By Raffaello Esposito
Damn it, how did that happen? Or at least, when? To many of us, events from forty-one years ago are almost ancient history. That’s when white tennis balls, tight shorts and wooden racquets were still the norm, and touch, talent and finesse made the difference instead of power. The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan used to sing. In 1977, things were changing for good. Jimmy Connors was taking the game to levels of power and aggressiveness that were previously unknown, while Borg was hitting the forehand with top spin and adding a new dynamic to the two-handed backhand. The battle for the tennis throne was a duopoly between the Brash Basher of Belleville and the Swedish Iceman. But a third contender was about to rock the boat.
A few months before the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Wimbledon Championships, Brooklyn native John Patrick McEnroe Junior had just turned 18 and was getting ready to start his first semester at Stanford University. He had ginger hair, a great deal of tennis talent and a very controversial Irish temperament. In the spring of 1977, the United States Tennis Association allowed him to play a few tournaments in Europe. Before making the trip overseas, John turned to the coolest guy at the Port Washington Academy, where McEnroe was training with Harry Hopman and Tony Palafox as head coaches.
John’s confidant was also from New York and had a thick blond mane to go with his Lithuanian origin. A few months later, the world would start calling “Broadway Vitas.” These were his words: “Here’s what’s going to happen on your first trip to the French—you’re going to play some guy from Europe that you’ve never heard of, and you’re going to get your ass kicked.”
John spent the evening before his departure with his long-term friend Doug Saputo. The two were unusually quiet, as if they felt that something was about to change and nothing would have ever been the same. It was a strange evening in limbo between the present and the future.
John landed at De Gaulle airport in Paris with a sports bag, five hundred dollars in his pocket and a bundle of racquets. He suddenly felt lost, like any teenage boy that finds himself in a foreign country. “I felt as if I was in a National Lampoon Vacation movie—Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo are eating their lunch in a restaurant; he’s saying, “God, honey, aren’t they nice?” and the waiter is saying (in French, with English subtitles), “You stupid American asshole.”
At Roland Garros, he won his last qualifying round after a sleepless night. The match was scheduled for 8:45 AM and he was afraid that he would not have woken up on time. “Could I be awakened?” I asked the man at the front desk. He answered me in French – “Screw you”, probably.
While competing in the main draw, John won his first round match with ease before falling to Phil Dent of Australia in the second round. During the five set clash with the Australian, McEnroe – who at that point was used to competing in smaller tournaments where players were in charge of the calls on their side of the court – learnt that the umpire and line judges could make tons of mistakes. “From the moment our match began, the line calls were abysmal. Dent would hit a shot that was in by six inches, and the linesman would call it out.”
McEnroe also tried to speak to his opponent during the match while questioning line calls. The Australian didn’t blink, avoided any sort of confrontation and won the match. As the two were shaking hands, Phil told John: “Sonny, this is the pros now. You play the calls, and if you have something to say, you tell the umpires.”
Dent wasn’t aware that his words would have been followed to the letter in a very painful way a few weeks later.
In Paris, McEnroe won the boys’ singles event in front of three spectators and also captured the mixed doubles trophy with his friend Mary Carillo. He spent the rest of his time discovering Paris, before crossing the English Channel and arriving in Church Road where “…at least the language seemed roughly similar to mine.”
London was more expensive than Paris and John shared a room with four other young players for three pounds a night. It was almost like an indoor camping site where the players’ diet consisted of pizza and ice-cream.
In the first round of the qualifying tournament at Queen’s Club, McEnroe’s match against his countryman Pat DuPré was moved to an indoor wooden facility due to the persistent rain. McEnroe used his great talent to dominate the first set, but at the beginning of the second a lady in the stands started to heavily insult him. The incident confused the young American, who ended up losing the match 7-6 in the third. John later found out that the lady was none other than his opponent’s wife. Everything happens for a reason. “What the hell. My loss to DuPre had actually turned out to be a great thing—had I made it in, I don’t think I would have had enough time both to play the tournament and to try to qualify for Wimbledon. So thank you, Mrs. DuPre!”
The qualies for the Wimbledon Championships were contested at Roehampton Club and it didn’t matter if the weather was sunny, windy or rainy. Mac was in big trouble during his final qualifying match against Gilles Moretton of France, but he emerged unscathed despite the rain and muggy conditions. Mary Carillo vividly remembers those days: “He was so great at improv, he had that amazing first step. As soon as I saw him on grass, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This could go very well.’ I just didn’t know how well.”
Once granted access to the Wimbledon main draw, players were allowed a reimbursement of sixty pounds a day. As soon as he qualified, John moved to the Cunard Hotel with Eliot Teltscher and Robert Van’t Hof. “We chose that hotel because it had two ice distributors”. At the time, you didn’t need a nutritionist or a masseuse to be a champion.
McEnroe absolutely shocked the Wimbledon main draw. Pictures from that magical fortnight show him a little chubby in his Fila outfit while he’s screaming “Are you sure?” to the umpire. His service stance was still frontal in 1977; he would have developed his trademark lateral stance a year later to safeguard a bad back. His impeccable timing and pure creativity were already in full display though.
