Pick 'em out, John," said the guard. "Pick out the ones you want." It sounded as if he meant fruits and vegetables, but he was referring to John McEnroe's friends who wanted to join him on the stadium court at Flushing Meadow. The champ identified his people as he moved through the crowd, tapping this one, casting an arm about that one.
"Pick 'em out."
"John," said a little girl, and he turned toward her.
"What about this one, Johnny Mac?" said another guard.
September 20, 1981
"Oh yeah," he said, and he patted her on the back and signaled that her mother was O.K., too. His curls were pressed down on his wet forehead, his collar was up, as always, like his dander, but now he was champion at home again, in Queens, U.S.A. Not only was he welcome at this place, but they also were dropping the barriers and letting his people in where it was exclusive.
After demolishing Bjorn Borg in four sets—4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3—at the U.S. Open a few minutes earlier, McEnroe had become indisputably the best. Oh yes, Borg still reigns supreme on clay, but that is small global potatoes, like stacking up the Hiroshima Carp next to the Philadelphia Phillies. Indeed, so high does McEnroe now stand that he helped make the women's tournament more intriguing than the men's. Of course, that is subject to sudden change. With her thrilling victory over Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin is, at age 18, poised at that same edge of domination where McEnroe stood this time last September.
Austin, though, must yet repel legitimate contenders, like the renascent Navratilova. McEnroe bestrides his field. For too long now, Borg's failures to win the Open have been attributed to New York, the airplanes, the weather, the lights, the longitude, everything in town but Bowie Kuhn. Sunday McEnroe exposed all that dime-store psychology as so much fancy.
Instead it is simply this: Borg doesn't have the total game to beat McEnroe on a hard court, at least not in Flushing Meadow, not when it matters. McEnroe so controlled the match that on those rare occasions when he was broken, it was more because of his own momentary lapses than of anything the befuddled challenger did.
The night before, in the semis, Borg had everybody raving by slugging fast flat serves past the late, great Jimmy Connors. But that wasn't comparable to dealing with Mac. Borg could flail away against Jimbo because if he missed the first one. so what? Connors was no threat to come in against Borg's relatively weak second delivery. Connors has now lost 10 times in a row to Borg. Against Borg, Connors is like an eager child who has been given a toy to construct, and each time he faithfully puts all the pieces together the same way, all wrong.
Playing McEnroe, Borg dared follow his serve in only when he sliced a first ball wide to the backhand in the deuce court. On most other occasions, after an exchange or two, there would be McEnroe, treading water at the net. On several break points McEnroe crowded the second serve, slid over and nailed a forehand right past Borg. It was scary how easily he made those returns against the second best player in the world.
Even more discouraging for Borg, when he could fight his way to the net, McEnroe would flip a lob for a winner, which is exactly what everybody says you should do to McEnroe, though neither Borg nor anybody else seems to try. Also, "they" say, slug service returns, press him, make the points short so he can't get any rhythm and play more to his forehand. Nobody seems able to do those things, either.
Vitas Gerulaitis, seeded way back at 15th, fared best against his fellow New Yorker, winning two sets in the semis. Gerulaitis and his game have been away somewhere soft recently, and when he upset third-seeded Ivan Lendl in the round of 16, he was so delighted he blew kisses to the crowd and crowed, "I'm back! I'm back!" as if we all might dust off the yellow ribbons that had been in cold storage since the hostages returned from Teheran. Gerulaitis, a wraithlike figure, whiter-than-white even down to his racket handle, had his speed back and ran holes in a swirling wind that otherwise tickled McEnroe's service tosses, and he stayed even on serve until 1-2, 15-love in the fifth set.
But then a dispute arose over whether a spectator had disturbed play by chucking an errant ball back onto the court. McEnroe further discombobulated things by breaking a racket string over CBS's vulgarity-catcher microphone. When the ship at last got under sail again, Gerulaitis lost his serve, and McEnroe held his at love. Boom—like that, five minutes and it was 4-1, all over. "The guy was getting so nervous," Gerulaitis said wistfully. "Definitely he was nervous."
So shaken was McEnroe that he withstood nine break points in that set. The nervous guy also survived despite dropping opening sets to the likes of Juan Nunez and Ramesh Krishnan—or Rubbish Krishnan as the scoreboard spelled the little fellow's name for the first half hour of the match. McEnroe was even a temperamental zephyr compared with the typhoon we had been assured would blow in. He actually seems to have learned not to take it personally when his countrymen dare root against him. Americans aren't anti-American. Merely anti-king. McEnroe is getting so good he's taking all the fun out of things.
"We're overstocked with people who do things well," said Gene Mayer shortly before he defaulted from this third straight Grand Slam event. "Especially in New York. You just walk down the street here and you see five champions of something. Nothing is special here." Well, before Sunday no man had won three U.S. titles in a row since Big Bill Tilden won six 56 years ago. There are champions and there are champions.
Pick 'em out.
