You think the Swedes had a tough U.S. Open? The West Germans (teen preen division)? John McEnroe? Jimmy Connors? Chris Evert L'Old? Well, we can lay much of the blame for that on Czechoslovakia. By the time the men's and women's finalists came around on Sunday, dancing Czech to Czech, four native-born Czechoslovakians had become the first quartet from the same country ever to contest the final rounds.
Moreover, as Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl routed Helena Sukova and Miloslav (Milo) Mecir, respectively, they cleared out the National Tennis Center stadium faster than a bomb threat. And to think that the USA Network chose to pre-empt that alltime cinema classic. Monkey Kung Fu, to carry the women's final. Not that it was difficult to tell the champs from the chimps. Why Madame Nav lost but five games to Sukova, the six-foot-two, nerves-of-goo lass who 48 hours earlier had made Evert Lloyd look like a 31-year-old woman who might immediately start stocking up on Pampers. Following the women's final, Ivan the wonder cipher easily solved and then whomped the same obscure, beguiling Milo who had the Minderbender game to upset Boris Becker one round short of a showdown for No. 1 with Lendl.
Realistically it is daft to identify our familiar national Czech champions as anything but Americans. Lendl, the transplant, has long been ensconced in his Connecticut estate, which he left only rarely to fit in the Open between his regular rounds of golf. Like any other well-to-do Texanette, Navratilova, the naturalized cowgirl, flew in all five of her dogs from Fort Worth (Ruby, Yonex, Puma, Teets and Killer Dog, if you're scoring by the canine must system) and then drove to the Open each day from Trump Plaza in a snappy red Corvette.
As Navratilova herself cracked when the subject of tennis nationality was raised one more tedious time, "Come on, I'm an American. You can't go on where we were born. If you do that, McEnroe is German."
September 14, 1986
West Germany did produce the star of the whole shebang, 17-year-old Steffi Graf (about whom, later). As for the Wiesbaden-born McEnroe, his unfortunate demise in the first round seemed to create a malaise that filtered through American headquarters, took an awful toll and finally left standing a triCzechta of competitors resembling not the boys next door but Saturday Night Live's wild and crazy Festrunk brothers. (A 6'8", 22-year-old monster named Milan Srejber reached the quarterfinals against Becker before quitting the way his countryman, now a dominating champion, was once accused of doing.)
Lendl said the rise of the Czechs—note that they filled the Final Four slots even without Hana Mandlikova, the women's defender—was "bound to happen" and vaguely explained that American tennis had been overtaken because of "the climate." But nobody is overtaking Lendl. This was his second straight U.S. Open title, and the fifth consecutive year he has reached the finals. In that time he has won 32 of 35 matches, and almost as many fans.
It's not that Lendl is liked or disliked. It's not even that he's still a foreigner. If he were born on Plymouth Rock on the Fourth of July he would be dull. And it's not that Lendl doesn't try, either. His girlfriend, the smashing Samantha Frankel, is an 18-year-old preppie from one of Manhattan's finest, the Spence School. At the Open he entertained his usually stern adversaries in the media with stories of his golf, his youth and the thrills of playing Davis Cup in Paraguay. ("A couple of guys in the first row, they show a knife and call us zucchini and say, 'Pfft, why don't we help cut you.' ") He also exchanged jokes with a real live robot—he was not peering into a mirror at the time—and even patted the heads of little girls. This is hardly the behavior of a supposed paranoid who is guarded by attack dogs behind the walls of a mansion labeled Fort Greenwich.
Nonetheless, in the early rounds of the Open a certain "Lendl Factor" emerged. As soon as his matches were announced, multitudes would abandon the stadium and the outer courts would jam up like the Triborough Bridge in a blizzard. Lendl may someday empty entire cities. In Sunday's final, after Lendl recovered from an early break and began outclassing the forlorn, duck-walking, junk-balling Mecir (pronounced Me-Cheers, but Milo didn't even do much of that), what was left of a once-capacity house averted its eyes from the carnage to focus on "real" celebrities.
