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The last time that Manhattan was the center of the men's tennis universe, Jimmy Carter was president, economists were trying to figure out how to whip stagflation, and white polyester leisure suits could be worn without irony. The event? The '78 Masters, the season-ending tournament that featured a rematch of the '77 U.S. Open final between Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas. The prospect of these two lefties facing off in Madison Square Garden had the city abuzz, like an Ali-Frazier rematch, or the final episode of Welcome Back, Kotter. It was the hottest ticket in town, hotter even than a Peter Frampton concert, and everyone got into the act. Cab drivers and stockbrokers alike pontificated about Connors's weak forehand approach the way they now offhandedly analyze Shaq's free-throw shooting.
But the sizzle wasn't about topspin, it was about style. Connors, the brash, pugnacious American wearing red, white, and blue, lashing out with his risk-it-all John DeLorean ground strokes, versus Vilas, the sensitive Argentine, with the soulful eyes, flowing locks, the looping backhand, and the penchant for poetryone part Borg, two parts Borges. How tennis crazy was this town? In the days before cable TV, that matchConnors won in three setswas broadcast on radio.
Truth be told, Manhattan won't be the center of the men's tennis universe this week, eitherthat distinction will belong to some London suburb holding a Wimbledon tune-up. There'll be no radio broadcasts. But the good old days are back, in a way. Vilas is still at home in the pampas polishing his verse, but the other stars of tennis's Saturday Night FevergenerationJimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Andres Gomezwill displace the local hackers this week, as the Worldwide Senior Tennis Circuit brings its series final to Central Park.
To drum up interest for the event, called the LastMinuteTravel.com Masters, the promoters set up a full-size court on Broad Street outside the New York Stock Exchangeright between Wall Street and Exchange Placeand brought down former top-10ers Gene Mayer and Tim Mayotte for star appeal.
In the granite shadows of lower Manhattan, watched by tennis-playing traders, runners out for a nicotine break, and passersby looking for freebies, Mayotte and Mayer worked it hard. Step right up, play a little doubles, hit the target and win a plane ticket. When the contestant was a woman who shed her pumps and trotted gingerly about in nothing but hose, Mayer blooped his serve and milked the rally. But when they got a ringera broker clearly more at home in his K-Swiss than his wing tipsMayotte cracked one over 100 mph.
"You've got to get it over the net, man," gibed the MC.
Senior tennis fits into an odd niche in the sports world. It's not like baseball's old-timers day, and thank God. On the one hand, there's nothing more life affirming than watching Ron Guidry or Mickey Rivers put on the pinstripes one more time. On the other, what more poignant reminder of entropy and mortality can there be than to see a graying Gator bounce an anemic slider five feet in front of the plate, or Mick the Quick spend five minutes chasing a long liner that once would have been nothing more than a can of corn?
Twentysomething years later, however, tennis's seniors still got game. They've lost the proverbial half step, but with modern wide-body, oversize carbon graphite rackets, they can actually hit harder than they did when they were at the top of their games. And indeed, the tour's biggest name has actually added a few tricks to his legendary bag.
McEnroe, who was always more at home on fast grass and hard courts, has finally figured out how to conquer the slow Har-Tru clay surface that the senior circuit employs. He has also become not only the tour's top draw, but its top player.
"John, when he first came on the circuit, he didn't take it that seriously," says Mayer. "He didn't train much, and he didn't play that much tennis, and he came out and he lost all the time. He lost to Andres Gomez like five times, and that was enough to get him to practice."
And he's renovated his game in the process. "In order to get net position on a clay court, it's better to hit a high opening ball, rather than a hard flat one that comes back pretty hard," Mayer explains. "Now John can hit with tremendous roll and height over the net, balls that would have profited him a lot on clay 20 years ago."
Watching Mayotte and Mayer rally makes it clear that tennis has come a long way in a couple of decades. Mayer still clings to the hands-on-both-sides grip that every player this side of Monica Seles abandons when they reach their fifth birthday. Tall and rangy, Mayotte plays a serve-and-volley game that's only slightly more popular these days than wooden rackets. But although it's strange to say, the M and M boys also proved that in sport, evolution isn't always a positive thing. As Darwin pointed out, with evolution comes convergence. It's a no-brainer to say that Magnus Norman has fewer holes in his game than Mayer or Mayotte ever did, but that doesn't necessarily make him more interesting to watch.