When McEnroe, Lendl, Connors & Borg Were The Rock Stars Of Madison Square Garden
The first Thursday of January 1978 forever shaped the future of the Masters, now called the Nitto ATP Finals. The 1977 year-end championships, taking place at the start of the following year, was at a new home: Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Ray Benton was the tournament director of the event, which was sponsored by Colgate at the time. There were two round-robin matches during the afternoon session, but those clashes lasted longer than expected. They did not finish until the widely anticipated evening session — slated for 7 p.m. — was supposed to begin. Guillermo Vilas, the 1977 US Open champion, was scheduled to play Jimmy Connors, whom he beat in that Forest Hills final, in the last match of the night.
“I remember going to the top floor of Madison Square Garden and looking out on Seventh Avenue and it was about 8 o’clock,” Benton recalled. “There were lines three blocks down the street because they were trying to get in.”
The Masters was not just a tennis tournament, but a spectacle. In its first year at ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena’, fans were already flocking to the action. Tickets were sold out well in advance, and a crowd of more than 18,500 packed the stands at the home of the NBA’s New York Knicks and the NHL’s New York Rangers. Fans roared as if they were at one of the rock concerts held at the same venue. Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick wrote: “It was one of those remarkable moments the sporting world comes up with every now and then when whatever game is being played is transcended by the emotion and suspense of the event.”
Who knew a tennis tournament could prove New York’s nickname — ‘The City That Never Sleeps’ — to be true. Newspaper reports from the time noted that Vilas’ 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 victory against Connors that evening didn’t come to a conclusion until 12:42 a.m. It was the moment the event needed to grab fans’ attention.
The Madison Square Garden era had begun.
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Benton, who ran the Masters at MSG for eight years, was convinced that the tournament had to be moved from December to January to avoid losing viewership because of American football. There was a gap in the playoffs before the Super Bowl, allowing for an event like the Masters to take centre stage. “We were literally the biggest show that week,” he said. The other vital move was to give the event a permanent home to establish a presence.
Benton remembers visiting Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1977.
“They really wanted the event because they realised having it the week we planned it was a big deal,” Benton said. “We went in an elevator downstairs and they said, ‘This is where we do our corporate entertaining’ right before the elevator door opened. They opened the door and I was looking into the butts of three elephants. They were having the circus there at the time.”
Photo Credit: Jacqueline Duvoisin/Sports Illustrated
In some ways, the Masters became an athletic circus with a wide cast of characters competing, from John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors to Vitas Gerulaitis and Bjorn Borg. Ivan Lendl dominated the event in New York City, reaching the final in nine consecutive year.
“Playing in front of close to 19,000 spectators in New York City each winter, and some of the most influential people in various industries, made for an electric atmosphere. The enormous scoreboard hung over the court and reduced the maximum height that you could hit a lob,” Lendl once wrote for ATPTour.com. “Cigarette smoke, at times, clouded the air. Fans were right on top of the court, cheering on their favourites, such as Connors, who had a terrific following at the Masters, or ‘Mr New York’, Gerulaitis, who was a massive personality. It was a daunting and intimidating arena with all its sporting history.
“Players came alive in that arena. Competing at the Masters was a very big deal. Along with your titles and your ranking, it was another benchmark achievement. It was never easy and you could never be confident of getting the win. Even today, when I visit the Garden, I can see people’s eyes are wide open.”
Lendl lifted the title five times during that span, dominating on the indoor hard court. There were plenty of memorable matches, but the moments were what made the event magical. Some were expected, some not so much.
“He got so mad in that match that he swiped at the ground on the baseline really hard and he clipped [the court]. His racquet went flying out of his hands, and it happened to fly out of his hands when he was swiping towards the people behind him and the racquet started doing these catapults and was running up the stairs between the people for like 25 yards,” Kriek said, cracking a laugh. “It was hilarious. He was just looking in stunned disbelief that it happened. It was just the stupid stuff that happened [at Madison Square Garden that made it special].”
