Masters of Their Domain

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 poetry—one part Borg, two parts Borges. How tennis crazy was this town? In the days before cable TV, that match—Connors won in three sets—was broadcast on radio.

Truth be told, Manhattan won't be the center of the men's tennis universe this week, either—that 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 Fever generation—Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Andres Gomez—will 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 Masters, the promoters set up a full-size court on Broad Street outside the New York Stock Exchange—right between Wall Street and Exchange Place—and 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 ringer—a broker clearly more at home in his K-Swiss than his wing tips—Mayotte 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.

"Now you've got guys who all play relatively similarly," Mayer says. "One guy hitting as hard as he can, the other guy doing the same thing, and whoever does it better that day wins." Back in the day, tennis was a study in contrasting styles. Connors would attack the return of serve like T.J. Hooker going after some cheap punk. Borg would stay at the baseline like a human backboard, and McEnroe would play serve and volley, following up his patented can-opener serve with a drop volley that made the ball die as surely as a Texas executioner. And they're all still doing the same thing today, albeit at maybe three-quarter speed.

"Any style was plausible," says Mayer.

And then there's the personality factor, with every player playing a role in the sport's dramatic mix, the interplay as beautifully choreographed as a WWF match. Connors would pump his fist. Borg would mope around like an extra in an Ingmar Bergman movie. And McEnroe would inquire discreetly if an umpire was indeed the biggest jerk in the world. Then, tennis was a Rorschach test—you could plumb the depths of a friend's psyche just by knowing which player they rooted for.

But that was then, and this is now, and the sport's veterans are faced with the task of making like Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino in a game that doesn't have a Tiger Woods. As the court comes down and the crowd begins to disperse, the scene is reminiscent of tennis's older, and lesser, days. "It reminds me of the old barnstorming days of Pancho Gonzalez and Rod Laver," says Mayotte. A generation before the tennis boom, any old Aussie will tell you, the game's pros, exiled from Wimbledon and Forest Hills for taking their money over the table instead of under it, would simply set up a court on Main Street and play a match for the lunchtime crowd. When asked about the notion of, say, Agassi and Sampras taking tennis to the streets, Mayotte chuckled, as if considering the prospect of Kobe Bryant joining the Harlem Globetrotters. "Hey," he said. "This is the way to get tennis to the people."

Singles schedule for the Masters in Central Park

June 13, 7 p.m.: Jimmy Connors vs. Mats Wilander
June 14, 1 p.m.: Mats Wilander vs. Bjorn Borg
Mikael Pernfors vs. Henri Leconte
June 14, 7 p.m.: Jimmy Connors vs. Andres Gomez
John McEnroe vs. Mansour Bahrami
June 15, 1 p.m.: Andres Gomez vs. Bjorn Borg
Henri Leconte vs. Mansour Bahrami
June 15, 7 p.m.: John McEnroe vs. Mikael Pernfors
June 16, 1 p.m.: Jimmy Connors vs. Bjorn Borg
Mats Wilander vs. Andres Gomez
June 16, 7 p.m.: John McEnroe vs. Henri Leconte
Mikael Pernfors vs. Mansour Bahrami
June 17, 1 p.m.: Semifinal
June 18, 1 p.m.: Final

Call (877) 540-6282 For Tickets.

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