In the often bitchy world of international tennis, Hana Mandlikova and Ivan Lendl have shared much. Both are Czechoslovaks—you'd be rich if you had a nickel for each time a headline read CANCELED CZECH after either one lost—both were prodigies, and both possess magnificent lithe bodies with legs that only cowboys and showgirls are supposed to own. Both lead the league in calumny, too. You'd be richer still if you had a nickel for each time she was labeled erratic and he a choker.
This is not to say that Mandlikova hasn't been erratic. And Lendl indeed has a history of overpowering small fry in the early rounds and then losing finals to his peers. Nonetheless, the scales were balanced with irony and justice alike at Flushing Meadow last weekend when both not only won their first U.S. Opens but also defeated the defenders—Mandlikova in a compelling tiebreaker drama over Martina Navratilova, Lendl in a masterful rout of John McEnroe.
It was the first time two Europeans had won the U.S. Open, the ultimate sign that however much American money the championship produces, it grinds out less palatable American tennis sausage all the time. The dominion of championship tennis has crossed to Europe. To paraphrase what W.H. Auden wrote in quite another context 45 years ago, "All the dogs of Europe are barking."
The Davis Cup is Continental property. So is the Federation Cup. Sweden, with a population [1/30] of ours, produces more top tour contenders than America does. Europe gave this Open four female and six male quarterfinalists, the first time ever that the Old World, or any world save our own, so dominated our national championship. Perhaps most significant of all for the future, this was the third successive Grand Slam tournament in which a genuine teenage star from outside these shores was unveiled. The French Open introduced us to Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina, Wimbledon to Boris Becker and Flushing Meadow to another German, Steffi Graf, who made the semis before bowing to our best immigrant, Martina Navratilova.
September 15, 1985
Indeed, only the Statue of Liberty—green cards, anyway—might save American tennis from atrophying altogether. The best example of a foreign import, Lendl, resides in Greenwich, Conn. with his German shepherds and his sports cars, a suburban country-club squire who commuted to his tennis office between visits to the links and aerobics classes. Apart from a walking start, his defeat of McEnroe was awesome. Lendl, who has been studying under Tony Roche, the past master of the volley, won from the net as well as from the baseline. Curiously, McEnroe won his first 16 points on service, broke Lendl the first time he served, had a set point at 5-2 and served for the set at 5-3. But, suddenly, the match turned, and Lendl started thinking, "There's no ball I can't get to, and no shot I can't hit."
He won the tiebreaker with the loss of a single point and maintained control thereafter, winning the last two sets 6-3, 6-4. McEnroe never saw Lendl play better. Lendl's crosscourt forehand—this from a man who dined out down the line for many years—was simply devastating. But this weekend was one of metamorphosis, and fittingly the shot that won Lendl the title was a volley.
To be fair, McEnroe had the more trying trip to the final. In the fifth set of a first-round encounter with Shlomo Glickstein, a heavy-legged Israeli ranked in triple figures, McEnroe trailed 5-4, 15-30—two points from perhaps the greatest upset in tennis history. The fans roared for Glickstein, who was also only two points from an upset at 6-all in the tiebreaker, but McEnroe grubbed out the victory. Afterward, Mac stood like some noble Roman consul, his left hand extended high, palm out, his face drained by the grim demands of triumph.
Mac's travails were far from over. He would have to take on the usual injustices of an unfair, imperfect world. Once he dispatched a ball boy to the stands to tell the Mets' Gary Carter not to sign autographs. When playing one Martin Wostenholme, a Yale grad from Toronto, McEnroe heard a fan be so audacious as to say, "Come on, Marty." So McEnroe barked at him, "Why don't you go back to Canada?" The fan hails from Long Island. Mac also treated Open fans to the predictable imprecations at the CBS courtside microphone, shouted accusations that the tournament referee was boozing on the job, delivered a tasteless Japanese imitation for a photographer from Tokyo and demanded that a gentleman in the seventh row put out his cigar.
But always The Quarterfinal loomed. There McEnroe would find Becker, the captain of the children's crusade, in their first meeting since Becker won Wimbledon. McEnroe quite enjoyed all the fuss Becker was attracting. Normally the Europeans dig emotional foxholes at the major venues, surfacing only to hit and run, leaving the aging American quartet of Jimbo, Chrissie, Martina and Mac to sell newspapers. Third-ranked Mats Wilander, the French Open champion who carried McEnroe to five well-played sets in the semis, is, in fact, regularly brought up on multiple charges of shrinking violetism. This time, McEnroe publicly accused Wilander of "trying to backdoor" into the No. 1 ranking. Baby Mats responded, mild-manneredly, of course. "I never expect to win," he allowed, flaunting his un-Americanism shamelessly. "[Bjorn] Borg probably had more of an American attitude." Trenchant pause. "But he also quit when he was 26, so it wasn't a very good attitude."
And there it was, right out there in the open again: the ugly issue of burnout. Burnout! It now joins teenage acne, herbal deficiency, heartburn, psoriasis and the fear of herpes in the pantheon of modern American afflictions. This Open had more carryings-on about Borg, Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin than it had about McEnroe and Navratilova. Some people actually claimed to have seen the ghost of Andrea come back from Burnout Retirement Village and play into the second round. Then the Women's Tennis Association announced a series of restrictions on younger players. It's doubtful, however, how many Yuppie tennis parents will be influenced by these modest strictures 'gainst burnout when they can see before them the clear and present advantage of burn in.
Exhibit A: Fraulein Graf. Just turned sweet 16, already a three-year veteran of the world rankings. The day she became a semifinalist in New York, her considerable earnings provided her younger brother back home with a computer for his birthday.
Exhibit B: Herr Becker. Wimbledon champion at 17, while still resembling a Cabbage Patch doll. Mr. J.P. McEnroe, speaking from the vantage of 26 years: "At his age I was staying in three-dollar hotels. He's already got watch contracts."
