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Survival of the Fittest
Sally Jenkins
September 21, 1992
In a U.S. Open that went on and on, Stefan Edberg and Monica Seles persevered for the second year in a row
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September 21, 1992

Survival Of The Fittest

In a U.S. Open that went on and on, Stefan Edberg and Monica Seles persevered for the second year in a row

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It seemed like the longest U.S. Open ever, although not in "linear years," as tennis fan Barbra Streisand might say. Let's put it this way: The Open stayed open too long. With the smell of highly evolved garbage wafting through the players' lounge, each day was as endless as a freeway guardrail, and the night-shift matches at Louis Armstrong Stadium were numbing. The joke making the rounds was that some Italian governments hadn't lasted as long as the Open did.

The only one left standing at the end of the arduous men's competition was Stefan Edberg of Sweden, whose successful defense of his U.S. Open title was like a forced march. Edberg survived three consecutive five-set matches to reach Sunday's final, in which he enjoyed one of his easiest victories of the tournament, a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 defeat of a hobbled and ill Pete Sampras. In contrast, Monica Seles retained her women's title in what seemed like moments. Seles, who has won six of the last eight Grand Slam events, never dropped a set despite being plagued by a serious head cold for much of the tournament. Her 6-3, 6-3 final-round victory over fifth-seeded Arantxa Sánchez Vicario of Spain was as convincing as her 6-3, 6-2 semifinal win over Mary Joe Fernandez.

Flushing Meadow had many long matches—10 five-setters in the last four rounds of the men's competition alone—but no great ones. Ultimately, interest in the Open was revived by the antics of Streisand and Andre Agassi, and the transformations of Edberg and Sampras, who despite their elegant play, turned out to be the tough guys of the tournament. They hewed their way toward each other through a succession of hard-fought matches to arrive in the final, exhausted—Edberg having spent over 20 hours on court, and Sampras suffering from a stomach bug and shin splints—but clearly the most complete and resilient players in the field. The 26-year-old Edberg had only one word for his victory, which was his sixth Grand Slam title and returned him to No. 1 on the computer: "Bumpy."

The men's final was a meeting of scorching serves, liquid ground strokes and finely honed volleys. Edberg did nothing spectacular; he simply converted 63% of his first serves and prowled the net hungrily, while the weary Sampras steadily declined, eventually committing 11 double faults. Edberg knew he had the match in hand early in the fourth set, when he saw Sampras's head begin to sink and his shoulders start to curl inward. "My head was dropping and he saw that," Sampras said. "I just felt it slipping away."

Sampras had come from a set down to win five-set matches in the third and fourth rounds, and he had defeated top-seeded Jim Courier in the semifinals. That last victory would have been relatively untaxing—he lost only five games in the three sets he won—except that Sampras was stricken with the stomach ailment near the end, and he left the court bent over as if he had been stabbed. He spent three hours in the referee's office hooked to an IV, suffered from diarrhea, and didn't get to bed until 3 a.m. On Sunday he was feeling well enough to eat some rice and pasta and take the first set from Edberg. After the match, Sampras said of his ailment, "It's not an excuse."

Edberg had an equally difficult time. Were it not for an invention called the tiebreaker, Edberg and fourth-seeded Michael Chang might still be out on the Stadium Court breaking each other's serves. Even with the tiebreaker, their five-hour-and-26-minute semifinal is believed to be the longest in the 111-year history of the U.S. Nationals. Edberg will never forget how Chang, who is renowned for his staying power, beat him in five sets in the 1989 French Open final. But this time Edberg got stronger and Chang faded. After 404 points and 23 breaks of serve, Edberg prevailed 6-7, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4.

It seemed as if Edberg spent the whole tournament playing fifth sets. In all three of his five-set matches, he was down a service break in the final set. All the while, the normally sober Edberg showed an astonishing lack of reserve. He kissed the net. He jumped over it. He flailed balls high into the stands. He stabbed his fists in the air. He had never before been so exuberant. "Anybody would be proud of what I've done," he said after outlasting Chang. "I've been in a lot of trouble and come out of it. I think it shows a lot of good character."

In the fourth round he overcame Holland's Richard Krajicek, the No. 15 seed, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Then came a quarterfinal meeting last Thursday night with Ivan Lendl, a three-time winner at Flushing Meadow. They played for four hours and three minutes over two days before Edberg prevailed in a fifth-set tiebreaker. Lendl, who hadn't won a tournament in more than a year, was down triple match point at 4-5 in the fourth set, served his way to deuce, fought off a fourth match point in the same game and forced a fifth set before rain halted play for the night with Edberg ahead 2-1. The turning point came the next afternoon in the tiebreaker when Edberg struck a low forehand volley that caught the net cord, hung for a moment and toppled over to give him a 3-2 lead. Edberg leaned over and kissed the net, and then won four of the next five points for the match.

Some credit for Edberg's success must go to his coach of nine years, Tony Pickard. Last April, after Edberg married Annette Olsen, Pickard stopped traveling with the couple at their request. "It was fine by me," Pickard said last week. However, there were signs that Pickard felt shut out, and he and Annette conversed little as they watched Edberg play during the tournament. Pickard's absence had clearly not been fine for Edberg's game, which has improved markedly since Pickard rejoined Edberg on tour five weeks ago. "I know the boy," Pickard says. "I can tell after 10 minutes with him what's wrong. We tell each other the truth. That's why it works."

For his part, Sampras has won three tournaments in the last two months and seems to be fulfilling the promise he showed in 1990, when he became, at 19 years and 28 days, the youngest man to win the U.S. Open. He has long possessed a serve that could fell a tree, and now he has the rest of the game to go with it. "I've had to find the game to match my accomplishment," he says.

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