As we approach this year's U.S. Open finals, we count down the five best tussles for the title. (Disagree? Comment below.)
1976: (1) Jimmy Connors d. (2) Bjorn Borg, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 6-4
Iconic champions produced superb points and a crackling tiebreaker in which Connors boldly fought off four set points. Attacking net on pivotal points behind flat strikes into the corners, Connors repelled Borg's dipping passes, conquering one of the game's greatest clay-court champions on the slate-colored clay of Forest Hills.
Fresh off his first career Wimbledon championship weeks earlier, Borg edged reigning U.S. Open champion Manuel Orantes in a gripping five-set quarterfinal before sweeping Ilie Nastase, who had partnered Connors in winning the '75 U.S. Open doubles title, in the semifinals. The second-seeded Swede's comprehensive court coverage, heavy topspin strokes and coolly-detached disposition on court made the task of defeating Borg on clay seem as daunting as turning back the tides.
This was a classic contrast of styles, with Connors' flat strikes sometimes skimming the top of the tape like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake, while Borg's looping topspin shots soared over the net and dive-bombed into the court. Well aware that engaging Borg in a protracted baseline battle on clay was a losing proposition, Connors, with the tactical aid of Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, hooked his slice serve out wide to drag Borg off the court and set up penetrating approach shots down the line. While you may not remember Connors as a classic volleyer, his approach shots were so accurate and his court sense so sharp that when he attacked on his terms, he could terminate points with one volley.
In the crucial third-set tiebreaker, a stubborn Connors dug in with defiance and fought off four set points. At 5-6, see opened up the court with a slice serve and fired a forehand down the line. Borg saved a set point at 6-7, then it was Connors' turn to deny another set point, with a lunging two-fisted volley to set up a smash. Ratcheting tension at 9-all grew so intense that the chair umpire and both players forgot to change ends, prompting a ball boy to remind the chair umpire of the mandatory change. The crowd gave the ball kid a cheer for his appropriate action. Connors' sensational leaping save (a precursor to his "sky-hook" shot) prolonged the proceedings before blasting a backhand winner for set point, sealing a classic tirbreaker when Borg's backhand strayed wide.
Borg saved the first championship point with a slick, dipping forehand. On the ensuing point, a gutsy Connors blasts a backhand approach down the line that singes the sideline—drawing some gasps from some in the crowd who thought the shot might have strayed wide—to earn a second championship point, which Borg also saved. An unrelenting Connors again attacks, coaxing Borg to loft a lob that lands long for championship point number three.
It was a monumental victory for Connors, who concluded the 1976 season with a 90-8 record and 13 titles in regaining the world No. 1 ranking. Connors holds a U.S. Open record that will likely never be broken—he is the only man to win the Open on three different surfaces: Grass, clay and hard court.