Seldom has a tennis season drawn to such a rousing conclusion as the one just ending. A pair of events half a world apart accounted for the stunning finale. First came the Australian Open, where the most significant upset of the year was turned in by Helena Sukova, who halted Martina Navratilova's march toward a record seventh straight title in a Grand Slam tournament. There was a dash of irony here, in that Sukova's late mother coached the Czech junior team that Navratilova played on before her defection to the United States.
The other shocker occurred in Goteborg, Sweden, where the host country secured the Davis Cup with a startling 4-1 defeat of a United States squad boasting both John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
The defending champions not only lost, they flunked as sportsmen. McEnroe chose to take out his frustrations on a ballboy at one point, hardly a conciliatory gesture to Swedes who had seen his blowup in November's Stockholm Open lead to a 21-day suspension. And Connors was worse, drawing a $2,000 fine for various obscenities and gestures directed at the umpire.
After witnessing this spoiled behavior, one observer wondered if the US effort wouldn't be better served in the future by more mannerly, if less experienced, players such as Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias, who lost a close singles match in his Davis Cup debut.
Certainly their names are as well known as those of Mats Wilander's Swedish teammates - Anders Jarryd, Stefan Edberg, and Henrik Sundstrom. The cup victory , however, has focused attention on the fact that Wilander, Jarryd, and Sundstrom are all ranked among the world's top 10, while Edberg and fellow Swede Joakim Nystrom are not far removed. That's quite a feat for a nation of 8 million people, and an encouraging sign fresh faces are making their way into the men's game.
This isn't always apparent with everyone's fixation on the Big Three of McEnroe, Connors, and Ivan Lendl. The need for a new challenger has caused the public's awareness needle to stick according to McEnroe, who has said, ''People are still talking about Bjorn Borg, and he retired three years ago.''
For the moment, anyhow, talk has shifted to Borg's talented countrymen, who have displayed not only exceptional talent in beating the Americans, but very welcome sporting demeanors. Writing in the Boston Globe, Bud Collins has called them a ''new version of the old Aussies,'' gracious, unassuming, team players.
Whatever need exists for new faces in the men's game is mirrored twice over among the women, where Martina Navratilova has monopolized the headlines. Though Chris Evert Lloyd won her 1,000th match at the Australian Open and went on beat Sukova in the finals, she is a distant second to Martina at this point, having lost their last 13 head-to-head matches, some by lopsided scores.
During the last three years Navratilova has lost only six of some 250 matches. This year, she bookended a tour-record 74 straight wins between losses to Hana Mandlikova last January and Sukova two weeks ago.
She is even credited with a Grand Slam by the present International Tennis Federation definition, having strung together victories in the world's four major tournaments and gone halfway through a new cycle. Her trip to Australia, however, could have satisfied purists who claim she was one title shy of a traditional Slam (the French, Wimbledon, US, and Australian crowns in the same year). No player of either sex has accomplished this since Margaret Court did it in 1970.
''I was thinking before the tournament that if I won, I will have done it all , and if I lose, then I would have to start from scratch,'' Martina said after her semifinal upset. ''Either way I was going to have a hard time getting motivated.''
Maybe so, but the pursuit of her 100th tournament title should make her the heavy favorite when she returns to action at the Virginia Slims of Washington event Jan. 7-13.
One Navratilova streak that's still intact, but which will have to go on hold for awhile, is her run of 84 straight doubles victories with partner Pam Shriver. They combined to win their seventh Grand Slam event in Melbourne, but now Shriver is taking a three-month leave of absence from the tour.