Before autumn's arrival on Saturday, we'll relive one of tennis' most memorable summers. The 1977 season was one of the most colorful and enduringly significant in the game's history. Over three days this week, we’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of that most memorable of sporting summers.
Part 2: The Best of Rivals, The Best of Friends
Forty years ago, Wimbledon started by marking its 100th anniversary, and finished by taking the men’s game to new heights of popularity
“It’s the day of the superstar,” Gordon Forbes thought as he took his seat inside a sun-drenched Centre Court to watch the 1977 Wimbledon men’s final. A 43-year-old ex-player from South Africa, he had known the All England Club in a simpler time, before the sport boomed and the masses invaded its lawns.
Forbes had returned, like dozens of his friends from the amateur days, for Wimbledon’s Centenary celebration. He wasn’t the only one among them to discover that, as he wrote, “Tennis has changed. Come into money and gone absolutely public.”
Looking down at the familiar well-worn grass, Forbes watched two of the superstars of the new game in action. Bjorn Borg, 21, and Jimmy Connors, 24, the first pure products of the Open era, were about to play a fifth set for the title.
“Marvelously detached. Inscrutable. Patient. There is a balance in his perspective,” Forbes marveled at Borg, as the Swede raced to a 4–0 lead.
When Connors roared back to make it 4–4, Forbes compared the American to “a complicated machine that has been finely programmed to hit hundreds of risky winners.”
Connors slapped his thigh and rolled his head like a prize fighter. Borg silently bent down into his return stance, showing no signs of the emotions roiling him. The championship was in the balance and Centre Court was on a knife edge.
It was the only way for this extraordinary fortnight to end. WIMBLEDON WAS NEVER BETTER, Sports Illustrated declared when it ended, and it was hard to argue. After 100 years, the ’77 edition showcased a men’s field that—in the form of semifinalists Borg, Connors, John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis—had reached a peak of popularity, personality, quality and controversy.
Superstars had come to tennis, and the pro game was about to take a turn in the sun.
In 1977, the International Lawn Tennis Association, which had run the sport for 65 years, dropped “Lawn” from its name. It was an acknowledgement of the fact that, by the 1970s, tennis was tennis, whether it was played on a grass-court preserve or on one of the new public asphalt courts being laid down across the United States.
Throughout that decade, as the sport found a TV audience for the first time, it began to echo the surrounding culture in a way that it never had before. In ’77, that echo could be heard, loudly, at Wimbledon.
It was a tumultuous summer in London. The city was celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, even as its radios were tuned to the punk rock that had upended the pop charts. In early June, the most notorious of those punks, the Sex Pistols, blared their sardonic anthems, like “Anarchy in the U.K.,” during a boat cruise up the Thames. Two weeks later, the anti-establishment spirit found its way into Centre Court.
Before the first day’s play, Wimbledon held a champions’ parade, in which all living singles winners were invited back to receive a medal. Forty-three of 52 past champions attended, including Rod Laver, who hadn’t played at Wimbledon since 1971. His second-round loss later that week was seen by many as the end of a more gentlemanly era in tennis.
In place of Laver, the sport now had Connors, for better or worse. The champion in 1974, Connors was also scheduled to receive a medal. Instead, while the parade was held on Centre Court, Jimbo practiced with Ilie Nastase on the grounds. Connors said he needed to test a splint for his injured thumb, and hadn’t intended to snub the club. That’s not how the fans saw it; they showered him with boos when he appeared for his first match. Only when a serve hit Connors in the crotch and sent him tumbling to the grass did their jeers turn to cheers.
The next day, Wimbledon announced that a medal would not be sent to any champion “who had the extreme discourtesy not to collect it.”
Still, Connors made his way through the draw as expected. The only surprise was that his “Ugly American” antics suddenly seemed tame when compared to those of the 18-year-old he would meet in the semis. There was a new Johnny Rotten in town, and his name was McEnroe. Years earlier, Connors had been branded “The Brat” by the British tabloids; their writers upped the ante for McEnroe, who would forever be known in their pages as “Superbrat.”
That summer McEnroe skipped his prep-school graduation in New York for a European adventure at the French Open and Wimbledon. The self-described “unheralded amateur with chubby cheeks, thick thighs and Snickers bars in my equipment bag” made it through qualifying, and then found himself, to his surprise, cruising into the second week on the strength of his lefty serve and precocious racquet-work. But it wasn’t McEnroe’s talent that fans noticed first; it was his temper.
