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Worthy Of Really High Fives
Curry Kirkpatrick
June 18, 1984
At the French Open, Ivan Lendl won his first major and Martina Navratilova the Grand Slam—sort of
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June 18, 1984

Worthy Of Really High Fives

At the French Open, Ivan Lendl won his first major and Martina Navratilova the Grand Slam—sort of

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Whether the Slam was Grand or Bland or a commercial sham tainted with an asterisk the size of a tennis ball, Martina Navratilova finally did it. Her overwhelming domination of the Championnats Internationaux de France in Paris last week means that, at age 27, she has won the sport's four major tournaments—Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open in 1983, the French in '84—in succession. Moreover, she won them in doubles (with Pam Shriver) as well. Nobody has ever done that before, not Tilden, not Lenglen, not Jesse Jackson. Nobody. Yet the grandeur of the occasion at Stade Roland Garros seemed muted by the sheer redundancy of Navratilova's brilliance.

Like only a very few athletes before her at the peak of their powers—Bobby Jones, Babe Ruth, Edwin Moses—Navratilova is simply too good for her sport. As she herself put it, not unbecomingly, "I have transcended another level." And nobody is following. Chris Evert Lloyd is royalty in retreat. In the singles final on Saturday, Navratilova routed her 6-3, 6-1 to extend her winning streak against Evert Lloyd to 11 matches. Hana Mandlikova and Kathy Horvath, the only ones to beat Navratilova in the past 12 months, are comparative children who happened to have one charmed day. She avenged both of those losses in Paris.

However, diverting attention from Navratilova's accomplishment was the argument over whether she had achieved a genuine Grand Slam. In 1982 the International Tennis Federation, the closest thing the game has to a governing body, decreed that to win the Slam a player simply has to take four majors in a row rather than in a single calendar year, as the previous winners Don Budge (1938), Maureen Connolly ('53), Rod Laver ('62 and '69) and Margaret Smith Court ('70) had done. The ITF also offered a $1 million bonus to anyone who pulled off the feat. On the one hand, Navratilova's four straight majors are hardly less impressive because she didn't win them in the traditional time span. Her victories have come on three surfaces; the other Slammers contended only with grass and clay. On the other hand, Budge's victory in the French in '38, Connolly's in the French in '53 and Court's at Wimbledon in '70 gave all of them four consecutive majors over two years, but no claim of Slam was made until they had won the year's remaining majors. In any case, there won't be many wagers against Navratilova's obliterating the controversy by sweeping the Slam titles this year, which would give her seven in a row.

Fact is, the presumption of Navratilova's magnificence outweighs appreciation of it and tends to inspire apathy. But on the other side of the aisle, the men's side, someone or other regularly comes up with a performance as inspirational as it is wholly unexpected. Ivan Lendl, for instance. You recall Lendl. Ivan the Terrible, Ivan the Terrible Choker, who had gagged his way to defeat in four Grand Slam finals and had recently acquired the habit of losing to John McEnroe. Mac had won their last five matches and 12 of their last 13 sets. On Sunday in the men's final, Lendl was again being ground into the red-brick dust by the all-court artistry of his tormentor.

Over two weeks in a Paris virtually weeping with rain, McEnroe had found a form most mortals only dream of as he stretched his winning streak to 42 matches while combating all his squawking inner demons, not to mention the usual suspects outside: wind, dust, the prevailing showers, umpires, ball kids, spectators, journalists, Arab groundskeepers and the horrid, leering paparazzi. When the sun finally burst through on the weekend, McEnroe's genius seemed to shine all the more brightly. He raced through Lendl in the first two sets, granting only 10 points against serve.

However, McEnroe made a couple of fatal errors. French crowds normally aren't partial to either of these sour-faced fellows, but they regard a three-set laugher with more derision than they do ice cubes in wine. Earnestly desirous of a chance to get into the match themselves, they were accommodated by McEnroe at 1-1 in the third set, when he engaged in another of his stupid harangues—with, what, a television cameraman's headset? Right. After he picked up the offending instrument, which was loudly emitting a director's instructions, graciously yelled "Shut up!" into the attached mike and then cast the headset aside, most of the 18,000 spectators started hooting. Then they got mad. If that wasn't enough, McEnroe got Lendl mad. Two games later, with the whistles of the crowd ringing in his ears, McEnroe blew triple-break point plus another ad. Lendl recovered to break serve himself in the ensuing game and then ran out the set.

Shortly, McEnroe's vicious first serve deserted him—Mac converted only 24 of 70 initial deliveries in Sets 3 and 4. He was feeling weary and, as usual, cross. When Lendl airmailed a few returns past Mac early in the fourth set, McEnroe screamed blasphemies at him, whereupon Lendl stalked to the tape "to make sure he didn't continue." Now McEnroe was confronted with an angry, fist-shaking Lendl, a Lendl of old, the tall, confident bearer of the slingshot forehand who had once beaten him in seven consecutive matches. And a new, bouncing Lendl as well, one who had roared through the tournament losing but a single set and had thrashed Mats Wilander in the semifinals. "John's serve lost speed," said Lendl. "He wasn't as sharp on the attack. He was giving me much more room for the passes."

Despite his struggling, McEnroe twice held service breaks in Set 4, but he wasn't bounding to net anymore, and Lendl kept reloading and moving him around, especially with subtle lobs. Then, in Game 12, after McEnroe was tentative on a couple of volleys, the man in the backgammon shirt broke for the tying set with another terrific lob. McEnroe spoke later of "a snowball effect. I had gotten to such a high level early, when I went down I couldn't come back. Then the crowd got in it. It's frustrating."

The astonishment of the fifth set was that the two players had altered personalities so drastically, Lendl blasting out with self-assured zest, Mac foundering for a strategy to curb the onslaught. Lendl's depth and pace were such that McEnroe couldn't attempt his pet drop shots or get close enough for consistent volleys. And Lendl was positively carving up the court with his own serve. He served four love games in the last set. Finally, with Mac serving at 5-6, the slingshot went down the line for 0-30. A forehand crosscourt passed McEnroe for 15-40. McEnroe bravely saved one match point, but on the second he struck a shoulder-high volley wide. How could he have been so brilliant and then so careless? Had Lendl really come from that far behind to win 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5? Since the 1877 Wimbledon, the first Grand Slam event, only 14 men have overcome a two-set deficit in the final of a major championship.

"It feels great to finally answer some different questions," said Lendl, whose long-overdue first major title could be as important a career-changing event as, say, McEnroe suffering an attack of acute civility. After he again failed to conquer Roland Garros—as American men have failed for 29 years now—Mac brusquely skipped out on the traditional remarks to the crowd and drew blood from the hand of an NBC-TV cameraman as he scraped him with his racket. Luckily, the guy didn't have on his headset.

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