This is the fourth chapter in a five-part series by Leroy & myself - entitled Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe Resume Their Feud.
With the histrionics of the second set behind them, Federer decided to concentrate on tennis. Pistol Pete could probably storm aces in the middle of a freaking hurricane, but he and Johnny Mac needed to focus. He backed up his decision with an ominous serve out wide.
But McEnroe had other ideas, as he lay on the ground in mock exhaustion, just as Connors’ slice return escaped the edge of his outstretched racket. Federer couldn’t help but grin; he tossed a ball over at his partner, just missing his knee, goading him to get up and get serious.
McEnroe threw up his hands and pulled himself upright, taking position close to the net, visibly ditching his “stay back” plan of the previous set. If he was winning this thing, he was winning it from where he liked it. This was how tennis was meant to be played, damnit! Damn these new kids and their love affair with the baseline.
It was Sampras’ turn to hit a powerful return, but this time Mac was prepared. He hit a sharp volley down to Connors and grinned wickedly as Jimbo mishit badly, sending the ball to Spain (where it is said to have jolted a certain Rafael Nadal out off his reverie).
With his teammate finally on the same page, Roger was a man possessed. He befuddled his childhood hero with passing shots that sliced past volleys, which would normally be outright winners, and gave Connors a taste of his own medicine with lethal forehands that simply had no answers.
McEnroe got his partner’s message loud and clear. Staying ominously close to the net, he tossed forehand and backhand volleys to rival Pete’s own. The Fed-Mac pair breezed through their own service games, giving their opponents ever-so-slight trouble with theirs.
At 6-5, with Pete serving, Mac’s powerful volley was answered by an equally fierce crosscourt stroke from Connors. Roger scrambled to the sideline, hitting a forehand passing shot around the netpost on the dead run, sealing the first point of the game.
Federer then decided to give Pete and Jimmy the run-around with powerful groundstrokes before abruptly looping a topspin lob in reply to Connors’ double-handed shot up the line.
McEnroe stared incredulously, transfixed at his partner, almost missing Jimbo’s deflecting crosscourt return. He propelled himself just in time to answer with a delicate volley that landed just out of reach of Jimmy, causing the temperamental American on the other side of the net to thump his racket in frustration.
Sampras alleviated his teammate’s woes with a serve down the middle as Federer’s attempt at a return disappeared into the stands, delighting an awestruck, and perhaps, ball-struck fan.
Team McEnroe still had a sniff at a potential break chance, which was quickly wiped away with another service winner from the 14-time grand slam champion. Pete pulled McEnroe forward with a short slice in the next point, and Connors attempted to pass his old rival with a hallmark forehand, but McEnroe jumped up and managed to put it away. Match point.
Sampras’ next serve was met with a ferocious return from Federer, who tossed it right back at his hero and raised his hand in apology—and possible victory. But no apology or applause was needed just yet, as Pete fended off the ball that barreled toward his chest with an audacious flick, landing it just over the net. An amazing point for deuce.
Pete sent another rocket of a serve that received no answer. Game point. Roger managed to return the next one crosscourt, and Sampras charged forward to smash a forehand volley.
Connors inched sideways to line up a backhand down the line in reply to Roger’s return, and slipped on the concrete as he did so, but still made the shot. A distracted Mac sent a forehand long, setting up a tiebreak to decide this thrilling combat.
Chair Umpire Rich Kaufman announced the start of the breaker, but McEnroe wasn’t done. He ambled over to him to question the out call. Hawkeye was consulted after a heated debate. Federer walked over to his chair. He refused to get sucked into this McEnroe drama. He had a tiebreak to win.
When the computer proved him wrong, his fiery partner sauntered over to the bench, yelling something unintelligible at Connors, who yelled back. Mac accused Jimmy of faking his fall to distract him. “Why would I do that? I scraped my knee, you know,” shouted Jimbo. “Besides, I’d have won that point anyway.”
