"That was a bad mistake," replied Connors. "I'll remember that. I'll play him again. Hell, I've followed guys to the end of the earth." Then Jimbo softened: "Now I don't think I'll follow him. I'm not begging for respect. It's a war zone out there. I enjoy playing guys who could be my children. Maybe he's one of them. I spent a lot of time in Vegas."
In the semis Agassi met his own worst nightmare, Lendl, who can hit a forehand just as hard as Agassi can and who brooks no wiseass behavior. After Agassi jokingly leaned on Lendl's shoulder during the prematch photo opportunity, tapped a ball at a fan in the first game and emitted a couple of martial-arts howls while blasting shots. Lendl had had enough. He demanded the umpire warn Agassi to contain his gasps, grunts and growls. "When Agassi goes for a big shot, his grunt is much harder, like he thinks it's a winner," said Lendl later. "If you have a play on the ball, it throws off your timing. Connors's grunting is different; it's always the same." Lendl's protest was denied.
Agassi said he thought Lendl was "out of line" and "ridiculous" for making his noises an issue. "That tells you something about the guy," he said.
Agassi played a spectacular 10th game, which he won on a backhand drop shot to win the first set 6-4. After that, however, he wasn't the same player. Over the next three sets, which Lendl won 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, Agassi could make few inroads against the older man's serve or power. Though he said he had trouble serving against the wind, Agassi—Little Boy Blue Denim when behind—appeared to be gearing up for a rejuvenation later in the match. He had done that all summer, but he couldn't recover against the resourceful Lendl. "He was giving up, hitting shots he knew weren't going in," said Lendl afterward. "I don't understand that."
Call it youth. Call it cool. One could sense Agassi's practically announcing, "I'm too baaad to be good." But his elders should take advantage while they can, before Agassi discovers the weight room. For all his contrivance and impudence, this rattail rascal brings to tennis the kind of freaky freshness and exotic fun that, as Lendl and Wilander proved again in their final, is precisely what the game at the highest level is starving for.
But you've got to give Lendl some credit. As he attempted to become the first man to win four consecutive U.S. championships since Bill Tilden won six in a row in the 1920s, he kept coming from behind in the gloaming on Sunday. He was down 4-1 in the second set and was down a service break in both the fourth and fifth sets before he succumbed 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. Raise even louder cheers to the steadier, and on this day surprising, Wilander, who whipped his nemesis after six straight defeats. "Nobody beats me seven in a row," Wilander joked. By winning his third major title of 1988, he gave Sweden a male Grand Slam of sorts. Wilander, who like Lendl lives in Greenwich, also won the Australian and French opens, while his countryman Stefan Edberg won Wimbledon. For Lendl, '88 is the first year he has failed to win a major championship since '83.
But even as Wilander was taking over the No. 1 spot on the computer from Lendl, who fell three weeks short of Connors's record of 159 weeks on top, Flushing Meadow was emptying fast. At least a fourth of the fans in the sold-out 20,000-seat stadium had exited by the start of the fifth set. By the end of the 51st game, after Lendl had fought off a match point, wasted two break points and netted a backhand return to finally surrender the title, four hours and 55 minutes had ticked away, making this the longest final ever in the U.S. nationals. It surpassed by eight minutes the record these same two men set last year, when they combined to make the America's Cup seem enthralling, not to mention short. By comparison, Graf needed only four hours and 57 minutes to win all four of her Slam finals.
That Lendl and Wilander are both essentially baseliners is not the only reason that their matches are tours de tedium. Lendl's dour mien is enough to darken the sun, of course, but even Wilander, for all his off-court humor and popularity, comes up a zero in on-court charisma and excitement. The new champ is such a nice guy he would never think of contributing a little zest to the proceedings by revealing his dislike for Lendl, who once embarrassed him with a 6-0, 6-0 rout in an exhibition in Spain, in which Wilander had to play with cheap rackets bought in a local store. He has never forgiven Lendl for that, and he at last got his revenge. "This beats most of my dreams," he said.
After which the U.S. Open could finally wake up and go home.