One of the better British words is useful. In sports, particularly, the English employ it at times when Americans, with casual hyperbole, would offer up "great" or "superstar" or "legend in his own time." But in England they say—of all but the most extraordinary—that "he's a useful player." Well, this was a useful Wimbledon. It was pleasant and charming enough, yet it offered nothing special and revealed little. Nor will it long make us think back. Both champions will certainly be remembered, but both merely climbed more steps rather than breaking new ground or opening new doors. Boris Becker, at 18, won his second straight Wimbledon, and Martina Navratilova won her fifth in succession and her seventh all told.
Bjorn Borg, of course, was canonized for winning five straight, but that set the men's record for modern times. Navratilova's five consecutive titles only tie her with Suzanne Lenglen, and the total of seven leaves her one short of Helen Wills Moody's aggregate. Of course, this is scant consolation for Hana Mandlikova, who lost 7-6, 6-3 in Saturday's final and has yet to win a single Wimbledon, or for Chris Evert Lloyd, whom Mandlikova dispatched in the semis.
There was no gainsaying Navratilova's superiority this fortnight. For the third time she breezed through without the loss of a set, and while her passage to the final was ridiculously easy—her only seeded opponent was the callow clay-courter, Gabriela Sabatini, in the semis—Navratilova cannot be faulted for the luck of the draw. Besides, lest idle hands be the devil's tools, she stayed almost compulsively busy, winning the women's doubles (with Pam Shriver) and reaching the final of the mixed (with Heinz Gunthardt). Navratilova's vital first serve was so consistent, she had to practice second serves because she wasn't getting to hit enough of them in match play. Her psyche was so secure that she entertained her parents, sister and a host of friends, all the while blissfully pedaling about the byways of Wimbledon town on her 10-speed. "I don't think anything can distract me anymore," she said, "and I'd rather be surrounded by people I love."
For Becker, the only one of the four singles finalists not born in Czechoslovakia, the fortnight was only marginally more testing. In whipping the useful No. 1 seed, Ivan Lendl, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 in Sunday's final, the defender showed himself to be better on serve, quite a bit better at net and more resilient and/or luckier in the crunch. The difference was one break a set, although the match was really narrower than that, for both players held break points in five games. Lendl could only capitalize in two of those games, while Becker cashed in in all five. More specifically, with Lendl leading 5-4 in the third set on Becker's serve, the Czech had triple set point. However, the irrepressible Becker stopped the challenge cold with three volleys and then finished the game with an ace and a service winner. "I saw a little bit in Ivan's face that he didn't know what to do with me," Becker said of the instant when he banged away the third set point from the net.
July 13, 1986
How daunting it must be for the other players to consider that no mortal man has ever defeated Becker at Wimbledon, that in three years of play he has left twice with titles and once on his shield, carried off with torn ankle ligaments in 1984. Further, he is better now than when he won a year ago—headier, for sure, with finer touch and a bravado borne now more by real confidence than by innocence unawares.
But the tennis court is only the start of his development. Virtually unknown even in his homeland 53 weeks ago, the carrot-topped kid now has a name recognition factor in West Germany of 98.1%, second only to Volkswagen's. He has received more than 60,000 letters, has made millions of dollars and has supped with the chancellor. "It's much more difficult this year," Becker said last week. Pause. "There's been a lot of pressure." Someone hollered out a question. He didn't hear it. "Nobody can really believe it." He went on softly, almost to himself, without braggadocio, simply stating a fact. Even Becker acknowledges that he is the hero Germans have been searching for since 1945.
He is still a growing boy, too. How different his rival in the final is. At 26, Lendl is healthy, at the height of his powers and No. 1 in the world. He was 8-5 in the London books to win The Championships. Yet, surely, no top seed has ever attracted less notice or stirred the emotions so feebly as Lendl. He does not appear to be an athlete competing in a tournament, a performer playing before an audience, as much as a crop coming to harvest. Punch dismissed him as "yawn tennis." Arthur Ashe wrote that he was "a blank." Even The Times of London said, "In terms of pleasing and inspiring the spectator, Lendl is, to borrow the immortal words of John McEnroe, the pits of the world."
"Since I got here, I have been chopped up," Lendl snapped one day. Garbo talks. Lendl emotes. Well, not really. "So, I just read my Herald Tribune and look at the baseball scores and politics."
But the very dispassionate qualities that make Lendl so unloved by the public are the ones that make him an accomplished serve-and-volley player. Give him his due. Our American players don't seem to have the heart to change their games once past puberty. At Wimbledon, though, Lendl beat three bona fide serve-and-volleyers—Matt Anger and Tim Mayotte of the U.S. and Slobodan Zivojinovic of Yugoslavia—at their own game before being undone by Becker's natural grass assault.
