Tennis' Old Guard
A New Senior Tour is restaging Some of the Great Court Rivalries of the Past 20 Years
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96
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As Connors was Andre Agassi's ancestor in the hype department, so did Borg precede Agassi in the heartthrob category. Borg's blond locks and cool manner made him the original "Teen Angel," mobbed by young girls the world over. While his topspinning baseline game initially struck many as severely limited, its narrow tunnel of possibility proved fortifying. Unforced errors were not part of Borg's vocabulary. When necessary, he'd hammer a big serve, whip a return or strike an angled passing shot. "Ice water in his veins," was the phrase popularized by his coach, Lennart Bergelin.
The price Borg paid for being an angel was no freedom to be a human. So much of Borg had been devoted to tennis that he had nothing left to give--to the fans or himself. Emotionally spent, unwilling to reclimb the mountain after McEnroe took over the number one spot in '81, Borg picked up his toys and became tennis' Rip Van Winkle.
The rumors of Borg's years in exile are endless. Lots of money, lots of girls, lots of hedonism, as if he was making up for all those repressed years when he would never express himself with his racket or mouth. No one knows exactly how much energy was expended in what direction, but now, Borg has realized that "when I stepped away from the game, I thought I wouldn't like to play tennis again. I think I missed tennis without realizing it.
"I don't like to lose, I want to win all the time," he says. In the summer of 1995, he earned his first Nuveen Tour crown, vanquishing Connors, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. "I like the Nuveen Tour," says Borg. "I like playing with my generation. The atmosphere is great. The competition is great. Tennis is fun." The angel has returned to earth--at least for now (throughout the '96 season rumors were floating that Borg was again feeling burnout and devoting his time to off-court pursuits).
Forty-five minutes later, Borg and Vilas are sweating heavily. Connors walks out of the TV booth, smiling approvingly at his drenched buddies. Turning to a fan, he says, "The guys didn't realize at first how much work it was going to take to get in shape for this tennis. Now everybody's starting to grind it out that much more." Pointing his index finger to Borg and Vilas, he calls, "See you guys at the lunch."
Borg waves back, swings a few classic services and completes the practice session. Vilas signs half a dozen autographs and gathers his racket bag.
A half hour after the workout, Borg, Vilas and Connors are in a large tent. It's filled with approximately 60 guests of Challenge sponsor Quality Inns, a dozen print reporters, three TV cameras and assorted tour officials. The trio is now joined by McEnroe. Just arrived on a 7 a.m. flight out of New York's Kennedy Airport, McEnroe's wearing a New York Rangers hat, a white-and-brown Nike jacket and red suede Nike shoes that look 20 years out of date.
A Nuveen Tour rep turns on a large video screen. As images of the players flash by, Rod Stewart's voice comes on, singing that Bob Dylan homage to youth and tenacity, "Forever Young." Here's Borg dashing, Connors lunging, Vilas scampering, McEnroe darting. May you always be courageous/Stand upright and be strong/May you stay forever young. Two nights later, at a dinner Quality Inns hosts for 700 VIPs, the nostalgia rush from the video will electrify the crowd into hearty applause.
Afterwards, McEnroe and Connors begin practicing. Connors is a mechanic, the well-trained technician who knows how to put every piece together. Just look at that backhand, ain't she a beaut? McEnroe is an artist, the tortured soul who'd prefer working alone on the canvas. I'm concentrating, would you get the hell out of here?
The tennis roadies who'll be producing the event are checking out the acoustics, as "The Girl from Ipanema" softly echoes over the speakers. The workout moves along in Zen-like tranquillity. No bad calls to glare at. No umpires to yell at. Just Jimmy and John, spinning and bashing, gliding and grunting.
In the middle of a Wimbledon semifinal match, Jimbo once told McEnroe that "my two-year-old is more mature than you." McEnroe once said that "no one could be more phony" than Connors. It's all water under the bridge.
"You hit that line, Jimbo."
"Good volley, Mac."
It's as if these two hotheads realized something about each other: rivalries make your greatness look that much more vivid. Ali needed Frazier. Bette Davis needed Joan Crawford. Montgomery needed Rommel. Neither of these guys ever needed Ivan Lendl. "Jimmy's the most charismatic player in tennis history," says McEnroe. "If everybody in the sport tried as much as Jimmy, tennis would be in a lot better shape."
"Along with Pancho Gonzalez, Mac's the one guy I'd have play for my life," says Connors.
No doting ladies or teenyboppers hover around McEnroe. No queries about matches gone by. He signs autographs perfunctorily. Well, OK, motions McEnroe to one fan with a camera, posing for a few seconds before donning his shades and strutting off. At sponsor parties, McEnroe dresses up and works the crowd with all the awkwardness of an adolescent implored to chat with his grandparents. His pro-am attendance is sporadic. Don't even think about seeing him give a clinic.
Then again, he's John McEnroe, tennis' great artist--and Connors' heir apparent as the Nuveen Tour's marquee player. But with his time spread between his family, his SoHo art gallery, his fledgling music career and broadcasting, McEnroe has indicated that he's not so keen on assuming that responsibility. "There's a lot more dirty, grimy conditioning work I'd have to do to play this tour full-time," he says.
Aside from McEnroe, Nuveen Tour players are omnipresent at tournament sites. Munching on his third hot dog of the day in front of the Pebble Beach pro shop, Connors explains that "it ain't none of this 'play your match and boogie back to the hotel room' stuff."
Twenty-four recreational players are spread out on two courts. John Lloyd and Johan Kriek are conducting a clinic. Pebble Beach tennis director Mike Trabert (son of Hall of Famer Tony Trabert) and his colleague, Marc Moran, are feeding balls and volleying them back. Lloyd is giving technical pointers. "Turn your shoulder sooner," he shouts in his polite British accent. "That's the way," he says as a woman runs up and knocks off a volley.
Gathering the group around him, Lloyd tells them how much they can learn from watching the Nuveen Tour pros. "Watch how early someone like Connors prepares for the ball," he says. "See how he's paying attention, getting his racket back with his shoulders, continually moving and putting his entire body into the shot."
Cruising around the adjacent court, Kriek is happy to see how eager his group is to run down the balls Trabert is feeding into the corners. The attendees have been pumped up by the presence of greatness. "I'm a big believer in visualization," says Trabert. "When people see these guys up close, they get to see that technique. It helps them both as spectators and as players."
These clinics are one of the primary attractions for corporate sponsors. "We love being able to entertain customers at these tournaments," says John Lotka, Nuveen's vice president of advertising and promotion. "There's a lot of intimacy we can establish around tennis. The players, like Connors, Lloyd and others, help us tremendously with that."
But you don't have to always be part of the sponsor's network to participate in these events. At the Corel Champions event that was held last May in Rockville, Maryland, dozens of players 35 and over paid a scant $30 for a clinic, dinner and a ticket to the evening's matches.
Many fans also congregate around each Nuveen Tour stop's pro-am, wherein eight of the players team with dozens of sponsor guests in a half-day odyssey of Walter Mitty proportions.
"OK, big boy," Connors shouts to a big-serving weekend player named Dennis, "bring it on."
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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