January 8, 1978: When the Masters Cup final between Connors and Borg sparked a No.1 debate
- 08 Jan 2021
What happened exactly on that day: Victory for Connors, controversy about No.1 spot
On this day, January 8, 1978, Jimmy Connors defeated Bjorn Borg in the final of the 1977 Masters Cup, at the Madison Square Garden, in New York (6-4, 1-6, 6-4). With this win, the American, who was technically the ATP year-end No 1, re-opened the debate about the label of world No 1. Indeed, Connors, although he hadn’t claimed a Grand Slam title in 1977, topped Borg (the Wimbledon champion) and Guillermo Vilas (who had triumphed at Roland-Garros and at the US Open). “Who’s No 1? You decide”, said the Swedish legend to the journalists.
The people involved: The fire and the ice
Jimmy Connors, born in 1952, was one of the greatest tennis players of his time. Coached by his mother Gloria, Connors was one of the first few players to hit the ball flat and mainly from the baseline. Hitting the ball on the rise, his game would be very influential for future generations of tennis players. He was also known for his shocking on-court behaviour in the well-mannered world of tennis. While his mum loudly cheered for him in the stands, screaming “Come on, Jimbo!”, he displayed an unusual amount of aggressivity, even in the way he encouraged himself. He was sometimes vulgar — giving the finger to a linesman or putting his racket between his legs in a crude manner. His constant quarreling with the officials made him famous in a gentleman’s sport. “Jimbo” turned pro in 1972, and during his two first seasons as a professional player, Connors managed to claim 17 titles and to reach Grand Slam quarterfinals three times.
- Read also: January 1, 1974: Contrasting fortunes in Australian Open finals for engaged couple Connors and Evert
In 1974, he decided to attend the Australian Open for the first time, a decision that proved to be wise as he claimed his first Grand Slam crown in Melbourne, defeating Phil Dent in the final (7-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3). It was the start of his greatest season. In July, Connors had already won 10 tournaments, including Wimbledon, where he had outclassed the Australian legend Ken Rosewall (6-1, 6-1, 6-4) in one of the most one-sided finals in the tournament’s history. A few weeks later, he reached world No 1 for the first time. His season had only been clouded by his ban from Roland-Garros because of its participation in the World Tennis Tour, which led him and his manager to file a lawsuit against the ATP. He put a cherry on top of that fantastic year by triumphing at the US Open, destroying Rosewall again in the final (6-1, 6-0, 6-1). In 1975, he remained the undisputed world No 1, but, although he claimed 9 titles, he failed to conquer another major crown, finishing runner-up three times, defeated by John Newcombe in Australia (7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6), then by Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon (6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4) and eventually by Manuel Orantes at Forest Hills (6-4, 6-3, 6-3). He added a fourth major crown to his list of achievements in 1976, defeating Borg in the US Open final (6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4). In 1977, he finished runner-up at Wimbledon and the US Open, but, despite not claiming any major title, he still held the No 1 spot.
Bjorn Borg, born in 1956, was the champion that changed the game of tennis forever. His unprecedented stardom and his numerous successes were the main reason why tennis became such a popular sport in the 1970’s. His game style, which involved a lot of topspin and a two-handed backhand, was revolutionary and would be copied all around the world. His nickname “Ice Borg” reflected his attitude on the court : he seemed to have his emotions under control at all times. He started playing tennis as a 9-year old. By the age of 15, he was already a member of the Swedish Davis Cup, and, for his first appearance in the competition, he won his singles match against New Zealander Onny Parun. He turned professional the next year, in 1973, before even turning 17, and soon he reached the final in Monte-Carlo, where he was defeated by Ilie Nastase (6-4 6-1 6-2). His domination of the game started in 1974, when, at the age of 18, he claimed his first Grand Slam at Roland-Garros, becoming at the time the youngest ever French Open champion, beating Manuel Orantes in the final (2-6, 6-7, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1).
