Ten years ago, as part of my day job with MEMPHIS magazine, I was assigned the task of researching the five greatest tennis tournaments in Memphis history. The Racquet Club of Memphis was preparing to host its 23rd indoor championship, which forced some deliberation in identifying the five best.
This week, as The Racquet Club hosts its 32nd men's tourney -- now called the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships -- I'm going a step further, and dusting off my recap of the best of the best. The finest, most memorable tournament the Bluff City has ever seen.
As far as sports rivalries from the Eighties are concerned, only the NBA's Magic and Bird can hold a candle to McEnroe vs. Connors on the tennis court. Considering Magic Johnson had the rest of the L.A. Lakers and Larry Bird had the Boston Celtics, well, Mac and Jimbo take the individual prize.
Over the course of 10 years, these two American legends would play a version of smash-mouth tennis unlike any seen before or since. Dating back to the Seventies, they faced off in 15 finals, splitting a pair of Wimbledon confrontations, achieving a year-end ranking of either one or two a total of 14 times, all the while putting on the kind of emotional show previously reserved for the boxing ring and Wall Street trading floor. In 1980, during the embryonic stage of their rivalry, McEnroe and Connors spent a memorable week at The Racquet Club.
Connors had finished 1979 ranked second in the world (behind Bjorn Borg), with McEnroe a close third. By the last week in February 1980, ,when the U.S. Indoor kicked off at The Racquet Club, Connors and McEnroe had already played in three finals each, squaring off against each other for the first time in a final at Philadelphia (a match won by Connors). Johnny Mac drew the top seed at Memphis, with Connors number two in a field that included Roscoe Tanner, Stan Smith, Harold Solomon, and a certain 11th seed by the name of Ivan Lendl.
With the exception of the 10th-seeded Smith being upset by Terry Moor, the first round was rather uneventful. McEnroe's opponent, Byron Bertram, was forced to retire with an injury in the opening set, while Connors sat out the first round with a bye.
Connors appeared lethargic at the outset of his second-round match with Peter McNamara, a player recognized primarily for his doubles play. McNamara won a first-set tiebreaker, only to watch Connors fight back, take a second-set tiebreaker, then dominate the final set, 6-2. As tight as Connors' match was, it paled in comparison to McEnroe's second-round battle with the relatively unknown Ferdi Taygan. Johnny Mac not only lost the first set to Taygan, he got bageled, 6-0. Considering this was his first appearance at The Racquet Club, Memphis fans had to wonder what the McEnroe hype was all about. But the cream, as they say, rises. The New York lefty played a solid second set, winning 6-4, before breezing through the third, 6-1. And what about Lendl? Just shy of his 20th birthday, the Czech baseline specialist won his Memphis debut in straight sets over Russell Simpson. His reward? A third-round match with the defending champ, Connors.
1980 would be the first of a record 13 straight years Lendl would finish ranked among the world's top 10, though in Memphis he was no match for Connors. With a straight-set win, Connors moved into the quarterfinals for a test against the eighth seed, John Sadri. McEnroe whipped Brian Gottfried to join Connors in the quarters.
While Connors had no problem in dispatching Sadri, McEnroe was again made to sweat out a three-set duel, this time with the unseeded Bob Lutz. It again appeared all Mac needed was a wake-up call. After dropping the first set, 6-2, McEnroe won the final two sets while losing only a single game. In the semifinals -- both two-setters -- Connors knocked off Solomon (for trivia buffs, Solomon won the very first pro tournament in Memphis, the 1975 Memphis Tennis Classic at the Mid-South Coliseum), while McEnroe made quick work of unseeded Bernard Mitton.
March 2, 1980, was a big day for Memphis tennis. For the second time in their careers, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe would do battle for a tournament championship. While Borg would give each of them fits at times, Connors and McEnroe became the perfect foils in a sport built on nuances and subtleties that separate the legends from the mere mortals. McEnroe's slice backhand . . . Connors' service return. McEnroe's pinpoint volleys . . . Connors' two-handed backhand. McEnroe's tantrums . . . Connors' tirades. On this day, McEnroe stole the show by winning a pair of tiebreakers. It was his first title-winning effort against Connors, a championship series McEnroe would win over the course of their careers, eight matches to seven.
"In my opinion," said former tournament director Tommy Buford, "McEnroe was the best athlete ever to play the game of tennis. He just had wonderful, wonderful hands." As for Connors, he'd be back of course. Jimbo was crowned champion twice more at The Racquet Club, and permanently endeared himself to Memphis fans by reaching the semis in 1992 at the tender age of 39.