McEnroe won the match 6-4, 6-2, a straightforward score. But the entertainment was never lacking. In the American’s book, But Seriously, McEnroe recalled playing Guillermo Vilas in the semi-finals of the 1982 Masters, which was played in January 1983.
“I was at the changeover and someone started tapping me on my shoulder. I’m trying to ignore it, because that’s how you are in a match, but this guy’s going, ‘John, John.’ I’m about to tell him to get lost, but when I turn round, it’s Ronnie!”
Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones were there sitting in leather pants watching the match.
Another element that made the MSG era special was the number of players who were at home. New York crowds are raucous enough. With locals shining under the spotlight, that became even more apparent. McEnroe and close friend Gerulaitis were New Yorkers. Ivan Lendl, who bought a house in Connecticut — where he still lives today — would commute.
“I liked my own bed,” Lendl recently told Tim Henman in an interview for ATPTour.com this year. “I liked my own cooking. I just didn’t like staying in New York City; it’s just too noisy for me.”
That atmosphere was normal for McEnroe. Those watching from afar might not know that Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station, New York City's main public transportation hub. Passing through there was an everyday occurrence for the lefty according to his younger brother, 1989 Masters doubles champion Patrick McEnroe. John commuted to Trinity High School from their home in Douglaston, Queens.
“He used to get a hot dog at Nathan’s all the time,” Patrick said, referencing the fast food restaurant located across the street from MSG. “He had his regular stops for four years of high school.”
Photo Credit: Getty Images
New Yorkers call MSG ‘The Mecca’. That’s where people of all ages have long congregated to watch their favourite local sports team or concert.
“Tennis was our life and tennis was our sport, but we grew up going to Rangers games and play-off games,” Patrick said. “Going there was a big deal. Obviously, we wanted those teams to be good, but as kids just going there and being part of it was a big part of our childhood.”
That made it even more special for John to be the focus of all the fans’ attention. McEnroe made a splash by defeating Arthur Ashe in a three-set epic to triumph at the 1978 Masters when he was only 19. The inimitable icon was a fixture at the event when it was held at MSG from then on, competing there nine times.
“It was pretty damn cool,” Patrick said. “At that time in tennis history, tennis was really a happening, and that event was a happening. It felt like a major.”
Photo Credit: Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated
Some of McEnroe’s most memorable matches at Madison Square Garden came against Bjorn Borg, who defeated him in a final-set tie-break two years in a row en route to the trophy. In a stunning turn of events at the 1980 Masters, Borg was the one who had a meltdown on court, not McEnroe. Borg was disappointed in calls on the court. The stoic Swede admitted he was “very mad”. There were tonnes of pressure on players to succeed at MSG. They were not only playing tennis; they were performing with everyone watching.
Not everyone enjoyed success at the event, but simply getting to be part of it to soak in the atmosphere became a career goal for some. Former World No. 6 Jose Higueras remembers being motivated to dig deep because of the historic venue.
“I think it’s a highlight for any athlete because of the city and the history of Madison Square Garden. There were so many great events held there. Not only sports events, but concerts, it was the mecca to perform there in whatever you were doing,” said Higueras, who competed in the Masters at MSG three times. “When you hear Madison Square Garden, you feel something inside you because it has so much history. For me it was a great feeling and it doesn’t matter how much time goes by, it will always be one of my best feelings.”
Not everyone in the sports world will be familiar with Gerulaitis, but everyone has probably used some iteration of the phrase he coined off the cuff at Madison Square Garden after snapping a 16-match losing streak against Jimmy Connors at the 1979 Masters: “Let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!"
Following the 1989 Masters, the event moved to Germany, with Boris Becker, Michael Stich and others making the country a tennis superpower. But many Madison Square Garden moments still resonate. Events from basketball and hockey to concerts and the circus have long been held at 'The World's Most Famous Arena'. In a way, the Masters, with the players who competed at the venue during that period, was all of those wrapped into one.
“It was a perfect storm,” Benton said. “In a good way.”
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