiliation and broke Connors' first serve of the third set, forcing four errors in brutally long base line rallies. That 3-0 lead should have iced the set, but Connors, naturally, broke back at 15, helped by two of the diving forehand volleys that he seemed to be able to angle down the line while suspended in midair.
As if you couldn't guess, Borg broke Connors back at 15. That shattering answer broke Connors' will for nearly a set and a half as he won only one of 10 games and seemed lost in the wilderness against Borg's topspin ground strokes and high percentage of first serves.
The final set was, quite simply, as good as tennis can get. Perhaps the most memorable shots of the day by Borg came then, in the fourth game, when he faced Connors' only two break points of the set -- two points that could have ended what may now be considered the greatest streak in the history of individual sports.
Both times, Borg served in the direction of the royal box, a perch from which Lady Diana Spencer, future queen of England, had departed four hours earlier. Both times Connors, the finest return-of-serve animal of his era, crouched for the kill he has wanted here against Borg for years.
And both times, Borg served a 120-mph missile that landed in the extreme corner of the service box within one or two inches of the perfect place.
Connors, whose reflexes are second to none, never moved, never even tried for a return on either. He was frozen with admiration and merely shook his head.
By contrast, McEnroe's perfunctory victory over a game but grossly overmatched Frawley, the 112th-ranked player in the world, was almost beneath notice.
McEnroe allowed Frawley breathing space by getting only 54.2 percent of his first serves in -- not the figure he will need against Borg. Frawley managed only 52 percent.
Were it not for McEnroe's tantrums during and after the match, plus a warning and a penalty point, the affair might only be remembered for its tedious pace as two of the game's slowest players outdawdled each other, playing three sets in 3:01.
Unfortunately, Lady Diana departed after two abysmal sets, perhaps swearing off tennis indefinitely. In the long run, that may be a blessing for England. Had she stayed for the second match, this island might one day have had a queen who was hopelessly addicted to tennis.