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Frank Deford
September 21, 1981
In pounding his way to a third consecutive U.S. Open title, John McEnroe served notice he's on top to stay
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September 21, 1981

Another Big Mac Attack

In pounding his way to a third consecutive U.S. Open title, John McEnroe served notice he's on top to stay

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Tuesday was somewhat pivotal itself, the day the cool, rainy weather of the tournament's first days was replaced by sunshine—and the winds. Mandlikova was the first to succumb to the latter. She kept being distracted by breezes that lifted her skirt up in back. Evert Lloyd undressed her otherwise with lobs and passing shots. Tossing the ball into the gusts, Mandlikova lost 16 of 18 service points in the first set, and Evert Lloyd won 6-1, 6-3.

Navratilova lay waiting for the winner in the weeds, forgotten when she was not maligned. Barely two years ago she reigned as the repeat Wimbledon champion, but her successes have been slight since then, and what part of her game wasn't lost to indifferent conditioning was dissipated by a personal life in flux. Among women in the news, not even Supreme Court nominee Sandra O'Connor has had her private wash hung out so fully in public view. Then in July, Navratilova, who defected from Czechoslovakia in 1975, became a U.S. citizen. But in an old-fashioned—and very dear—way, this passage didn't mean a conclusion for her. The greater quest now lay ahead.

"Martina wants so much to be accepted as an American," says Renee Richards, her good friend. "And she wants to be the champion of her country."

Toward these ends, Navratilova began to work herself and her game back into shape. Richards started coaching her, and Billie Jean King provided serving tutelage. Stop trying to copy McEnroe's style, King said, and on the second ball forget the slice and stay with your natural top-spin. Moreover, Navratilova took off so much weight that she had to eat a few pounds back on for strength's sake. Wearing a sort of Houston Astro uniform and a new strawberry-blonde head of hair with a beribboned pigtail, she was more attractive than ever—and proud to be an American looker.

Following a middle-round match, she opened her eyes wide and said, "Hey, you hear what they're saying up in the stands? She's pretty. And nobody ever said that before...well, unless they were close to me."

Across the net, Evert Lloyd had succeeded in making her 11th straight U.S. Open semifinal. She also has been in 10 Wimbledon semis in a row. Neither Moody nor Tilden nor any other immortal approached either of those feats, much less the two together. On this gusty Friday afternoon Evert Lloyd and Navratilova played one for the annals, a duel both brave and trenchant, highlighted by one remarkable point in the middle set that was as comprehensive an exercise in tennis as two women ever displayed. Evert Lloyd won that point as she won that set, but, as Navratilova said, "It all seemed too good for me not to win," and she did, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.

In the first set she squandered a 5-3, 40-15 lead, but she broke the defender in the 12th game by outplaying her off the ground. Then, in the deciding set, serving down a break and 15-30, Navratilova ran out the match amidst tumultuous crowd activity. Two suspensions in play, totaling 10 minutes, were required for a platoon of Keystone Kops to corral three loudmouthed rowdies from the upper reaches of the packed stadium. However, to the delight of many shamefaced New Yorkers, the most loathsome disturber of the peace turned out to hail from none other than London, England. It's reliably reported that he will not be given a membership in the U.S. Open Club.

But Navratilova's victorious struggle over Evert Lloyd left behind some incriminating evidence. Her stamina could be seen as suspect, and Marty Riessen, Austin's new coach, recognized how much havoc Evert Lloyd had created by lobbing. Austin's lobs in the final were even better than Evert Lloyd's had been, and they took a great toll. What let Navratilova down the most was her forehand volley. The most disquieting of her countless mistakes off that stroke was a sitter she plunked into the net at break point for 5-4 in the second set. For want of that shoe was the kingdom lost.

Austin, of course, was enjoying a revival herself, having been shelved for four months earlier this year with a serious lower-back disability. It wasn't till last month's Canadian Open that she regained her form, which is all the more reason to credit her courage, because when she at last found herself tested she was up to the task. Tested? Navratilova simply knocked her back on her heels, 6-1, in a 25-minute opening set.

But Austin steadied herself, even as she fidgeted more on every point—like some third-base coach, touching her hair, her face, her dress, her necklace—and in the two tiebreakers she needed for victory, she routed the 24-year-old Navratilova 7-4 and 7-1, respectively. In the end, the difference was not just the execution the prodigy has always been famous for, but also a brilliant piece of bold strategy. Leading 1-0 in the final tiebreaker and having played Navratilova's backhand all day, Austin won two straight points by slamming drives to the forehand corner. In both cases Navratilova was caught dumb struck and wrong-footed.

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