Alas, The Quarterfinal was not to be. A blond Swede named Joakim Nystrom, who nearly beat Becker at Wimbledon, dispatched him in the round of 16. So McEnroe was left to carve up two of the remaining four Swedes—the nighttime defeat of Nystrom was mostly an exquisite revival of physical prowess, the steaming midday bouncing of Wilander a glorious exhibition of mental tenacity. Then, inevitably, he encountered Lendl, who had faced precious few obstacles in the dreary bottom half of the draw. Lendl's semifinal opponent was Connors, whom he trounced. Jimbo is still a force against lesser lights, but no match for the top three. He now stands 1-12 against Lendl, McEnroe and Wilander for the last twelvemonth. He pleaded a turned left ankle in defeat. "Yes," said Lendl in his usual deadpan style, "it seemed to me he was favoring it after the points, but during them it didn't seem to be bothering him at all."
Overall, the tournament was a monument to form—the 11th-seeded Graf and Heinz Gunthardt, an unseeded Swiss, were the only non-Top 10ers to make the quarterfinals—and the defeats of Kevin Curren and Johan Kriek created the only passing stir of the early going. American tennis is so woeful that even our South African white hopes can't win.
Curren, the Wimbledon runner-up who has candidly admitted that he sought U.S. citizenship simply as a flag of convenience, won this year's dog-in-the-manger award by attacking his new country's Open with such fervor that he ended up asking that "they" unload an A-bomb on the premises. Of course, "they" might start in the press room, where eight years after the Open was deposited in Flushing Meadow, a large segment of the parochial press contingent continues to concentrate its most searching inquiries into how the boys and girls of Racketdom, poor things, are coping with New York—as if New York were some exotic jungle site and playing the Open was on the order of being on the wrong side of an Ugandan coup.
Still worse was CBS, which paid Connors to interview players live while he was still in the tournament. Really, now: Has television no respect for the dignity of a competition? Must it trivialize everything into some tawdry form of talk show? Hardly better was CBS hiring Pam Shriver to interview her doubles partner, Navratilova. But at least Shriver was no longer in the singles draw, having been eliminated by the fledgling Graf in the tournament's best match.
Their quarterfinal meeting was the first women's match during the Open's tiebreak era to go the maximum 39 games. After two hours and 45 minutes on the airless Grandstand Court, the score stood at 7-6, 6-7, 6-6 and 4-all in the tiebreaker. Only then did Peter Graf, Steffi's father and coach—"I have two hearts for her," he said—swallow hard. Steffi won the next three points. Were you nervous, Steffi? "Well, not really." Were you tired? "Well, not really." Innocence can sometimes be a better weapon even than a stout forehand.
Graf's shirt clung to her pasty body, drenching her. In a fortnight that was stifling almost every day, only the estimable Mrs. Lloyd didn't seem to be saturated in sweat. After she rolled over Claudia Kohde-Kilsch to advance to the semis for the 15th straight year, the loser said the winner might be playing better than ever. That made it all the more curious two days later when Evert Lloyd came out so dispirited against Mandlikova, displaying an utter stranger's backhand, one that floated aimlessly and landed without punch. "I'm not a machine," she said with a shrug.
Still, Mandlikova needed three sets to win, while Navratilova's idle dismantling of Graf raised few doubts. Betty Stove, Mandlikova's coach, took her pupil in hand. "O.K., let's not make a big thing of this," she said. Be calm. So what if it meant beating Chris and Martina on successive days? The next day Mandlikova circled away from Navratilova in the locker room, cat and mouse, trying to avoid eye contact. Finally, a few minutes before they went on, Stove brought up tactics. "It's a battle of who gets to the net first," she said. Mandlikova began taking the net on the champion's serves instantly—and almost with disdain. Often, both players ended up there, firing reflex volleys at a few paces. Usually Mandlikova prevailed. The comet never flashed brighter; after 17 minutes she led 5-0, and a few moments later she had a point for the bagel.
But never go away when Mandlikova flares. She hadn't been in a tournament final in six months. Just last month she had led Kohde-Kilsch 5-2 in successive sets and lost them both. And this was Navratilova across the net. Suddenly Martina was breathtaking, and it was 5-all. Navratilova then had eight break points for 6-5. Even when she botched that opportunity, she came back and purchased a tiebreaker. But Navratilova could only hold one of her five serves, and Mandlikova ran out the breaker 7-3.
Navratilova was in complete command in the 6-1 second set. Erratic old Hana. Yes, yes. But she steadied for the bell lap, and after she poked a forehand return down the line, she was serving for the match at 5-3. Navratilova, however, wouldn't yield, and she broke back to earn another tiebreaker. Winner take all. Only once again the champion couldn't win any service points and the challenger could. Mandlikova burst on top 6-0 before finishing with a gorgeous reaching backhand volley.
Navratilova was lovely as Linda Evans came on court to hand out the winners' checks. "Gifts," she called them, as if the contestants might also get some Samsonite luggage and an all-expense-paid trip to Vegas. Afterward, though, beyond the glare, Martina fled, crushed and crying. Notwithstanding the little homily she delivered to the press on the sisterhood of the tour—no political boundaries on court and all that—it's no secret that Navratilova hates most to lose to her onetime countrywoman.
Consider this, too: We have been writing off Mandlikova as some whimsical genius for so long that it may be hard to believe that she's only 23 and that she has made more Grand Slam finals (six) and won more (three) than the great Navratilova had at the same age. Sure enough, before too long she will again squander her great gifts in some match, as surely as Lendl will lose another Big One. But their stigmas are gone. Last weekend did that. The one who was erratic and the one who was a choker will henceforth be judged champions.