Gerulaitis stretches for a volley

‘Classic’ is a word that gets thrown around quite a bit in tennis discourse. If that doesn’t compute, cast your mind back through the years and try to recall all the matches that have been described as a classic – your memory might be flooded with a laundry list of Nadal/Djokovic, Sampras/Agassi, McEnroe/Lendl and Federer/Nadal matches, a few of which are vaunted because of who took part in them above all else.

The eagerness to use this term seems to increase if the contests under discussion took place at the All-England Club, which is totally understandable in light of the fact that Wimbledon is an annual embodiment of the history, tradition and mystique that surrounds this wonderful sport. So, when the team here at Tennis-Pulse came up with a list of the best five matches ever to be played at Wimbledon, we had to make sure that every single one of them merited the word ‘classic.’ Without reservation, I can state that the 1977 Wimbledon semi-final between Bjorn Borg and the late Vitas Gerulaitis comes in at #5 on the list of all-time great matches on grass, as it is a classic in every sense of the word.

The swashbuckling Bjorn Borg reached the last four after dusting off four of his five opponents in straight sets, the lone exception being Mark Edmondson, whom he beat in five. Gerulaitis faced a similar path – he dropped two sets on his way to the semis, but instead one set each in his fourth-round and quarter-final matches. Lithuanian- American Gerulaitis was wading into unknown territory as a Wimbledon semi-finalist; the defending champion was all that stood between him and a maiden Wimbledon final.

The opening couple of games in the first set established the tone of the match. Gerulaitis started from behind and was always playing catch up. Serving first, he faced three break points on serve. The second he saved with some crafty net play, but on the third he was bamboozled by Borg’s perfectly measured topspin lob. Having opened up an early cushion by breaking serve, Borg pressed home the advantage by holding to 30. Part of the reason why Gerulaitis dropped serve so quickly is that his first serve was misfiring. He put this right the second time around and held for 1-2. Slowly, Gerulaitis started to settle into the match, and a well-timed chip and charge in game four brought up break point. Borg averted the danger with a net rush of his own, doing just enough to make Gerulaitis net a backhand pass. A string of unreturned first serves got him to safety. Gerulaitis then held comfortably for 2-3 to keep himself tight on Borg’s heels. The sixth game began with what was only the second baseline rally of the match. Borg sent a forehand long to lose it. Another came at 30-30, which Borg won when Gerulaitis miscued a slice. The game went to deuce but Borg managed to escape unscathed, and consolidated his lead. Gerulaitis was still trying to find his feet, but he was clearly taken aback by the accuracy and consistent power that Borg could generate on the backhand side. This meant that he had to be selective in choosing when to come to the net – Borg was capable of threading the eye of the needle with his passing shots, and very nearly broke the 1977 Australian Open champion for a second time at 5-3. Borg remained firmly in the driver’s seat all the way up to end of the set, winning it 6-4, and clinching it with an ace.

Did Borg ever miss a backhand? It seems like he didn’t.

The second set followed a similar pattern to the first in its early stages. Borg was largely untroubled on serve, and was able to make inroads into Gerulaitis’s own service games. Gerulaitis was on the back foot, but the set turned on its head after he saved a break point in game five. Clawing his way out of trouble seemed to ignite a flame within the Lithuanian Lion, as he was affectionately known. After holding on to get to 3-2, Gerulaitis worked his way to 30-40 in Borg’s next service game. He constructed a beautiful point to earn the break; using his rapier-like slice to buy some time to transition into the forecourt, the 8th seed knocked off a backhand volley that even Borg could not reach. Gerulaitis was now 4-2 up, and soon made that 5-2. Borg held to close the gap to 5-3 but could not destabilize Gerulaitis’ momentum. Gerulaitis produced a love service game to win the set, the last point of which was won with an ace.

In set three, the excitement of the first two sets concentrated into the closest thing to full-blown feverishness you’ll ever see from Center Court spectators. An exhilarating 4th game whipped the crowd into a fever pitch; it lasted for 10 minutes, with 8 deuces, and saw Gerulaitis save five break points. Quite how he survived that onslaught, only he knows. 14 of 22 points ended with outright winners. The three games that followed, which nudged the score from 2-2 to 3-4, represented the calm before the storm. Borg broke his opponent’s serve for the second time in the match to once again take the ascendancy. After a quick Gerulaitis hold, Borg was serving for a two sets to one lead. He ran into some difficulty, and with the game locked at deuce he was in danger of being pegged back onto level terms. At 40-40, Borg and Gerulaitis played out one of the best points in Wimbledon history. It started with Borg serve and volleying on his second serve. After Gerulaitis lobbed the onrushing Borg, the Swede then proceeded to hit a lob off Gerulaitis’ lob (yes, really), which Gerulaitis smashed right back at him. Then, Borg hit a dipping passing shot off the overhead, which Gerulaitis deftly volleyed back on to Borg’s baseline. Borg then lobbed Gerulaitis again, and heaven knows how Gerulaitis retrieved it. To get himself back into the point, he had to hit a lob off a ball which was bouncing away from him with plenty of spin over his head with enough depth and height to pin Borg back behind the baseline so that he could recover some ground. And he did. Borg hit a bounce smash in reply to this improvised shot that just cleared the service line; after an exchange of slices, Gerulaitis finally coughed up an error. This magical rally gave Borg set point. One forehand pass later, Borg was 2-1 up in sets.

When all was said and done, these two were good chums. Borg beat Gerulaitis 16 times in a row, however.

It would’ve been easy for Gerulaitis to fold and lose heart after finding himself one set adrift despite playing so well. Quitting without putting up a fight was evidently an alien concept to him though, because he redoubled his efforts to take the fourth set 6-3. Borg’s stout defense, passing shots and return game won him the fifth set 8-6, but what a close match this was. The ‘Ice Man’ would later call Gerulaitis up to be his practice partner, such was the respect he gained for the New York-born playboy after this match. All in all, Borg and Gerulaitis hit 132 clean non-service winners between them, with Gerulaitis responsible for 74 of those. Gerulaitis had an extraordinary rate of winners per game (1.45), eclipsing what even Jimmy Connors would go on to do in the final. Dan Maskell, who had the privilege of calling the semi-final showdown live for the BBC, called it one of the greatest matches he had witnessed in the tournament’s history. Can you do anything other than agree with him?

Keep your eyes on Tennis-Pulse.com all week to see which matches we rate as the greatest of all time on grass. In case they escaped your attention, check out the intro to this series, as well as honorable mentions one and two.