The semifinal against Zivojinovic was a collector's item. Bobo, as he is called, arrived at Wimbledon batting .400 on the year—8 wins in 20 matches—but he has a serve that makes him something else on the turf. He has wins over McEnroe and Mats Wilander on the greensward. Bobo does not appear one to trifle with, either. He stands well over six feet and possesses the most massive thighs ever seen on a tennis court. Curiously, the rest of his body is rather standard, and his face is nearly sweet. Female contemporaries remember Zivojinovic as being a sort of Georgie Porgie Pudding Pie when he was a junior player, all retreating from his random advances. But he is 22 and married now, with an infant son and a residence in Monte Carlo. He also is Becker's good friend and sparring partner, and Ion Tiriac, Becker's ubiquitous éminence grise, has some sort of managerial connection with Zivojinovic. However, even Bobo says that "it's very hard to say" quite what services Tiriac does perform on his behalf. When Zivojinovic made the Wimbledon semis, Tiriac deigned to show up and watch his charge midway through the third set.
But Bobo took Lendl the route, winning two tiebreakers and surviving a raw deal when the chair umpire overruled erroneously on a crucial point. That sent Bobo to the sidelines in protest. "I do not play," he declared and sat down, until the tournament referee and discretion arrived. He then went back to dropping Z-bombs—Zivojinovic had 18 aces—until Lendl finally earned another break and thereby stepped into the lane where the Becker tour bus was speeding along.
Becker had defeated Henri Leconte in the other semi in four sets. What a treat the Frenchman is. Wearing classic crocodile all-whites and as flaky as any American southpaw fireballer, Leconte has dimpled knees, rosy cheeks and a perpetual expression of fond disbelief, which he regularly throws up to the competitors' box. There presides his wife, Brigitte, a lovely woman 12 years his senior, who specializes in marrying world-class French athletes. Last generation her husband was Guy Drut, the Olympic gold medal hurdler.
In Leconte's quarterfinal match with Pat Cash, the gallant Australian, who underwent an appendectomy three weeks before the tournament began, Leconte even took the time to remove a poor, disoriented butterfly from the scene of the battle. He does a lot of light stuff, too, almost every match. Leconte is a prime exhibit of a new attitude on the men's courts. At last, after more than a decade of enduring either the temperamental Stanislavski American school or the doleful, self-conscious Ingmar Bergman-comes-to-tennis type, we have players playing again—Europeans like Leconte displaying the old Australian bonhomie. Becker is certainly a warm champion in that style.
As for the Ladies' Championships, what precious little drama there was took part in the other half of the draw from Navratilova. There, Evert Lloyd had to be both courageous and resourceful to put away, in successive rounds, Kathy Jordan and Helen Sukova. Then came Mandlikova, a third-straight accomplished serve-and-volleyer, in the semifinals, and Evert Lloyd simply lacked the resolve to stay the course. She is 31, and perhaps the first leaf of autumn has finally fallen. Mandlikova thought so. In fact, Evert Lloyd played precisely the sort of formless, uneven match for which Mandlikova is famous. Not only did Evert Lloyd fail to hold her lead in the first set, but with a 5-2 advantage in the second, she also dropped 14 consecutive points and five straight games to lose the set and the match. "I just couldn't reach down the way I did against Jordan and Sukova," said Evert Lloyd.
Building on this crescendo finish, Mandlikova started the final on a misty Saturday by sweeping the first three games and then serving for the set at 5-3. Everything was going swimmingly, but Mandlikova has never been an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it kind of player. She changed her shoes to try to get more traction, only to make the situation dodgier and more distracting. She fretted that Navratilova could exercise more power with the slightly damp balls. We should hardly be surprised. Although always slender but muscularly lithe, Mandilova has taken to some diet to make her "more fit." Perhaps it has. After all, she got to the final, and she says she feels great. But she looks dreadful. She's frail and wan, and those magnificent legs, which even Ginger Rogers pined for, have lost their definition. In any event, Mandlikova faltered at 5-3, and Navratilova swept into the fray. After breaking Mandlikova, she converted 22 first serves in a row and won the tiebreaker 7-1.
Navratilova broke again to go up 3-1 in the second set. She saved two break points in the next game before facing one last challenge while serving for the match at 5-3. Navratilova usually serves to Mandlikova's backhand wing in the ad court. This time, on break point, she threw up her toss as if she were going that way but then drilled the ball down the T for an ace. Deuce. Adroitly reaching for sharp returns at the net, she won the next two points for the championship.
Kitty McKane Godfree, the oldest surviving women's champion—1924 and '26—presented the trophy to Navratilova. Had Lenglen won in '24, she would have had seven straight Wimbledon titles. She won five in a row from 1919 to '23 and won again in her swan song in '25. When Miss McKane won in '24, she didn't beat Mile. Lenglen. No, earlier that year Lenglen had taken off from Paris to rendezvous with a Spanish player in Barcelona. Suzanne was very fond of the opposite sex. In Barcelona passion clouded out good sense, and one night she ordered oysters, forgetting what a bad one can do. Sure enough, she came down with jaundice and had to drop out of Wimbledon. So that is why Godfree, who gave the trophy on Saturday, won in 1924, and why Navratilova, who received the trophy, tied Lenglen in 1986.
That's just a bit of history for Mayotte. He was the only American male to so much as reach the quarters. Mayotte majored in European history at Stanford, but he left with two semesters to go. Perhaps Mayotte should be allowed to earn his degree credits on tour. After all, the only history being made in tennis now is European history.