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1999 US Open

Look Who's On Top Still

Ivan Lendl needed nearly five hours to beat Mats Wilander and win his third consecutive title at Flushing Meadow

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Posted: Saturday August 28, 1999 03:01 PM

  Ivan Lendl Even with his endurance drained by the flu, Ivan Lendl conquered an inspired Mats Wilander. Chris Cole/Allsport

By Frank Deford

Issue date: September 21, 1987

Sports Illustrated FlashbackThis is how you win the U.S. Open: You leave Europe, move to America and buy a place in Greenwich, Conn., where a million or two will get you, maybe, a nice little split-level ranch near the I-95 off-ramp. That's what Ivan Lendl did, and he has won the U.S. championship three years running. Mats Wilander is right on schedule. He's building a love nest about three or four minutes from Lendl's house. Flushing Meadow wasn't built in a day, though. Lendl lost his first three finals there before he finally got it right, and now Wilander has lost his first final.

A tip to Wilander: As soon as he and Sonya, his bride of eight months, have the plumbing in and the plastic flamingos on the front lawn, they should start work on the court. When he plays the U.S. Open, Lendl has a real home-court advantage; his Greenwich court is a perfect duplicate of the Stadium Court at Flushing Meadow, because whenever the latter is resurfaced, Lendl brings the same workmen with the same materials to repeat the job at his place.

Until Wilander takes that step, nobody, it appears, is going to beat Lendl on his home court away from home. This year none of his first six opponents, including the two guys who used to own Flushing Meadow -- John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors -- could take even a set off him. Although Wilander played a picture-perfect match and although Lendl had battled the flu for most of the previous four days, Wilander could only fall valiantly, 6-7, 6-0, 7-6, 6-4. Afterward, USTA officials called Wilander back onto the court to give him an envelope representing his $125,000 in prize money. He's only No. 3 in the world -- and they spelled his name wrong on the envelope: Mats Willander. Let's hope Welcome Wagon does a more neighborly job in Greenwich.

In the U.S. Open final, which was delayed a day, to Monday, because of rain, Lendl and Wilander were repeating their gig from the French Open in June. That finale was a baseline stinker that almost left Roland Garros condemned for having toxic tennis wastes. The American championship took even longer, four hours and 47 minutes, which is unforgivable unless tennis wants to replace the Jerry Lewis telethon, but at least it had more variety -- the usually cautious Wilander often attacked the net -- and vigor from both principals. Nevertheless, as the third set, which took longer than most feature motion pictures, neared its conclusion, a rumor spread that the reluctant newscaster, Dan Rather, had taken 14 hostages, had written a letter to Jodie Foster and was holding down the pin on a live grenade, threatening to blow up CBS if the set didn't end before Armistice Day.

It did, but only because the weakened champion regained a fickle serve just in time to escape a sticky situation. Wilander had him 6-5, with two set points at 15-40, when Lendl not only served out of that hole by busting some beauties down the middle, but also kept the service fire on to win the tiebreaker 7-4 and pull ahead to stay. Lendl never lost his serve in the fourth set, finally breaking Wilander in the 10th game with a lovely backhand return.

Had Wilander won either of those last two sets and sent the match to five sets (and toward the six-hour mark), Lendl quite likely would have fallen by the wayside. As it was, the man of iron was so ravaged by the flu that, he said, "I was out of juice for the last three and a half sets," and operated almost entirely on "strength of mind." But in his own favorite word, Lendl is so solid (SAW-lit he pronounces it) that not even a craftsman like Wilander can beat him on sawlit courts.

Wilander reached the final only after he and his countryman, second-seeded Stefan Edberg, conducted a brief work stoppage before their semifinal match on Saturday to protest having to go on court at 10 a.m. Edberg had played a five- set doubles final on Friday, and both he and Wilander had played their quarterfinal matches on Thursday. Still, the tournament rushed them back on court, while holding Lendl-Connors for the afternoon, even though neither had played since Wednesday.

Open officials reluctantly admitted that the unfair scheduling was at television's behest. CBS pays the USTA rights fees of more than $12 million a year. So: Play the blond foreigners when they're tired. Play the women's final late, as a lounge act to the men's semis. Stockpile good matches just in case TV needs five minutes of action to fill airtime. Hold up play at a crucial spot in the men's final -- 6-5 in the third set -- to interview Mike Wallace just off court.

