The Ice Storm

Sunday, June 08, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

You don’t have to search very hard in third video clip above to see how much the French Open has grown and changed in the last 40 years. We hear complaints today about empty seats in Court Philippe Chatrier for semifinals, but that’s nothing compared to the crowd that (didn’t) show up to see Chris Evert win her semi in Paris over Helga Masthoff in 1974. No wonder Evert, who would go on to win the first of her 18 major titles, couldn’t remember anything about those two weeks at Roland Garros when she was asked about them recently. “Who did I play that year?” she asked back.

What the 19-year-old Evert couldn’t have realized was that the 1974 French Open would be the beginning of a transformation, both for the tournament and the sport. While the Open era had begun at this same event in 1968, it took six years before the injection of money into tennis produced something genuinely new. By 1974, everything was in place for what we might call the Professional Era to begin. It kicked off that spring when three young superstars with radically new playing styles took over the stage at Roland Garros.

Within a day of each other, Evert and her fellow teenager Bjorn Borg won the first of their 29 collective Grand Slam titles. Up to that point, the majors had been dominated by the game's old amateur guard, Aussies and Americans who rushed the net and used one-handed backhands. The previous year, Margaret Court had won three Slams, John Newcombe had won two, and Billie Jean King had won one. 

Borg and Evert were the first champions to begin their careers in the Open era, and you could see it right way in the way they played. Each rallied from the baseline, and each used that rarest of rare strokes, the two-handed backhand. After they proved that major titles could be won this way, tennis would never be the same. In a sense, when Michael Llodra, the last highly-ranked pure serve-and-volleyer, walked off the court after his final singles match at Roland Garros last week, it was the closing of a 40-year circle begun by Borg and Evert on the same courts.

The Swede and the American had something else in common: At the time there was some doubt about whether these two blond teens could back up their style, and their stardom, with substance. Borg and Evert had each taken the game by storm in their international debuts. Evert’s came at the 1971 U.S. Open, where, as a 16-year-old, she reached the semifinals and was dubbed, among other nicknames, Chris America and The Little Ice Woman. In 1973 at Wimbledon, Borg, dubbed the Teen Angel, took advantage of a boycott by the top players to secure a place on Centre Court for his first match. Mayhem ensued. For the better part of two weeks, he was chased off that court, around the grounds, and back to his hotel by packs of teenage girls. Tennis had experienced its first Borgasm.

The Ice Woman and the Ice Borg were the new faces of a suddenly booming and sexy sport. Were they champions as well? By ’74, it had been three years since Evert’s promising debut. As for Borg, he had earned a reputation for pulling the ripcord in matches when they weren’t going his way. Were they spoiled by easy early money? Did they have the stomach to stand up to the old guard? Were they a little too icy for their own good? 

All of those questions were answered in Paris in ’74. Evert, who grew up on green clay in Florida, showed that her baseline style worked to perfection on the slow red stuff in Paris. She didn’t drop a set in the event, and, in a Cold War blowout, she rolled over the Soviet Union's Olga Morozova 6-1, 6-2 in the final. (She and Morozova put politics aside to win the doubles.) Chrissie was just getting started. Despite skipping the French from '76 to '78—three years in which she was world No. 1—she would go on to win the tournament seven times. From '73 to '79, she would win 125 straight matches on clay. Take that, Rafa! 

Borg also won in what would become his characteristic fashion. Four times his matches went the distance at Roland Garros that year. In those days, the men played two-of-three sets in the first two rounds; that spelled immediate danger for Borg, the most notorious slow starter in the game's history. He dropped the opening set to his first-round opponent, Jean-Francois Caujolle, before coming back to win 6-4 in the third. In the fourth round, Borg went down 0-6 in the first to Eric van Dillen before winning in five. In the quarters, he dropped the first 2-6 to Raul Ramirez before winning in five. And in the final, Borg topped himself by losing the first two sets before winning the last three 6-0, 6-1, 6-1. Orantes, a smooth-slicing Spanish lefty, was left stunned by the turnaround. No one would be stunned by a Borg comeback again. Ice had been in Borg’s stomach all along.

Yet there was a third character who loomed over the proceedings in Paris that year: Twenty-one-year old Jimmy Connors, Evert’s fiancé, had been banned from the French Open because he had signed a contract to play with the Baltimore Banners of World Team Tennis. Roland Garros was threatened by the rise of Billie Jean King’s pro tennis league, which ran at the same time in the States. The new men’s union, the ATP, sided with the tournament and against Connors.  

Unbeknownst to Jimbo, his manager, Bill Riordan, sued them all for restraint of trade. While his fellow pros hated him for it at the time, the eventual upshot was the beginning of free agency for tennis players. Not that Connors cared: Watching Evert from the sidelines in Paris, he felt like a pariah and a pawn in a larger power struggle. The bitterness lingered: Forty years later, when I asked Connors if he looked back and considered himself a revolutionary of sorts, he had no idea what I was talking about.

Jimbo had his revenge at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that year. Wielding the fiercest two-handed backhand the game had seen, he ripped through the oldest of the old-guard, Ken Rosewall, to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Connors went 93-4 that year, though he’ll always wonder if he could have won the Grand Slam—he’ll always not have Paris.

Starting in Paris in ’74, the Professional Era had its two angels, Bjorn and Chrissie, and its devil, Jimbo. Looking at the crowds at Roland Garros 40 years later, we can see how the game took off from there, and how far it has come.

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