Since the start of his career, only one player had managed to defeat Borg in Paris : Adriano Panatta, from Italy, who beat him in 1973 and 1976. Otherwise, the Swede remained undefeated in Paris where he had triumphed a second time in 1975, defeating Guillermo Vilas in the last round (6-2, 6-3, 6-4). In 1977, Borg decided to play the World Team Tennis, a well-paying team competition held in the United States at spring, thus skipping the French Open. Since 1976, he had also proved himself invincible at Wimbledon, lifting the trophy in 1976 (outplaying Ilie Nastase, 6-4, 6-2, 9-7) and 1977 (defeating Jimmy Connors, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4). As Borg had attended the Australian Open only once, in 1974, it was considered that the only major title he was still chasing was the US Open, where he had lost in the final to Jimmy Connors in 1976. Borg also remained undefeated in Davis Cup singles, having won his 19 matches under the Swedish flag.
The place: The World’s Most Famous Arena
Founded in 1970, the year-end Masters Cup was the final showdown between the eight best players in the world. Held in a different location every year at the start, and settled at the Madison Square Garden, in New York, in 1977. In the “World’s Most Famous Arena”, the Masters Cup became more than just a tennis tournament, but a show. In this first edition, tickets were sold out well in advance, with more than 18,500 spectators packing the stands. The tournament director, Ray Benton, had moved the event to January, in order to avoid competition with American football, and, before the upcoming Super Bowl, the Tennis Masters Cup was the main sports event in the United States that week.
The facts: Connors’ fighting spirit too much for Borg
In 1977, although he held the ATP No 1 ranking, Jimmy Connors had not really been dominant, although he had claimed many titles, reached two Grand Slam finals, and won the WCT Finals. Two other players had made the scene: Bjorn Borg, who had triumphed at Wimbledon, and Guillermo Vilas, who had won both Roland-Garros and the US Open, accumulating 17 titles throughout the season.
At the time, the ATP and the ITF each had their own ranking, and they were not even using the same scoring system. While the ITF was simply adding points earned by the players in the Grand Prix tournaments, the ATP divided the points earned by the players by the number of ATP events attended. According to the ATP rankings, Connors was No 1, Vilas was No 2 and Borg was No 3. But on the ITF charts, Vilas was No 1, Borg No 2, and Connors No 3.
In any case, as Barry Lorge wrote in The Washington Post :
“What had become obvious throughout the 1977 season: Borg, Vilas and Connors inhabit a plateau, a shade above all the other fine players on the landscape.”
The year-end Masters Cup was a good opportunity to see who was actually the best. In the round-robin, Vilas defeated Connors (6-4, 3-6, 7-5), but the Argentinian was heavily defeated by Borg in the semi-finals (6-3, 6-3).
In a beautiful baseline battle, the more aggressive player finally prevailed. Borg adopted a defensive strategy, hoping that Connors would rush and make unforced errors, but he was disappointed. The American managed to remain aggressive and patient at the same time, but after he took the first set (6-4), Borg’s consistency seemed to have worn him down. Soon, Connors lost the second set (6-1) and trailed 2-0 in the decider. Once again, the world No 1 demonstrated his fighting spirit, and, increasing his level, he played flawless to take the victory, 6-4.
“I don’t think you’ll see any better tennis from me”, Connors told the audience, according to The New York Times. “It’s certainly the best I can play. I had to play that way to beat Borg today. Let’s play it all over. Borg beat me at Wimbledon. Vilas won Forest Hills. I won here. (…) Just don’t rank all three of us No. 1. That would be a cop‐out.”
What next: Connors future record-holder for most weeks spent at the No.1 spot
In the following years, after a third US Open crown in 1978, Connors would struggle, failing to reach a Grand Slam final in 1979, 1980 and 1981. He would then get back to the top, claiming three more major titles in 1982-1983, reclaiming the world No 1 spot for 17 weeks, setting a record of 268 weeks spent as world No 1 in his career. This record would be beaten by only two weeks, in 1990, by Ivan Lendl. Jimbo would remain a top ten player until April 1989, at the age of 37. In 1991, at the age of 39, he would make a memorable semi-final run at the US Open, defeated by Jim Courier (6-3 6-3 6-2). At the end of his long career, he would hold a record of 109 titles on the tour. Although he would reappear from time to time afterwards, Jimmy Connors would retire at the end of 1992.
Borg would become world No 1 again only in March 1979, holding the spot for a total of 41 weeks before a new rival would arise : John McEnroe. Nevertheless, Borg would remain dominant until 1981, with a total of 109 weeks spent on top of the charts. The constant attention and pressure would eventually make him burn out and quit professional tennis in 1981, at the age of 26, having already won 64 tournaments, including 11 Grand Slams and 2 Masters Cups.