Welcome to the second article in a five-part series titled Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe Resume Their Feud, as Leroy Watson and I try to put into words the rivalry that was Connors vs. McEnroe: At once belligerent, amusing, and sprightly, it is indeed one of the most intriguing duels in tennis history...
To read Pt. 1, the prelude, click here.
As Roger Federer walked out on the court, his all-black Nike ensemble glistened under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe stadium. If this was the most glamorous of majors, here was its shining star.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Roger Federer,” said the announcer, but the crowd needed no prompting.
It rose as one to salute the man who had furnished it with many a moment of tennis acumen over the years: artistry so pristine that his ruthless demolition of lesser opponents seemed almost benevolent.
New York loved him, and he returned the favor in full earnest. Even in his most difficult year yet, one where potent viruses and bulldozing young Spaniards dethroned him on courts around the world, Flushing Meadows had come through for Federer.
If Roger could win over crowds with his boyish charm and on-court elegance, his partner could make it go nuts with his flamboyance alone.
The audience erupted with uncontrollable excitement as Johnny Mac walked on to court to join his teammate, sporting a bandanna redder than his fiery temper of yore. Mellowed a touch from his racket-throwing days, McEnroe acknowledged the applause with a cheerful wave.
The arrival of Jimmy Connors in his snug shorts and hallmark sweater vest brought on a fresh bout of decibels from the stands, transporting his old rival through a time tunnel. “You cannot be serious,” yelled Johnny Mac, as Jimbo sauntered in, giving the audience a tantalizing taste of their longtime duel. “Just wait and see,” Connors retorted, teasing the crowd as it roared some more.
Only one man in the tennis world could tame a riotous crowd such as this one simply by the power of his presence. He’d subdued opponents and silenced mobs in the past by the mere act of wielding a racket. Flair so sublime was but worthy of deafening silence. Not today, however.
As Pete Sampras walked into the arena in his oversized white shorts and t-shirt, the audience went completely nuts, cheers drowning out the announcer’s voice. But no introduction was needed: holder of most major titles in the open era, Hall of Famer, King of Grass, and quite possibly, the greatest of all time.
As McEnroe and Connors continued to glower at each other, Roger walked up to shake hands with the icon whose record he was still chasing. Something that seemed inevitable just a couple years ago suddenly wasn’t quite as easy any more; if anything, this made his childhood idol even more larger than life. At least today he would have his chance against him.
The chair umpire conducted the coin toss. Rich Kaufman had had the best seat in the house for many an epic thriller at Arthur Ashe stadium—one that had often proved too close for comfort during Connors-Mac contests—but he knew it didn’t get better than today.
The Fed-Mac team won the toss, as Jimbo dropped to his knees to peer at the shiny quarter. Satisfied, he walked toward the baseline as Pete laid a hand on his shoulder. He would have to keep his temperament in check today; Sampras’s stoicism was by no means infectious, but it sure was quelling.
Fed’s team elected to serve. The match started with each man at his comfort zone: McEnroe at net, Roger at baseline.
Federer started with a flourish: an unreturnable serve out wide setting up an easy service hold, and a portending of things to come. For little can go wrong with the Swiss man’s game that a good service day can’t cure.
As if in recognition of this, Sampras served and lunged forward to take a return from Federer early, causing Roger to net his forehand. Connors and Federer traded crosscourt groundstrokes in the next point, before Jimbo changed direction to hit a flat forehand down the line; McEnroe got to it half a step late, and thumped it into the net.
Jimbo let out a yell of satisfaction—winning a point was all good, but winning it at the expense of his old rival was just something special.
In reply, Mac breezed through the next service game with back-to-back serve-and-volleys, followed by a phenomenal backhand passing shot that sidestepped Pete. The next game saw a 25-shot rally between Fed and Connors, before Sampras charged forward to flick a backhand slice from the Swiss, directing it at a confounded Johnny Mac.
Each pair remained solid on serve till Federer put his team in a 15-40 hole in the ninth game. Roger tossed a forehand long, and then Connors smashed back a stunning return on a 130-mph serve from the Swiss. McEnroe, not to be outdone, smashed his racket.
