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Tennis' Old Guard

A New Senior Tour is restaging Some of the Great Court Rivalries of the Past 20 Years
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 6)

Dennis complies, nailing a serve hard enough to force Connors to lunge, grunt and drive back a medium-paced return. Dennis is no idiot, and gingerly taps the ball down the alley of Connors' partner. It's a moment he'll never forget. As Connors wags his index finger, the spectators applaud.

Two courts over, Eddie Dibbs, once ranked number two in the United States, is conducting a nonstop monologue in the middle of a pro-am doubles match. "I can't believe you hit that shot. That's incredible. Way to go! You stink! Let's go!" His teammates are in stitches. Dibbs thinks the Nuveen Tour "is a great way to have fun with the fans and play a lot of tennis. Remember, we're all pretty competitive, and still look forward to having a chance to tear the other guy's eyes out."

Clinics, pro-ams and freewheeling access to practice sessions and matches dominate the Nuveen Tour. When they aren't playing matches, players surface at everything from public autograph parties at easily accessible venues to cocktail soirees and big bashes where everyone from sponsor guests to local celebrities show up. One of the smartest things Connors and Benton have done is stage many tour events in smaller metropolitan markets--all the better to create a big splash. At Pebble Beach, for example, an autograph party featuring Roscoe Tanner and Mel Purcell at a local sports bar was covered by a local NBC affiliate.

Most of all, of course, people come for the tennis. The other smart move the tour made was to stage all its matches on clay, a surface that's easier on the players' bodies and slow enough for lengthy, entertaining rallies.

When Borg squares off against McEnroe at Pebble Beach, the tennis is sublime. "To keep McEnroe from attacking too much," says Lloyd, "Borg has to broaden his game. He has to go for bigger, harder shots."

Even if he's the favorite, McEnroe knows he has to work for every point. Massaging his ground strokes into corners, slipping in drop shots, closing in for volleys, gunning his serve, McEnroe brings out the whole bag of tricks.

Watching these two is also a bit tragic, a late-night makeup for a prime-time rivalry canceled by Borg's early retirement. Their 14 matches in the late 1970s and early '80s (each won seven) were tennis classics. The high point was their 1980 Wimbledon final, a match won by Borg, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6. Often considered the greatest match in tennis history, it featured such exquisite moments as McEnroe fighting off seven match points and winning the epic fourth-set tiebreaker, 18-16. And then, in the decisive set, the Swede with ice in his stomach won 28 of 31 service points to earn his fifth straight Wimbledon title. But after McEnroe beat Borg in the '81 U.S. Open final, a win fit for the crowning of a new king, Borg uncharacteristically skipped out on the post-tournament awards ceremony--never again to play a Grand Slam event.

"Borg leaving our rivalry [would have been] like the whole Lakers team quitting after the Celtics won the championship in '81," says McEnroe. "I missed having the chance to play him more."

Borg's physique is amazing. His legs are long and supple, his body trim, his arms nimble. McEnroe feathers a slice backhand crosscourt. Borg floats a high forehand down the middle. McEnroe whips a topspin forehand crosscourt and dashes to the net. Borg glides over the court, driving a backhand down the line with his hockey-like stroke. Anticipating that Borg would go crosscourt, McEnroe watches the ball go by for a winner.

Then the Swede does something he rarely did in the old days but does quite often on the Nuveen Tour.

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