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Top Year-End Matches At The Garden (1977-1989)

ATPWorldTour.com breaks down the best matches at Madison Square Garden, New York, between 1977-1989.

Since 2009, the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals has found a home in the iconic city of London with more world-class tennis scheduled at The O2 through to at least 2018. With the prospect of the biggest match in the tournament’s 46-year history on the cards, should Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic battle for year-end No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings in Sunday’s final, ATPWorldTour.com looks back on the best matches at another of the season finale’s long-term former homes: Madison Square Garden in New York City.

This week, more than 30 former players who competed at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in the 1980s are joining current stars at The O2 as part of the ATP Finals Club. This year, the achievements of five-time winner Ivan Lendl, who reached nine straight finals, and three-time champion John McEnroe are recognised in the naming of the 2016 groups: Group Ivan Lendl, Group John McEnroe.

Just like The O2 in east London, competing in Madison Square Garden during a 12-year stint between 1977 and 1989, inspired the players to produce their best tennis, as New York’s glitterati turned out in force to witness epic battles on the illuminated court - home to the Knicks (basketball) and Rangers (ice hockey).

With the help of Steve Flink, one of tennis' pre-eminent historians and journalists, ATPWorldTour.com breaks down the best year-end championship matches at The Garden.

1977 Colgate-Palmolive Masters (January 1978) – Group B: Vilas d. Connors 64 36 75
In 1977, three players battled it out for No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings – Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas. Barry Lorge of The Washington Post wrote, “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.” In the first Masters at Madison Square Garden, after seven editions held on different continents, Vilas’ produced a spell-binding victory over Connors in three hours, which reaffirmed his position as an elite force – having also beaten the American 2-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-0, a few months earlier, in the US Open final. Played in front of the largest crowd, to date, (18,500) in US tennis history, Vilas had won 83 of his past 84 matches. The standing ovation, at the end of the match, lasted two full minutes.

1978 Colgate-Palmolive Masters (January 1979) – Final: McEnroe d. Ashe 67 63 75
The 1978 final pitted the people’s choice, Arthur Ashe, a former ATP President, who was recovering from heel surgery that had sidelined him for most of 1977, against 19-year-old John McEnroe. The 17,000 fans got caught up in the generational clash, and there was a terrific atmosphere as neither player relented. The 35 year old Ashe adopted a clever, thoughtful game plan, fighting back from a 3/5 deficit in the first-set tie-break. McEnroe graduated from boy to proven professional by recovering from 1-4 in the deciding set, an emotional-wringer of a final over two-and-a-half hours. Ashe, later, almost pulled out a tremendous upset in holding two match points at 4-5. It was the biggest title of McEnroe’s career, at the time, and six months before the heart attack that ended Ashe’s playing career.

1979 Colgate-Palmolive Masters (January 1980) – Semi-final: Borg d. McEnroe 67(5) 63 76(1)
Borg and McEnroe had yet to meet in a Grand Slam final, but the quality lifted their seventh meeting into a class of its own. McEnroe rallied from 2-4 down to win the first set, which he clinched with a ferocious volley, despite not hitting any first serves into court in the tie-break. Watched by 15,347 spectators, the 23-year-old Borg had led 4-3, 40/0, but got careless and recovered to break once in the second set, combating McEnroe’s net charges with well-placed lobs. Borg was unerring in the final set tie-break, finishing the match with 47 clean winners. McEnroe made too many errors down the stretch and paid the price. “I put this title very, very high,” said Borg, afterwards. He’d beaten World Nos. 2-5 during the week.

Watch McEnroe Reflect On His Masters Memories

1979 Colgate-Palmolive Masters (January 1980) – Group A: Gerulaitis d. McEnroe 36 76(7) 76
A forgotten gem. Already assured of their semi-finals berths, Vitas Gerulaitis upset his Long Island neighbour McEnroe in an old school competition of serve-volley, attacking tennis, over two-and-a-half hours. It was just three months after McEnroe had beaten Gerulaitis 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 in the 1979 US Open final. Gerulaitis saved one match point in the second set tie-break at 5/6 with a service winner to McEnroe’s forehand. The deciding set went with serve until the ninth game, when Gerulaitis’ backhand return clipped the net and dropped over, but his advantage was short-lived. Both players, extraordinary in speed, anticipation and athleticism, enthralled the 14,820 fans - right up to Gerulaitis’ winning forehand drop volley.

1980 Volvo Masters (January 1981) – Group A: Borg d. McEnroe 64 67(3) 76(2)
McEnroe needed to beat Borg in order to remain alive in the tournament, having lost to Gene Mayer in his first round-robin match. In a classic match-up watched by a record-breaking indoor crowd of 19,103 spectators, including artist Andy Warhol, actor Robert Duvall and diplomat Henry Kissinger, Borg didn’t give McEnroe any rhythm and came from behind to serve for it at 6-5 in the second set. At 3/3 in the tie-break, Borg’s forehand pass was judged good by the linesman, but the chair umpire, Mike Lugg, over-ruled. Borg was incensed and stood by the umpire's chair refusing to continue. He got a point penalty that put him down 3/5 and then another to make it 3/6. McEnroe recalls, “I couldn’t believe it. Just imagine what the crowd would have done to me in that situation.” The supervisor, Dick Roberson, came out to talk to Borg, who finally elected to continue. “I was very mad, very disappointed,” said Borg, later. Did he think about quitting? “No.” Borg became aggressive in an excellent deciding set, which featured no break points. On the sixth point of the tie-break, Borg cracked a backhand return winner and McEnroe went on to make three further mistakes – a backhand volley and two approach shots. At 19 minutes past midnight, Borg was able to celebrate his meltdown and recovery.

