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Summer Reruns
Frank Deford
July 14, 1986
Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova successfully and convincingly defended their Wimbledon championships
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July 14, 1986

Summer Reruns

Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova successfully and convincingly defended their Wimbledon championships

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One of the better British words is useful. In sports, particularly, the English employ it at times when Americans, with casual hyperbole, would offer up "great" or "superstar" or "legend in his own time." But in England they say—of all but the most extraordinary—that "he's a useful player." Well, this was a useful Wimbledon. It was pleasant and charming enough, yet it offered nothing special and revealed little. Nor will it long make us think back. Both champions will certainly be remembered, but both merely climbed more steps rather than breaking new ground or opening new doors. Boris Becker, at 18, won his second straight Wimbledon, and Martina Navratilova won her fifth in succession and her seventh all told.

Bjorn Borg, of course, was canonized for winning five straight, but that set the men's record for modern times. Navratilova's five consecutive titles only tie her with Suzanne Lenglen, and the total of seven leaves her one short of Helen Wills Moody's aggregate. Of course, this is scant consolation for Hana Mandlikova, who lost 7-6, 6-3 in Saturday's final and has yet to win a single Wimbledon, or for Chris Evert Lloyd, whom Mandlikova dispatched in the semis.

There was no gainsaying Navratilova's superiority this fortnight. For the third time she breezed through without the loss of a set, and while her passage to the final was ridiculously easy—her only seeded opponent was the callow clay-courter, Gabriela Sabatini, in the semis—Navratilova cannot be faulted for the luck of the draw. Besides, lest idle hands be the devil's tools, she stayed almost compulsively busy, winning the women's doubles (with Pam Shriver) and reaching the final of the mixed (with Heinz Gunthardt). Navratilova's vital first serve was so consistent, she had to practice second serves because she wasn't getting to hit enough of them in match play. Her psyche was so secure that she entertained her parents, sister and a host of friends, all the while blissfully pedaling about the byways of Wimbledon town on her 10-speed. "I don't think anything can distract me anymore," she said, "and I'd rather be surrounded by people I love."

For Becker, the only one of the four singles finalists not born in Czechoslovakia, the fortnight was only marginally more testing. In whipping the useful No. 1 seed, Ivan Lendl, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 in Sunday's final, the defender showed himself to be better on serve, quite a bit better at net and more resilient and/or luckier in the crunch. The difference was one break a set, although the match was really narrower than that, for both players held break points in five games. Lendl could only capitalize in two of those games, while Becker cashed in in all five. More specifically, with Lendl leading 5-4 in the third set on Becker's serve, the Czech had triple set point. However, the irrepressible Becker stopped the challenge cold with three volleys and then finished the game with an ace and a service winner. "I saw a little bit in Ivan's face that he didn't know what to do with me," Becker said of the instant when he banged away the third set point from the net.

How daunting it must be for the other players to consider that no mortal man has ever defeated Becker at Wimbledon, that in three years of play he has left twice with titles and once on his shield, carried off with torn ankle ligaments in 1984. Further, he is better now than when he won a year ago—headier, for sure, with finer touch and a bravado borne now more by real confidence than by innocence unawares.

But the tennis court is only the start of his development. Virtually unknown even in his homeland 53 weeks ago, the carrot-topped kid now has a name recognition factor in West Germany of 98.1%, second only to Volkswagen's. He has received more than 60,000 letters, has made millions of dollars and has supped with the chancellor. "It's much more difficult this year," Becker said last week. Pause. "There's been a lot of pressure." Someone hollered out a question. He didn't hear it. "Nobody can really believe it." He went on softly, almost to himself, without braggadocio, simply stating a fact. Even Becker acknowledges that he is the hero Germans have been searching for since 1945.

He is still a growing boy, too. How different his rival in the final is. At 26, Lendl is healthy, at the height of his powers and No. 1 in the world. He was 8-5 in the London books to win The Championships. Yet, surely, no top seed has ever attracted less notice or stirred the emotions so feebly as Lendl. He does not appear to be an athlete competing in a tournament, a performer playing before an audience, as much as a crop coming to harvest. Punch dismissed him as "yawn tennis." Arthur Ashe wrote that he was "a blank." Even The Times of London said, "In terms of pleasing and inspiring the spectator, Lendl is, to borrow the immortal words of John McEnroe, the pits of the world."

"Since I got here, I have been chopped up," Lendl snapped one day. Garbo talks. Lendl emotes. Well, not really. "So, I just read my Herald Tribune and look at the baseball scores and politics."

But the very dispassionate qualities that make Lendl so unloved by the public are the ones that make him an accomplished serve-and-volley player. Give him his due. Our American players don't seem to have the heart to change their games once past puberty. At Wimbledon, though, Lendl beat three bona fide serve-and-volleyers—Matt Anger and Tim Mayotte of the U.S. and Slobodan Zivojinovic of Yugoslavia—at their own game before being undone by Becker's natural grass assault.

The semifinal against Zivojinovic was a collector's item. Bobo, as he is called, arrived at Wimbledon batting .400 on the year—8 wins in 20 matches—but he has a serve that makes him something else on the turf. He has wins over McEnroe and Mats Wilander on the greensward. Bobo does not appear one to trifle with, either. He stands well over six feet and possesses the most massive thighs ever seen on a tennis court. Curiously, the rest of his body is rather standard, and his face is nearly sweet. Female contemporaries remember Zivojinovic as being a sort of Georgie Porgie Pudding Pie when he was a junior player, all retreating from his random advances. But he is 22 and married now, with an infant son and a residence in Monte Carlo. He also is Becker's good friend and sparring partner, and Ion Tiriac, Becker's ubiquitous �minence grise, has some sort of managerial connection with Zivojinovic. However, even Bobo says that "it's very hard to say" quite what services Tiriac does perform on his behalf. When Zivojinovic made the Wimbledon semis, Tiriac deigned to show up and watch his charge midway through the third set.

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