The women's results were heavily influenced by atrocious seeding that placed Hana Mandlikova fifth, even though she had reached the finals of the last four Grand Slam tournaments, winning two, and had lost to no one but the eventual winner in the last six majors. This inequity was compounded by the draw, which pitted Chris Evert Lloyd, the top seed, against Mandlikova in the quarters.
Meanwhile, in the impoverished bottom half of the draw, Austin had to deal with no one of consequence. In the semis, for example, she faced 11th-seeded Barbara Potter. Pottsy the Preppie, who last year graduated first in her boarding-school class, is as bright and beguiling a pro as there is. For one outing she donned a garish yellow-and-black bumblebee ensemble—"I prefer variety in my apparel, my game and my love life"—but Pottsy's groundies only float, never sting, and Austin sashayed into the finals without the loss of a set.
By contrast, barely a week into the tournament, Evert Lloyd faced Mandlikova in the first showdown of the Open. New York hasn't hosted such a Tuesday-afternoon clash of titans since the Subway Series of yore, and Evert Lloyd came primed. It's wise to remember that she was only momentarily training her sights on Mandlikova. Her primary target is Helen Wills Moody's record seven U.S. titles. Evert Lloyd has five, and because "maybe two years is all I have left," victory in every match at the Open is nothing short of imperative in her eyes.
Mandlikova had needed a somewhat dubious call on a match point against her to survive an opening-round encounter against Mary Lou Piatek, but she had grown stronger thereafter, and the swelling chorus that attributes to her the elegance of Bueno and the grace of Goolagong was beginning to be heard over the jet engines above. Cut high, dashing, her stone face bound by a tied headband, its tails flying in back, Mandlikova seems more Apache than Czech—Apache of both sorts, warrior and dancer. Maturity is still the issue, but she's more at ease all the time, and something of a milestone in her development as a touring pro took place early in the tournament when she had her first dream in English.
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.
Austin's game has always mirrored Lloyd's, but now, it seems, she has Chris's grit as well. And Lord knows, she's still unaffected. "See you Monday," Jerry Diamond, the head of the Women's Tennis Association, said to her after the championship match.
"What for?" asked Tracy.
"You know, at the White House."
"Oh yeah," Tracy said, and ran off to her supper.
And if once Austin was Evert Lloyd redux, the Open showed that more of the same keep coming. And coming. There was a 17-year-old amateur named Barbara Gerken who got to the quarters. She had never seen a pro tournament before, much less played in one. One day a 16-year-old played, and she was two years older than her opponent, another pro. Another day dandy little Andrea Jaeger, only 16 but already No. 2 on the computer, got eliminated. She was up 6-1, 5-2, 30-love against a 17-year-old amateur from Baltimore named Andrea Leand, who had never before even qualified for a pro tournament.
But suddenly it came together for Andrea L. Her powerful ground strokes found safe harbor, and she began to press. Andrea J, with her one-note style, had nothing to fall back on, and she grew frustrated and bewildered. Five straight games for Leand: 7-5. Then a break for the amateur in the third set, which she ran out 6-3. Andrea J couldn't fathom how another kid could beat her. She talked to herself and choked back tears. Bad calls! It must be bad calls! More than that: It was the whole umpiring system!
Unlike Jaeger, Leand has continued to play junior tournaments, maintaining a regular school regimen, gaining acceptance to Princeton, studying computers instead of residing in one. Maybe that's what hurt Jaeger the most, that she lost to a girl who had had a childhood.
An official, Lee Jackson, was rushed courtside as Jaeger's defeat seemed imminent, and she escorted the broken-winged little bird away. All the time Andrea kept sobbing and whining to Jackson about the bad calls. Finally, kindly but firmly, the grownup turned to the pro and said, "But, dear, don't you see, I just can't do anything about that." Andrea stared back at Jackson through her tears. It was horrible to see. This had nothing to do with growing up. This was about growing old, and no 16-year-old should have to experience that.
But there also was an especially lovely match late one day. It paired McEnroe and Peter Fleming against fiery Fred Stolle and John Newcombe, two old U.S. champions, aged 42 and 37, respectively, who somehow had got themselves to the semifinals of the doubles against the top seeds. They had a glorious time; once Stolle ended up on the other side of the net, with McEnroe and Fleming. The whole stadium was rollicking, cheering and laughing to beat the band. Only the top seeds, the winners, didn't seem to be enjoying themselves. In close, McEnroe slammed a forehand into Stolle's neck.
Afterward, Stolle said, "We always had a fair bit of fun playing doubles in my day. I don't think you'll find any of the Top 10 today playing doubles when they're 42."
And Newcombe said, "I feel sorry for them. That's all. It's a sport. It's a living, too, yes, but they take it over the fringe."
McEnroe said, "Fun? I enjoy the competition. But I was brought up to be very serious on the court, and I just can't be what you call a crowd-pleaser." And so, right or wrong, it's all very serious now.
Still, it was so very nice when Navratilova cried after the women's final. She didn't weep when Austin beat her. She cried several minutes later when she was introduced as the runner-up, the loser, and the other Americans clapped and cheered, on and on, until she understood, at last, that they liked her. That was very nice.