Fed and Sampras exchanged anxious glances, expecting all-out war. But Mac uncharacteristically refused the bait. “I’ll conserve my venom for the court,” he whispered to his partner, causing Federer to sigh in visible relief.
True to his word, McEnroe started the tiebreak with a booming serve out wide, but the volatility paid dividends on both sides of the net. Connors hit a deep return that passed his rival as he moved in following his serve.
On Connors’ serve, a Johnny Mac return caused Pete to send a short slice to Federer’s side. Roger moved to the net to flick a deft volley; Sampras hit a beautiful forehand passing shot, and almost had the point and mini break, but the Swiss man showed off his superb reflexes to slam a volley back up the line, and all Pete could do was applaud.
Roger netted his next return to a bomb from Connors. 2-1 Team Connors. Federer avenged his error by hitting a down-the-line backhand to the center of the court, drawing Jimbo in, and following it up with a crosscourt shot that found the sideline. An ace from the Swiss gave his team a slight lead at 3-2.
When Connors hit a forehand lob from deep into the court where a Fed crosscourt had taken him, McEnroe dipped low to pick the ball up off the ground allowing a delicate drop shot to flutter just over the net, earning his team a mini-break.
Johnny Mac returned Pete’s second serve with a smash volley but his rival of yore answered with an impressive volley of his own, landing the ball at Roger’s feet. 4-3 Team McEnroe.
A barrage of groundstrokes then followed from both ends, causing Connors to scramble to the baseline to hit a volley; McEnroe moved in to direct an early backhand at a slow-to-retreat Jimbo. But Pete stepped up, running crosscourt to smash a powerful forehand down the middle, which Mac and Rog clearly weren’t expecting.
The tiebreak was even at four apiece.
Sampras hit a deep volley in the next point, causing McEnroe to hit a crosscourt that went wide. 5-4 Team Sampras.
Buoyed by his rival’s visible frustration on the other side of the court, Connors hit a lethal serve. Federer returned with a forehand that almost matched Jimmy’s pace, and Sampras volleyed back.
Federer smashed another forehand, and Pete jumped up in midair to hit a signature slam-dunk overhead smash that simply had no answers. The spectators went into such uncontrollable frenzy that they almost didn’t hear the umpire say, “Match point.”
Connors and Sampras high-fived each other, and Jimbo got ready to serve. McEnroe slammed his racket in frustration, grabbing it as it bounced off the ground.
Focusing his fury on the fuzzy green thing instead, he unleashed a stunning slice return to his opponent’s serve, erasing matchpoint and returning the match to Federer’s racket. Roger did a congratulatory fist-pump in the direction of his partner, applauding his phenomenal shot in so crucial a moment.
He then took position and hit a much-needed ace down the center line. Score leveled, again. The Swiss man hit another powerful serve, followed by a fantastic McEnroe volley.
Sampras netted the return, delivering matchpoint back to his opponents, but was quick to efface it with a service winner on the next point. But a slice return from Roger on his next serve stunned Pete, sending the Swiss’s team up to 8-7, and a point away from victory.
McEnroe was in no hurry to end this thing, however, and double faulted on his serve. He made up in the next point, taking a Connors return on the run and delivering a powerful forehand that bolted past his opponent. Match point back to the Fed-Mac team.
McEnroe returned Connors’ serve crosscourt. A deep backhand topspin from Sampras, in turn, caused Federer to turn around and chase the ball to the baseline. Facing the stands, he hit a blind backward lob, which—incredibly—sailed over the towering American legend, landing millimeters inside the baseline.
Game, set, match.
Federer fell to the ground in barely-controlled delight, causing McEnroe to race toward his partner, half-hoisting him up in a chest bump. Johnny Mac then jumped over the net to perform a little jig for the benefit of his sulking rival.
Sampras shook hands with both opponents, patting Federer fondly in the back, and retreated to his bench to collect his belongings.