1981 Volvo Masters (January 1982) – Group A: Tanner d. Connors 76(2) 67(1) 76(7)
Connors had won nine of their past 10 previous meetings, but this time – in a match that saw both players holding match points – it was Roscoe Tanner (0-2 in group matches) who won a pulsating encounter. The New York Times reported, “[Tanner] grew uncharacteristically angry when Connors put the end of his racquet in his mouth after one of Tanner’s volley trickled across the net for a winner in the seventh game of the second set.” Connors saved five match points and scored a break with Tanner serving at 5-3 in the third set. Connors was unable to convert two match points at 6/4 in the deciding tie-break, with Tanner hitting his 12th ace on the second point. His body cramping, Tanner missed a sixth match point at 7/6 with a backhand service return error. An overhead smash brought Tanner to 8/7 on Connors's serve, and Tanner then hit an unreturned second serve. As a result, Connors, the crowd favourite, did not qualify for the semi-finals.

1981 Volvo Masters (January 1982) – Final: Lendl d. Gerulaitis 67(5) 26 76(6) 62 64
Lendl had already beaten Gerulaitis 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 in their Group B round-robin match earlier in the week. In possibly Lendl’s second-best comeback, after the 1984 Roland Garros final, the Czech rallied in spectacular fashion for his first of five year-end crowns. Fred Stolle, who was coaching Gerulaitis, remembers: “Lendl was serving at 5-6 in the third set tie-break, down two sets to love. Having missed a first serve, Vitas took a step forward and played a backhand return. He looked to be chip-charging en route to the net, forcing Lendl to pass him on match point. But Vitas took two steps forward, and then four backwards. Lendl would clinch the tie-break 8-6 and go on to win in five sets.” Lendl came in on Vitas’ backhand, then hit a smash for a winner. Gerulaitis went on to double fault at 2-2 in the fifth set and was subsequently broken.

Remembering Vitas... 20 Years On (2014 Tribute)

1984 Volvo Masters (January 1985) – Semi-finals: Lendl d. Connors 75 67(5) 75
Weighing a trim 168lbs, Lendl had come to The Garden on a diet and in confident mood. Connors was down match point at 4-5 in the second set, but served his way out of it. In the third set, he led 5-2. The pro-Connors crowd, 18741-strong, sensed another Lendl collapse. There was no love lost between the pair in a tetchy affair. "You hate to lose to start with," said Lendl, post-match. "You can triple it when you play someone who wasn't treating you sportsman-like before." A man with a hand-held camera walked just outside of the court and was clearly looking to get a shot of Connors closing out the match, but Lendl saw him and waved him away. It made Lendl so angry that he was unstoppable the rest of the way and won five straight games to get the win – holding twice to love, and breaking Connors twice to 30 and 15, respectively. “All victories over Connors are important, but this is one of the nicer ones. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time when the match was so close that I’ve won it.”

1984 Volvo Masters (January 1985) – Final: McEnroe d. Lendl 75 60 64
The 1984 year-end final was a perfect display of talent, and the perfect way to end McEnroe’s terrific season. The LA Times report stated, “It is difficult not to respect what McEnroe can do. Sunday, a crowd of 17,955 watched a tennis technician at work, putting together a masterwork.” McEnroe broke once in the first set, then lifted his game to new heights. His second-set whitewash was the first 6-0 set in their five-year rivalry, en route to winning 11 straight games. "For a 10-game period, I played as well as - or, if not, better than - any other game I played before," said McEnroe. "I feel as though my game is as high as it's ever been. I served well. I felt confident. I felt as though I could do anything I wanted with the ball." Upon receiving the keys to a new car, which had been parked courtside, McEnroe quipped, "I must have hit it 50 times this week. I'm glad it's mine now."

1988 Nabisco Masters – Final: Becker d. Lendl 57 76(5) 36 62 76(5)
The 1988 final pitted two great champions: Lendl, slightly past the prime of his 1984 Roland Garros to 1988 exploits, and Boris Becker, about to start his greatest season, 1989, when he won Wimbledon and the US Open. Playing against the advice of doctors, Lendl, who had not competed for three months due to shoulder surgery, grew stronger as the week went on. Becker broke Lendl three times in the fourth set, then rallied after being broken in the 11th game of the decider. Serving with new balls and a new racquet (as Lendl did with new balls), the Czech got to 30/30, then Becker attacked a second serve and forced an uncharacteristic error. Becker then proceeded to strike a forehand winner down the line to force a tie-break. “At the end, I was just playing,” said Becker. “I didn’t even know the score.” Serving at 6-5 in the tie-break, Becker and Lendl played a 37-stroke rally, resulting in a net cord winner off a Becker backhand. ''This tournament has a lot to do with prestige and pride,” said Becker, who had walked to the net with a West German flag, given to him by a fan, draped over a shoulder. “Beating Ivan in the final gives me even more satisfaction. I am playing the very best tennis of my life.”

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