The network, however, is not the prime villain. CBS also pays a lot of money to the NFL, but Pete Rozelle would never play the Giants on Thanksgiving and then again the following Sunday just to get better ratings. The men and women tennis players agree on almost nothing, but they are so disgusted with the way the USTA has sold out the players -- and the paying customers -- that they're ready to join forces and protest to the common foe. The best man -- and the best woman -- won, but why must victory be tainted by unfair scheduling every year?

Among those who were not victimized by the scheduling because they weren't around long enough were the last two Wimbledon champions, Pat Cash, the Holder, and Boris Becker. Cash departed in the first round, bemoaning the fates that had burdened him with fame and fortune since his triumph on Centre Court. Becker's small failures of the past few months appear to be more complicated in origin: I Was a Teenage Champion. He seems such a levelheaded, grown-up 19-year-old that it's downright jarring when he acts his age and gets red-eyed in defeat.

But then, Ion Tiriac, Becker's steely manager, who has taken to mocking his young charge, calling him Lover Boy in tribute to his emerging libido, snorted at journalists who suggested that Becker was mature for his age. "Talking to you guys, yes, hitting a tennis ball, no," Tiriac growled. "He's been getting by on power for two years, and now he needs about 50 percent of Lendl's game." It's also been suggested that Becker needs a coach to replace Gunther Bosch, whom he fired earlier this year for being too smothering a presence. Marty Riessen, coach of the U.S. women's teams, is considered a prime candidate and met with Tiriac during the Open.

Becker's fourth-round conqueror was Brad Gilbert, who had gained distinction of another sort earlier in the week when he returned a towel to a ball boy, complaining to the dumbfounded youth that it was insufficiently fluffy. In the quarters the 35-year-old Connors, by far the oldest man in the draw, eliminated Gilbert in four sets. Jimbo ended the summer having advanced further in Paris, London and New York than any other American male.

John McEnroe, who was out on bail while awaiting sentencing for his misbehavior in a first-week match, suffered a fate worse than suspension when His Crudeness caught Lendl in the quarters. Lendl's 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 victory was almost surely the finest match he has ever played. It approached the purest triumphs of the Open Era -- McEnroe's rout of Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon final, and Connors's belittling of Ken Rosewall in '74 at Forest Hills.

Lendl fired back everything McEnroe served, and he never faced so much as a break point. Lendl's lobs traced rainbows to the baseline, and he passed McEnroe at midcourt with lightning bolts. Lendl's ratio of winners to errors was 34-15, an extraordinary figure. Even more astounding, he won 79% of the points that began with his second serve. Normally, a player can win a match if he converts around half of his second-serve points.

Lendl treated this tour de force as if it were some sort of commuter bus trip. "Nothing special," he said. Can he find no romance in the game, not even in his own singular majesty? Perhaps trifling his own efforts is Lendl's way of punishing another ungrateful crowd, which showed no enchantment whatsoever with the masterpiece painted before its eyes. "They appreciate how good a player I am," Lendl says of the New York audience. But, in fact, the fans at Flushing Meadow offer him only grudging acceptance. It's almost as if tennis lovers resent that someone so tall and strong and long-legged stays back at the baseline, refusing to come in and mix it up.

"If you want tantrums or comedy, don't come and see me," Lendl says. However, his mechanical superiority isn't what puts off people. It's his refusal to get involved -- with his opponent, with the atmosphere, with the crowd, with (at last) the game itself. "My mission is not to beat up on McEnroe," he says. "It is not for personal satisfaction; it is not to make anyone happy. My mission is to win."

Is there a more amazing example of group psychology than the way the Open audience continues to embrace McEnroe? As one perplexed tennis official pointed out, whenever he is in New York people fall over themselves to tell him McEnroe is a jerk. Then, the instant a McEnroe match starts, every soul in the joint is rooting for McEnroe. Surely it must pain him to hear the crowd cheer so for something that is not there anymore. He, the perfectionist, the artist who cannot accept anything less than perfection from the mortals about him, must quake inside knowing that his glory -- probably the greatest genius ever seen on a tennis court -- has fled him forever. Yet the crowd still cheers.

So Lendl, Wilander and the other interlopers from afar are renting out Flushing Meadow now. Just a decade old, and the place is already haunted.

Issue date: September 21, 1987

 
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