January 1978 marked the start of a new era for the season-ending men’s Masters Championships. Over the course of this event’s first seven years, it had changed locations annually. If the good news was a worldwide spread of the tennis wealth—the tournament staged on four continents during that time—the bad news was that it was challenging for it to generate a significant footprint with the public.
But beginning in ’78, for 12 years the tournament would be played at one of the world’s most iconic sports venues: New York City’s Madison Square Garden, where it was front and center in the media capital of the world. This was arguably the greatest single decision that vaulted the tournament’s global stature.
The contrasts between Borg and Connors were vivid—the right-handed, tranquil Borg dubbed “The Iceman,” the left-handed, expressive Connors persistently on fire. Though each was primarily a baseliner, Borg was the more defensive player, his remarkable speed and high-margin groundstrokes allowing him to patrol the baseline with unsurpassed prowess. Connors’ preference was for offense, his flat drives struck hard and deep in hopes of eliciting an attackable short ball.
In the last year, the balance of power between these two had begun to shift. Twelve months prior to this match, Connors had won six of their seven matches, including a compelling win on clay—Borg’s best surface—in the final of the 1976 US Open.
But Borg won both of their matches in 1977. The most notable came in the final of Wimbledon. Leading 4-0 in the fifth set, Borg withstood a furious Connors comeback—four straight games won—to squeak it out, 6-4.
Later that summer, Connors was defeated in the final of the US Open by Guillermo Vilas in the last US Open match played at the old school West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. The finish was wild—a late call on championship point, the crowd rushing to the court akin to the end of a soccer game, a distraught Connors exiting prior to the awards ceremony. These were the years when Jimmy Connors was not always a fan favorite in New York. His attitude then: love me, hate me—just react. As CBS commentator Tony Trabert noted during the ’77 US Open final, “Connors has to wonder where he’s playing this match, because it seems more people are for Vilas than Connors.”
But as Doug Henderson, a member of Connors’ inner circle, noted in his book, Endeavor to Persevere, Madison Square Garden was a far cry from Forest Hills. “The Garden crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Connors,” wrote Henderson. “Gone was the highbrow sophistication exhibited by the Forest Hills crowd that afforded it the pleasure of rooting against their country’s best player.” Indeed, this match marked the beginning of the love affair between Connors and New York City: two combatants, fighting hard to stay on top.
On Thursday night, Connors lost his opening round-robin match to Vilas, 7-5 in the third. Afterwards, he issued a trademark statement: “Don’t count me out.”
Now he and Borg were in the final—Connors for the first time, Borg for the second (he’d lost the 1975 final to Ilie Nastase). A crowd of 17,150 and a national TV audience on CBS would thoroughly enjoy dozens of long, all-court rallies.
After breaking strings in two of his racquets in the first four games, Connors took charge of the first set, even hitting a second serve ace to Borg’s stronger forehand to go up 4-2. Connors took the opener 6-4.
But Borg had his own way of stepping things up too, more subtle than Connors but also quite forceful, mostly with his serve, forehand and movement. The Swede raced through the second set 6-1 and served at 2-1, 40-15 in the third. Connors rallied, went ahead. Borg served at 3-4 and fought off two break points to even the match at 4-all in the third. From there, Connors held at love and in the next game broke Borg, closing out the match with a forehand volley winner.
Even then, Borg was the one who began to control this rivalry. The two subsequently played one another 13 more times. Connors only won once, beating Borg in the 1978 US Open final. After Borg defeated Connors in the semis of the 1981 US Open, he led the rivalry, 15-8.
The big surprise, though, came when Borg announced his retirement in January 1983 at the age of 26. Nothing more personified Borg’s disenchantment with tennis than his four losses in US Open finals. Meanwhile, Connors’ romance with New York continued to blossom, capped off by his requiem run to the semis in 1991. But that’s another story, for another time.