There comes a moment when winners win and losers lose. All that went before means nothing, and all that comes later is inevitable. At the moment of decision, a train is set in motion, its destination certain. For Jimmy Connors, the train left the station, curiously enough, in a game he lost today. Her signature identifies Chris Evert Lloyd no better than her moment of victory today.
Once they were engaged to be married, Jimbo and Chrissie. They were the love couple when they won the Wimbledon championships of 1974. Now, eight years later, half a lifetime in a game for kids, they are married not to each other. There's a little Connors, 3 years old, and Evert teases us with talk of retiring to have children. Connors is 30, Evert 27. No longer kids, they are running out of moments and we ought to save the memories they make.
Connors' moment today came in the sixth game of the fourth set against Guillermo Vilas. This was a semifinal of the U.S. Open, a tournament Connors first won in 1974 and again won in '76 and '78. Connors would beat Vilas handily, 6-1, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. No one knew that in the sixth game of the fourth set when Vilas held his serve to make it three games apiece.
Even in losing that game, though, Connors established that he was the better player. By then, most of the 20,797 spectators had marked themselves as Connors' loyalists. Cries of "C'mon, Jimmy" bounced around the sunbaked stadium of the National Tennis Center. "This is my tournament," Connors would say, talking about the spectators. "They're nuts and I'm nuts and we get along just fine."
Connors had a break point at 30-40 in that sixth game. Vilas sent a first serve to Connors' backhand, making it deuce. When Connors next hit a forehand long, it was Vilas' ad. Connors pulled even quickly by cracking a backhand volley off a Vilas' dink that bounced off the net cord.
Earlier, Vilas lost two service games on double-fault points. Would he crack again here? Rising instead of descending, Vilas sent a rifle- shot first serve to Connors' forehand. And here, unmistakably, was the moment this match was decided.
Off that rifle shot, Connors returned a laser beam.
Vilas' point and ad.
Yet that return, screaming past Vilas before he regained his balance, announced that the train was leaving the station. Connors is the best there is at returning serve. By an inch or so, his return here was long. Two inches shorter, it's his ad.
Vilas promptly added another point to close out that game and make it 3-all.
As well as Vilas had played in that game, it was Connors' work that mattered most. For under pressure, he had been bold. Under pressure from Vilas, he attacked. And if he didn't win that sixth game, the effect of his work was cumulative and it became clear two games later.
After holding his serve to make it 4-3 in the fourth set, Connors allowed Vilas only two points to break him for a 5-3 lead that finished it. By throwing every shot at the lines, by boldness and high energy that make him the most appealing performer in the game. Connors left behind, waving sad goodbye as the train rolled away for good, a Guillermo Vilas good enough to have won seven tournaments this year-
"If you can do that," Vilas said of the Connors daring that reduced the court to an area maybe two feet wide at the sidelines, "it's great. But if you miss, you lose your confidence and can lose. I can win in 45 minutes."
Of that, Hana Mandlikova now has real knowledge, for she came boldly to play Chris Evert Lloyd in the women's championship today. Evert's 6-3, 6-1 victory came in 64 minutes. Almost no one beats Evert by hitting balls from the baseline because her ground strokes are metronomic in their perfection. So Mandlikova, whose game is a lightning flash while Evert's is a day of pleasant sunshine, knew her best shot at victory was to reach for the unreachable.
Mandlikova would win with winners. She would hit shots no one could get back. With her pretty, flowing strokes, she would snap backhands crosscourt and send skimming forehands to the corners. At 3-all in the first set, Mandlikova was working well, not at all the tentative 20-year-old who scraped through her semifinal.
But as quickly as the lightning comes, the darkness follows. And when Evert broke Mandlikova at 15 to go up, 4-3, suggestions of defeat were there. To remove those suggestions, Mandlikova needed to break back immediately. And in fact she forced three break points in the eighth game -- the game when Evert again showed she knows a moment when she sees it.
On each break point, Mandlikova failed. Firs, a simple backhand into the net. Second, after a long series of crisp forehands, another simple backhand botched. Third, a forehand volley halfway down the net.
Evert would deny the artistry of her work. She says Mandlikova has "all the shots" while she, the six-time U.S. Open champion and three-time Wimbledon champion, is "limited." In the simplicity of her perfection, Evert is the master artist of them all. Against her sunshine, lightning is nothing.
Where Mandlikova failed on three easy shots, Evert failed on none. For every shot of magic that Mandlikova conjured, Evert had the return answer. And when she moved Mandlikova to where she wanted her, Evert dropped lobs over her and pushed volleys past her and cracked backhands at her shoelaces.
Evert quickly added two more points to win that eighth game for a 5-3 lead in the first set.
They would play a while longer, but it was over. The moment had come. The sound heard then was the train leaving.