“He had an assortment of facial expressions reminiscent of a hungry infant denied milk,” wrote TENNIS’ Peter Bodo.
In a preview of tantrums to come, McEnroe, in his quarterfinal against Phil Dent, put his foot over his wooden racquet and threatened to snap it in half. When the spectators voiced their disapproval, he kicked the frame across the grass. The boos got louder.
But McEnroe discovered—not for the last time—that his temper didn’t undermine his talent, and he beat Dent in five sets. The teen’s adventure would take him to a place he never expected: Centre Court, and a meeting with Connors.
Did McEnroe’s countryman welcome him to the big time with open arms? Not exactly. In the locker room beforehand, McEnroe timidly tried to introduce himself to Connors. “He wouldn’t look at me,” McEnroe recalled. “He wouldn’t even acknowledge my existence.”
“Do I even belong here with this guy?” McEnroe wondered. “At that moment, I pretty much decided I did not want to win this match. Couldn’t handle it.”
McEnroe’s wish was granted. Connors ground him down in four sets, but not before acknowledging that “this skinny kid was probably going to be around for a while.” Jimbo had seen the future and, for a day, he had intimidated it. The decade-long rivalry between these two hot-headed Irish-American lefties had gotten off to an appropriately unfriendly start.
“If McEnroe stirred the masses,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick, “the other semifinal moved poets.”
As Jimbo and Johnny Mac exited Centre Court, Borg and Geruliatis entered. The Angelic Assassin and the Lithuanian Lion made for an oddly matched pair. Each sported long, blond hair and wore skin-tight white shirts and ultra-short shorts—Borg was in his customary Fila pinstripes, while Gerulaitis had his Sergio Tacchini collar turned up. For the next five sets, their play was as crisp as their clothes.
While Connors and McEnroe made their noisy way through the fortnight, Borg had done the same in his trademark style—silently, and a little miraculously. He survived a five-set scare against Mark Edmondson in the second round; the sometimes janitor went up two sets to love before Borg woke up.
Now Borg had to survive another, even more perilous five-setter, against Gerulaitis. When Gerulaitis wasn’t at Studio 54, the fast-talking 23-year-old from Queens was coming into his own as a player. That spring he had won the Italian Open, but Gerulaitis’ finest tennis came in his loss to Borg.
British writer Rex Bellamy compared their semifinal to a flash of “summer lightning” across the grass. Borg won the first set, but Gerulaitis settled in and took the second with his measured attack. By the third, both men were in peak form, and the match crested in an epic fourth game.
“The two longhairs drifted about the grass as if on wings,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “Side to side, back to front, here delivering rocket drives, there issuing drop volleys; here racing down delicate lobs, there serving and volleying away heavy artillery. Fourteen of the game’s 22 points were clean winners.”
When Gerulaitis broke to go up 3–2 in the fifth set, on yet another clean winner, Borg looked ready to lose. The question was, did Gerulaitis think he was ready to win? Then, for the first time all afternoon, Gerulaitis hesitated.
Borg took advantage, broke back and escaped, 8–6 in the fifth. Gerulaitis’ shoulders slumped after he shook Borg’s hand. He would never reach a Wimbledon final, and he would never beat Borg.
If Connors vs. McEnroe was the start of a great rivalry, Borg vs. Gerulaitis was the start of a great friendship. Gerulaitis showed up the next day at the club where Borg trained, and said, “Whenever you want to practice, I’m ready.”
As oddly matched off the court as they were on it, Borg and Gerulaitis would be inseparable from then on.
A fair bit of old tennis there, one could safely say,” Forbes thought two days later, as he sat in Centre Court and recalled the Borg-Gerulaitis semifinal. The same could be said for the match finishing in front of him. Again it was Borg who escaped, 6–4 in the fifth set. It was a fitting end to Wimbledon’s remarkable Centenary, and a fitting start to a new—if brief—golden age.
Connors, McEnroe, Gerulaitis and Borg—friends and rivals—would make their summer lightning strike for the next four years. From Wimbledon 1977 to the US Open in 1981, they would win 14 of 18 majors. At the ’81 Open, all four again reached the semifinals, but by then the old pecking order had been overturned. When McEnroe beat Borg in the final, Borg drove out of Flushing Meadows and never returned. The sun had set on tennis’ first superstars.
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