Hana Mandlikova, the world's fifth-ranked player, was relaxing on a sofa in the players' lounge in Madison Square Garden last Friday, musing on why it is impossible—or nearly so—for most of the women to beat the two mega-stars, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd, on the women's tour.
"Any time I step on the court," says Mandlikova, "I believe I can beat Chris. The other players don't and that's the wrong attitude. Same with Martina. Nobody believes they can beat her. I do." No wonder. While Mandlikova is only 5-18 lifetime against Evert Lloyd and 6-18 against Navratilova, her record against those two is by far the best on the tour.
Then, Mandlikova shook her head in disgust at the way Terry Phelps was "actually laughing on the court" while losing 6-1, 6-0 to Navratilova earlier in the first round of the 16-player, $500,000 Virginia Slims Championships last week. Nor did Hana go for Phelps's sighing comment later: "I can't beat her." Sniffed Mandlikova, "You have to at least believe, even if they are better, older, wiser."
The next afternoon, Mandlikova—playing like a woman possessed and punctuating her play with a sailor's vocabulary—backed up her words with action. In winning 6-3, 7-5, she didn't simply beat Evert Lloyd, she devastated her. Proof? Uncharacteristically, Evert Lloyd didn't appear for Sunday's match for third place against the West German phenom, 16-year-old Steffi Graf. Evert Lloyd, a Garden spokesman explained, was exhausted. And in a slump. The previous week in Dallas, Evert Lloyd had been wiped out by Navratilova 6-2, 6-1 in the finals of a tour event. It was Evert Lloyd's worst loss to Navratilova since a 6-2, 6-0 defeat at Amelia Island, Fla. in April 1984.
March 31, 1986
Mandlikova wore out Evert Lloyd, emotionally and physically. At one stretch early on, Mandlikova blazed through 10 straight points. Most telling, she won 23 points at the net compared with Evert Lloyd's three; she had 34 placement winners to Evert Lloyd's 14. Afterward, Chris said coolly of her conqueror, "She hit some good balls." Mandlikova was more charitable to herself, conceding, "That's close to as best as I can play."
Then came Mandlikova's Sunday afternoon final against Navratilova. The last time they had met in New York, Hana beat Martina to win the 1985 U.S. Open. She took the court with fire in her eyes, clearly believing in her ability to dispatch Martina just as she had Chris. It took Navratilova, oh, perhaps a minute and a half to disabuse her of such notions. Navratilova—hitting every shot imaginable and some not—hung up 6-2 and 6-0 sets with eight- and 10-point runs, service breaks at every turn and total brilliance all over the court. Now it was time for Navratilova to do the conceding: Well, she said, she couldn't think of a set, ever, in which she had played better than the 6-0. And that covers a lot of years of brilliance.
In every other women's tournament, Navratilova would have been a straight-sets victor, but the Virginia Slims Championships call for a best-of-five final. And when Mandlikova somehow gathered herself and won the third set 6-3, making a service break in the fourth game hold up, the crowd was ready to settle in for a long afternoon. However, Navratilova regained her form and raced through a 6-1 set to wrap up the championship and collect the winner's share of $125,000. Already in 1986, Navratilova has won 26 of her 27 matches.
So how did Hana feel in the fourth set as the verdict against her was being delivered? "I believed I could still win. I felt good." And it's this can-do attitude that, after eight years on the tour and 24 victories, sets Hana apart from her colleagues.
The significance of Mandlikova's week in the Garden should not be ignored. For there is growing evidence that Mandlikova, still only 24, will become No. 1 when the Big Two retire, likely within a couple of years. After all, Mandlikova whipped them back-to-back last year to win the '85 U.S. Open, and her victory over Evert Lloyd last Saturday was her second straight triumph over Chris. An indication that Evert Lloyd is worried came during a post-match press conference in which Evert Lloyd went out of her way to point out how Hana often loses to women ranked below her—"girls she shouldn't have lost to." Graf, said Evert Lloyd, doesn't.
And in truth, Mandlikova can be a very uneven player. Already this year she has lost to Helen Kelesi, ranked No. 35. Against Evert Lloyd, Mandlikova was intense; against Navratilova, she somehow had lost her spark. "She can be glorious and breathtaking," says famed fashion designer and keen tennis observer Ted Tin-ling, "then look absolutely helpless." Says her coach, Betty Stove, "She plays a risky game."
Still, Mandlikova is showing signs of growing maturity. Evert Lloyd said the old Hana most likely "would have cracked" when Chris, with the crowd loudly behind her, came back from a 5-2 deficit to tie the second set at 5-5; the new Hana simply raised her game a notch.
Good thing Mandlikova can lift her level when she wants to, because Graf, ranked No. 3 at the moment, is considered a first-rate choice to be No. 1 herself someday. Graf is a disciplined player, possessed of great resolve, but she needs experience. She is as calm as Mandlikova is mercurial. "My dream, for sure, is to get to No. 1," says Graf, who already this year has made it to the finals of two events, losing both times to Evert Lloyd. Since 1985, Graf is 0-6 against Chris and 0-3 against Martina. Graf also lacks confidence. Asked how she might beat Navratilova in the semifinals, Graf said: "If I play out of my mind. But she never lets you get into the rhythm." Then she went out and lost, 6-2, 6-2.
Talk like that doesn't appeal to Mandlikova, who predictably has even grander designs: "I know I would appreciate it more being No. 1 if I make it while they are still here," she says. They know who they are.