El Shafei, Dowdeswell, Meiler and Sandy Mayer were swept aside by McEnroe, who advanced to the quarter-finals to face Phil Dent, in a rematch of their previous encounter in Paris. The two squared off on Court 1 in the afternoon of June 28, 1977. McEnroe didn’t seem to be intimidated by the occasion and captured the first set 6-4. Dent was the kind of player that never gave up and the Australian ended up winning the second set in an enthralling tie-breaker. As McEnroe walked towards his bench for the changeover, he literally broke his Wilson racquet in two and kicked it all the way to his chair. It was not something that could be tolerated at Wimbledon and the spectators started booing the young American. Dent almost couldn’t believe his eyes as he started to realize that he had probably created a monster.
The Australian took advantage of the situation and won the third set. “It was definitely a tight spot, but then I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts.” At this point, McEnroe showed his true champion quality and was able to capture the last two sets of the match, unexpectedly advancing to the semifinals.
No other player was able to reach the semis after advancing to the main draw through the qualifying tournament. McEnroe’s semifinal opponent was none other than James Scott Connors. In the lobby of the Gloucester Hotel – the home of the champions – McEnroe spotted the bookmakers’ odds for the tournament champion:
McEnroe probably lost half of his semifinal match in that very moment. The other half was lost in the locker room before the match. Connors was famous for approaching his tennis matches with a boxer’s mentality, as he felt that he needed to hate his opponent to play at this best. When John approached him before the match to greet him and shake hands, Connors pretended that McEnroe didn’t exist, picked up his bag and took off.
A few decades later, Supermac still recalls the thoughts that went through his mind: “Do I even belong here with this guy?” And so, at that moment, I pretty much decided I did not want to win this match. Don’t want to win”
While his Dad and Tony Palafox were watching him from the stands, McEnroe easily lost the first two sets and even if he captured the third, it was too late to prevent Connors from advancing to the final. Game, set and match Connors.
McEnroe avenged that defeat against Connors many times in the following years, while the fire brigades often had to intervene and extinguish the flames between the two.
Since that semifinal day in June 1977, McEnroe never had to be asked again if he was a tennis player. He went home and reconnected with his old friend Doug, while realizing that nothing would have ever been the same.
(Article translation provided by T&L Global – www.t-lglobal.com )
Dominic Thiem rallies from one set down against Roberto Bautista Agut to reach the final at Thiem’s 7 in Kitzbuhel
Dominic Thiem came back from losing the first set to beat Roberto Bautista Agut 6-7 (5-7) 6-2 6-2 en route to reaching the final at the Thiem’s 7 tournament. Thiem earned two breaks in the third and fifth games to race out to a 4-1 lead. Bautista Agut got both breaks back in the sixth and eighth games to draw level to 4-4 forcing the match to the tie-break. The Spanish player won the tie-break 7-5 to take the opening set.
Thiem slowly found his rhythm again in the second set and earned two break points in the fourth game but he was not able to convert them. The home star dropped only two points on his serve until the end of the second set and converted two of the three break points to clinch the second set 6-2.
Thiem earned a break in the fourth game to open up a 4-1 lead and held on his next service games. The tournament organizer sealed the third set 6-2 with his double break with a blistering return on the match point in the eighth game securing his spot in the final. Thiem will face either Andrey Rublev or Matteo Berrettini in the final.
Former Roland Garros champions and five top 20 players to highlight a great edition of the Ladies Open in Palermo
The Ladies Open WTA International in Palermo will be the first tournament to be held next August since last February.
The Italian tournament will feature a great line-up which includes two confirmed past Roland Garros champions Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Ostapenko and five top 20 players. There is a good chance that 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep could be added in the field.
“We are glad about Simona Halep’s great interest in Palermo Ladies Open. We will be waiting for her at the Country Club for an historic edition of the Palermo tournament. We have been in contact with Halep’s manager for some time. We have been talking for days about her potential participation in Palermo. She is one of the best players in the world and her presence would contribute to make an already high-level tournament extrahordinary. We will leave our doors open to her for as long as possible, as well as for other top ten players that will want to resume their season in Palermo”, said tournament’s CEO Oliviero Palma.
The other stars who have signed up to the Ladies Open are 2019 Roland Garros champion Marketa Vondrousova, two Grand Slam semifinalists Elise Mertens (2018 Australian Open) and Anastasija Sevastova (2018 US Open), Aryna Sabalenka (winner at the Wuhan Open in 2018 and 2019, WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai in 2019 and Doha in 2020) and Elina Rybakina (winner in Hobart and finalist in St. Petersburg and Dubai in 2020), Dayana Yastremska (winner of three tournaments in Hong Kong in 2018, Thailand and Strasbourg in 2019).
Lorenzo Sonego and Liudmila Samsonova lift the titles in Perugia
Lorenzo Sonego and Liudmila Samsonova won the Zzz Quill Tennis Tour in Perugia. Sonego followed up his Italian title won the previous week in Todi with a 3-6 7-6 (7-1) 6-4 win over Croatia’s Viktor Galovic (world number 269 and number 7 seed) in the final of the Perugia tournament.
“Galovic started very well. It was difficult to adjust to his game and improve during the match. I maintained the right attitude and I managed to win the title. I enjoyed two fantastic weeks in Todi and Perugia. This confirmed my good work in training in the past two weeks. I gave my best and I am confident for the rest of the season”, said Sonego.
World number 117 Liudmila Samsonova won the women’s title came back from one set down to beat world number 307 Stefania Rubini 4-6 6-4 7-6 (8-6) in the women’s final after saving two match points.
“I won a very tough final with a lot of ups and downs. I am happy that I played many matches. It was one of my goals on the eve of the tournament. I showed that I am able to keep the level of my tennis high, when I play focused”, said Samsonova.
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