With tantrums now outsourced to the man who did them best, Roger displayed his frustration in his own characteristic way: he walked to the service line, twirled his racket, twiddled with its strings, and then pushed his hair back before unleashing a lethal serve.
He punished a weak return by Sampras in the next point with a smash lob, which Connors answered with a beautiful forehand crosscourt. McEnroe jumped up to take it early, swiveling his body in the air as he hit a fantastic forehand volley: risky move on a crucial point, but one that paid off. Deuce.
Roger high fived his partner before firing a powerful serve, causing Pete to dump it into the net. In the next point, a Connors crosscourt return prompted a forehand up the line from McEnroe; Pete took it early to hit a volley right at McEnroe’s feet.
Johnny moved backward and out of the ball’s way just enough to hit a slightly awkward, but clean backhand into the seemingly open court, but Sampras scrambled to the sideline just in time to position himself for a beautiful forehand crosscourt.
Federer, for his part, got to it, hitting a short forehand slice to the just-returning Pete and, as intended, the ball missed Sampras’ outstretched racket. Connors, amazingly, moved in to salvage the shot and managed to hit a backhand right to Federer who tossed an easy lob over the 6'1" Sampras and won the point. A tough path to even the match at 5-5!
The next game had all the makings of an easy service hold, with 2 powerful serves from Pete followed by impressive volleys. Seemingly comfortable at 40-0, Sampras double faulted. In the next point, Connors netted a backhand, following a formidable forehand return from the Swiss.
A beautiful rally ensued as the four champions took turns at the net with light caresses and touches as if to give the ball a break; Jimbo broke free by passing a fierce volley from McEnroe but Roger stepped up and smashed a deep lob, which both his opponents could only follow with their eyes. The ball clipped the baseline. From 40-0 to deuce.
As the great man is expected to in such a situation, Sampras placed a well-timed ace. In the next point, however, Federer took advantage of an uncertain slice from Connors, and slammed the ball past him with his textbook backhand. Back to deuce and a frustrated Jimmy who raised his hand to signal a challenge, surprising himself as much as his counterparts.
He regretted not having chosen to simply yell at the umpire. Back in his day, this was the linesman’s job, not his, and certainly not a stodgy old computer’s. Perhaps, the mysterious waters of Wa’Carthikos were taming him. He’d have to be careful, he thought, as he watched McEnroe strut impatiently on the other side.
What would he go by if not his temper: his double-handed backhand? Bah. The computer confirmed the deuce and Connors decided to hate it more.
Sampras served and then ran down a Federer crosscourt return to flick a forehand half volley down the line; McEnroe reacted quickly with a delicate forehand lob, which passed over Sampras, just barely touching the sideline. Break point. A second serve earned a fierce return from Federer, which caused Jimbo to net a forehand. First break to Team McEnroe.
McEnroe and Roger conspired in whispers ahead of the next game. “I knew you were missing my ass-kicking, Jimmy,” yelled Mac, savoring the moment as he moved into position. “Now you got it.”
“I don’t miss your premature gloating though, John,” returned Jimmy.
Mac shook his head as if to turn his focus back on the game. He served and moved forward to the ad side to take a forehand up the line from Sampras, hitting a short volley winner, crosscourt.
Connors returned Mac’s next serve with a forehand that landed on the net chord, and mulled a bit before falling over the net to the other side, forcing Roger to move out of the ball’s trajectory to avoid being hit. Another powerful McEnroe serve was followed by a Federer backhand volley, which swept past Connors.
Jimmy returned Mac’s next serve with a forehand up the line to Roger, who hit a pistol of a volley. Pete sent the ball into the stands with a weak attempt at a backhand return.
The next point saw a rally of sorts, with smooth Federer backhands pitched against Connors’ powerful forehands. Connors changed direction deftly on a short stroke from Fed with his hallmark two-handed slice.
Mac flicked it back prompting a Connors volley, which Roger returned with an easy lob. Pete jumped in with a deft volley directed to Mac’s backhand side. Mac took it early, sending a sharp forehand volley instead.
Connors gently flicked the ball back. Federer sealed the point and set with a hallmark backhand down the line that went out of reach of both his opponents and deep into the court.
Federer and McEnroe took the first set, 7-5.
(To be continued...)