"People say that tennis is a gentleman's form of prizefighting. I'd say that's only half right. Tennis can no longer be called a gentleman's sport." --Ray Benton, Masters tournament director By Thomas Boswell Washington Post Staff Writer
NEW YORK, Jan. 15--The Masters presented tennis as a glorious, day-long morality play today in Madison Square Garden.
The performers in this eight-man field, vying for a $100,000 top prize and one of their sport's major honors, should have worn name placards out of Pilgrim's Progress.
John McEnroe was Chastized Youth. He stayed out half the previous night rockin' and rollin', thinking his match with Eliot Teltscher was meaningless. Instead, to his anger and embarrassment, he discovered, too late, that the match, which he lost, 6-4, 6-1, was vitally important, both to himself and others. For being unprepared, McEnroe lost $30,000, as well as getting yet another black eye to go with his spoiled-brat image.
Jimmy Connors was Outrage. Connors stormed out of the Garden, and out of this Masters, late in the evening, in a rage. Roscoe Tanner had beaten him in a sublimely heroic triple-tie-breaker match, 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (7-1), 7-6 (9-7). Had it been played in a Wimbledon final, it would have been an instant epic. Connors, who fought off six match points, was furious at McEnroe. Had McEnroe played to form and beaten Teltscher, then Connors' one victorious set against Tanner would have been enough to nudge him into Saturday's semifinals. Instead, Teltscher will be playing.
Teltscher, the little-known, eighth-ranked player in the world, was the Child of Opportunity. Entering the day, his chances of avoiding elimination were near nil. Yet by day's end, thanks to McEnroe's going through the motions and Tanner's upset of Connors, Teltscher had won $47,000, by far the biggest payday of his life. And in the semifinals he will play Vitas Gerulaitis, who late tonight defeated Guillermo Vilas, 6-1, 6-4.
Ivan Lendl, the tournament's No. 1 seed, was Dumb Luck. His opponent for the day, Jose-Luis Clerc, defaulted with a mysterious injury rather than play in what would have been a meaningless match. Also, as Tanner fought off a match point in the final tie breaker with Connors, Lendl must have been holding his breath. Had Connors won, Lendl would have faced him Saturday. That would have been an almost certain defeat for the, since Connors has won all eight of their matches and all 17 sets. Instead Lendl faces McEnroe, whom he beat in all three of their meetings last year.
Finally, Tanner, who was eliminated from this Masters when Teltscher beat McEnroe, was The True Hero. With nothing at stake except his pride, and the chance to help the damaged integrity of his sport, Tanner smashed down two courtside barriers, ran into metal poles, barrelled into the crowd and played for three hours despite cramps in his back, calf and both thighs.
"I'm sick of hearing about people tossing matches (not giving full effort) and tanking (deliberately losing)," said Tanner. "At least there's one (player) who always tries."
In addition, the perfectly mannered Tanner won a bitter grudge match from Connors. "I don't like it when one player makes fun of the other," said Tanner, who, at one juncture, looked Connors in the eye and said loudly, "Am I supposed to laugh when you're making fun of me behind my back?"
"What did you say?" retorted Connors.
Tanner repeated it, louder.
This day, which ended with Teltscher entering Tanner's press conference, hugging him, then saying jokingly, "I'll send you a check," can only be done justice chronologically. First came McEnroe.
For the third consecutive year, a famous player admitted he took the court either in no condition, or with no intention, of giving his best effort.
After his victory over Connors Thursday, McEnroe went to a new wave rock concert and, by his own account, stayed out until 3 a.m. Having a match against Teltscher just 10 hours later didn't seem to matter much to McEnroe, who wanted to see The Pretenders. That seemed appropriate since the Masters always has been a pretenders' convention.
Because of the event's bizarre round-robin format--a player could lose twice and still be champion--the situation arises almost annually where a player either gains an advantage by losing or, at least, has no motive to exhaust himself in a tough Friday match. Today, McEnroe joined the legion of dubious underachievers in the Masters.
"I was prepared to play hard and work on my game," said McEnroe, who was booed in the second set. "But it was my understanding that I would win the $30,000 bonus as 'red group leader' whether I won today or not. I wouldn't have gone out and partied last night if I'd thought it mattered to me."
Sometimes the ironies of fact make the ironies of fiction seem tame. McEnroe found out 30 minutes before his match that he'd been incorrectly informed about having a lock on the $30,000.
"Just before my match, they told me that if I lost and Tanner beat Connors, then Teltscher wins the $30,000," he said.
It was too late for McEnroe.
"We have a young generation of players now who have never felt any responsibility to protect the sport," said tournament director Benton, who is from Washington.
"Tennis stars have become giant celebrities, more analogous to rock stars than athletes. Also, top tennis players may have the biggest egos of any entertainers. They have to; I think they're under more pressure, physically, emotionally and psychologically, than any performers."
Few tennis fans doubt the size of those egos or expect their heroes to act in any way not consonant with self-interest. The proof was the afternoon crowd. In all, 8,276 people had bought tickets in advance. After seeing the schedule, and analyzing the possibility of less than all-out effort, only 3,931 showed up.
Perhaps they knew the title of The Pretenders' hit: "I'm Special."
In the end, as McEnroe whined about being given misinformation, as Connors made a no-comment dash for the parking lot, as Teltscher appologized to Tanner for "all the bad things I said about you 'cause I figured you'd lose," only one man stood as truly special: Tanner.
Connors overcame five match points in the ninth game of the third set, but Tanner didn't quit. After one crashing trip into the plastic geraniums, Tanner hopped up quickly.
Who says it's not a gentleman's game?