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No sooner had Ivan Lendl been crowned No. 1 in tennis than along came 18-year-old Boris Becker trying to depose him in the finals of last week's Nabisco Masters. Last year, while Lendl was securing his grip on the top spot, Becker was becoming the standard-bearer of West German yuppies. Three hundred of his well-heeled countrymen flew to New York and trooped into Madison Square Garden to hang banners like D�SSELDORF HOPES FOR BORIS and shout Ja! whenever he hit a winner.
He didn't hit enough, though, and Lendl refused to be rattled by the spectacular diving volleys Becker did convert. The players went at each other with a fearsome velocity. In fact, no one these days hits the ball harder than these two. Lendl, who didn't drop a set in the tournament, won 6-2, 7-6, 6-3. After the match, Becker called Lendl the game's top player. But Becker's manager, Ion Tiriac, demurred. " Lendl may be number one, but John McEnroe is still the best," he said. " Lendl just handles frustration a little better in his head."
McEnroe, who often acted as though he were No. 1 on the tennis courts by divine right, is beginning to look instead like Louis XVI on the eve of Bastille Day. "Everybody's trying to kill the king," says Tiriac. "The moment he weakens, it's off with his head."
Heads at least turned when McEnroe was humiliated last week by Brad Gilbert, who committed the l�se-majest� of beating him 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 in the first round. In seven previous matches, Gilbert had taken only one set off the defending champ. Never had McEnroe looked so sloppy or preoccupied. Indeed, the state of his game—and of his mind—commanded more attention at the Garden than the daunting play of Lendl.
The Masters debacle capped McEnroe's most frustrating and disappointing season, its only bright spot being his romance with Tatum O'Neal. For only the second time since 1978 he didn't win a Grand Slam event. He has lost five of the last six tournaments he has entered. After going virtually unchallenged at the top of the circuit for three years, he lost his No. 1 ranking to Lendl.
At the Australian Open last month, Slobodan Zivojinovic of Yugoslavia upset McEnroe 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4, 6-0. Never as a pro had McEnroe been shut out in a final set. The crowd booed him for acting boorish and giving up. "I've seen John play wuff matches," says former pro Mary Carillo, a longtime friend of McEnroe's, "but it was much more disturbing to see him tank one."
Against Gilbert, Mac was like a snapped high-tension wire, flicking sparks in all directions. He started in a funk, and stayed in it despite winning the first set. By the time he was defunct in the third set, he had whined about the electric Cyclops, wailed at the hecklers, given the umpire the bird and spit into the potted azaleas. "You punk." he screamed at Gilbert during a changeover, "you don't belong on the same court with me."
But McEnroe never could put muscle into his meek returns. He's a touch player whose game is built on confidence and precision. He feasts on second serves, but he couldn't exploit Gilbert's patsy ones. Normally, no one hits drop shots with as much disguise as McEnroe, yet he was telegraphing them to Gilbert by Western Union. In the end, McEnroe lashed out at linesman Johnny Sample, a Super Bowl defensive back with the 1969 New York Jets: "You know what it's like playing under this kind of pressure!"
"My attitude is very bad, very negative," McEnroe said after the match. "I'm not as strong mentally as I was, and I'm letting things affect me. I shouldn't be playing now. I'm embarrassed."
McEnroe, who turns 27 next month, is such a tightly clamped spring that he never allows himself a moment of casual laughter or casual pique. He's caught up in a backwash of self-pity. His favorite pastime has become lecturing all who will listen on the unbearable pressures of being John McEnroe. Being No. 1, with a seven-figure income, was only a burdensome duty. He never accepted the quid pro quo of modern celebrity: You sacrifice your private life. "The way people reacted to me and Tatum this past year, things went a lot farther than I thought they would," he says. "Let's put it this way: I never made the National Enquirer before. It's not something I'm proud of."