McEnroe Defeats Connors--Again : He Plays Vilas in Final With Winner Getting $200,000

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Times Staff Writer

They had formed an uneasy alliance in an effort to bring the Davis Cup back to the United States and, having failed that, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were back on opposite side of the net Friday night, trading glares and stares and crunching groundstrokes.

Which is the way they prefer it.

McEnroe and Connors--80’s Superbrat vs. 70’s Bad Boy, world’s greatest serve vs. world’s greatest return of serve, No. 1 vs. No. 2--have long formed the most intense, most interesting rivalry in their sport. They’ve been the Giants-Dodgers of tennis ever since Bjorn Borg decided there was life after Wimbledon and put his headband on ice.

It doesn’t matter where they roll out the tennis balls. McEnroe vs. Connors usually translates into civilized--and, in some case, not-so-civilized--warfare.


They were at it again Friday night in the AT&T; Challenge of Champions exhibition event at the Thomas and Mack Center here. No ATP points at stake, no Grand Slam title on the line, no history ready to be made--just a chance at some big bucks and to crank up The Rivalry one more time.

And, after they had spent three sets abusing tennis balls and various linesmen, McEnroe emerged with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 triumph over Connors and berth in today’s nationally televised final.

At 11 a.m., McEnroe will meet Guillermo Vilas, who defeated Ivan Lendl, 6-4, 7-5, in Friday’s late match. McEnroe went 3-0 to win his group in the round-robin format. Vilas went 2-1 to tie Yannick Noah in Group B, but advanced to the final because he defeated Noah Tuesday.

With a total of $1.29 million in prize money, today’s winner is set to take home $200,000. The runner-up will receive $100,000.

That’s the lone incentive for the players here. It’s certainly not the roar of the crowds, not with attendance wavering between 500 to 3,500 during the event’s first three days. (Friday’s estimated attendance--no official figures are announced--was 6,000.)

As McEnroe puts it: “This isn’t the Wimbledon final.”

It’s more a tuneup for next week’s Masters in New York, where McEnroe and Connors figure to meet again. A preliminary, maybe, yet still enough to send both players yelling and shaking fists and scrambling to run down one another’s shots.


“I don’t need to do much to get pumped up when I play Jimmy,” McEnroe said. “We’ve played pretty intensely over the years. The better guys bring out the best in you. We’re both competitors, and neither one of us wants to lose to the other.”

In terms of understatement, that’s point, McEnroe. Connors and McEnroe have what might be described as a grudging respect.

You’ll never find them pulling a couple of stools to the bar for a beer or two. “Nice match” and a handshake across the net is usually the extent of their socializing.

It took years to get them together on the U.S. Davis Cup team. They did it for one reason--to give the United States its strongest possible lineup, it’s best chance at bringing home the Cup.

As Mats Wilander can tell you, it didn’t work.

“Jimmy and I did get together once back there (at Goteborg, Sweden, site of the Davis Cup final), to talk strategy,” McEnroe said. “That’s probably why we lost. In the other rounds, we didn’t talk at all.”

Connors, not exactly in an expansive mood after Friday’s loss, tried to downplay his feud with McEnroe.


“I play the same for anybody,” he said.

But there must be a special incentive against McEnroe, if only to knock off the world’s No. 1 player.

“Nope,” Connors replied.

Actions speak differently, however. While McEnroe was running down a sideline barrier to chase a passing shot and running down officials to argue more than a few line calls, Connors kept the heat on from his side. He, too, badgered a couple of linesmen (“Is that going too fast for you?”) as he repeatedly fell behind McEnroe and repeatedly climbed back.

He fell short, however, of a total comeback. And that’s the way this series has turned in recent years. Excluding exhibitions, McEnroe has defeated Connors in each of their last eight meetings, dating back to June, 1983.

McEnroe has no clear-cut explanation for his recent domination.

“I just try to play my game against him, do what I do best,” McEnroe said. “It wasn’t until last year that I finally had a winning (career) record against Jimmy (McEnroe leads their overall series, 17-12.) I’m proud of that fact, but it’s hard to explain.

“I’ve improved as a player. I’m better mentally now--and it’s easy to get psyched for Jimmy.”

Connors: “It’s something I’m trying to fight through right now. I want to break out of it, and he’s trying to keep it going.”


In early matches Friday, Noah defeated Vitas Gerulaitis, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, and Jimmy Arias downed Johan Kriek, 7-6, 7-5.