Johnny Carson was spotted when he caught one mishit and threw the ball back. Linda Evans showed up to shill for Clairol but departed early. CBS cameras caught Arthur Ashe reading the Sunday paper. Just how woebegone was the 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 rout? What about the wonderful Alan King? Hey, did you see Mariel Hemingway? Isn't that Carl Bernstein in the Former-Lovers-of-Elizabeth-Taylor box? Is Nancy Kissinger a chain-smoker or what? Is Mike Wallace leaving out of boredom or to catch the beginning of 60 Minutes?
None of the celebs who dropped by for the final weekend saw any American men play because they had all lost. Truth is, U.S. tennis is in deep trouble and all the heads USTA president Randy Greg-son has lopped off in his thankfully soon-to-end tenure and all the pink jackets he wore at Flushing Meadow cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again. Speaking of which, how about the American humpties that reached the men's round of 16? Seven got that far, but they were hardly magnificent, not to mention recognizable. Brad Gilbert, an ornery cuss who refers to himself by his initials, as in "C'mon Beej," is vaguely known for being the guy across the net the night that McEnroe committed himself to the burnout ward. But the rest of the gang could easily qualify for an American Express commercial.
Do you know Aaron Krickstein? Dan Goldie? Gary Donnelly? Matt Anger? Todd Witsken? O.K., in order: 1) Just a Bollettieri baseliner. 2) The current NCAA champion, who storms the court screaming, "I'm quitting this game." 3) Tall, blond, qualifier ranked No. 211 and the former doubles partner of Peter Fleming. At least he got Fleming to the matches on time. 4) A USC guy who stands during changeovers, possibly pining for his former girlfriend, Tracy Austin. 5) Another former Trojan, who put out Connors.
When the last of the Forgettable 7 was eliminated in the quarterfinals—he being one Tim Shelby of Wilkison, S.C.... uh, golleee!...Tim Wilkison of Shelby, N.C., 'ol Doctor Dirt himself—it meant that for the first time in the Open era no American male would make it to the semifinals of the U.S. championships. At Wimbledon an American failed to qualify for the semis for the first time since 1970. Moreover, in 1986 only one American made the semifinals of any Grand Slam tournament. That was at the French Open, where our surprise savior took the most wondrous dive this side of Greg Louganis. This Yankee doodler was, naturally, born in Pongola, South Africa. No matter. Johan Kriek divested himself out of his adopted Open in the third round to none other than Beej himself.
The situation had obviously degenerated to emergency level when George Bush arrived at Flushing Meadow. It was about time the White House showed some concern. After Bush watched still another Czech beat still another Swede, he suddenly appeared in the press box high above the stadium. He was accompanied by the pink-plumed Gregson, who did not fire the Vice-President but introduced him to anybody they could get their hands on. Bush soon came upon Anne Marie Whittaker, who was in charge of passing out meal tickets to the media. "Guess this beats going to funerals," Ms. Whittaker said.
Well, whose death was this anyway? Certainly not Doctor Dirt's, who, by the time he had knocked off Yannick Noah and Andrei Chesnokov, had been given a new nickname, Rambo, and was giving CBS patriotic new highs. The handsome Wilkison, with his red, white and blue ball cap, his reckless, diving style and his Sesame Street vocabulary—"fiddlesticks" and "jeepers creepers" are two of his favorite expletives—was too good to be true. The hitch was that Wilkison was a reluctant star. He took his ball cap off so nobody would recognize him on the grounds, and he holed up on Long Island, where, in deference to TV's American-Heroization of him, he answered the phone, "Johnny Appleseed's Place." Rambo never ventured into the jungles of Manhattan, "not even to take my urine test," he said.
Predictably, the virtually weaponless Wilkison was taken apart by Stefan Ed-berg, who, not so predictably, was taken apart by Lendl in the semis. In the same round at the Australian Open the Swede with the un-Sweeded serve-and-volley game had beaten Lendl 9-7 in the fifth set in the best match of the last year. After losing a glorious 8-6 tiebreaker in the opening set at Flushing Meadow, the fourth-seeded Edberg folded his tent—he won but five more games—as Lendl's arsenal proved overwhelming.
"It's a mental thing," says the Terminator. "A guy plays his heart out and loses the first set, then sees me running hard and jumping all over him and ready to die out there. It's difficult for his mind. I break them down mentally."
Lendl had done the same thing to Beej. After winning a 7-5 first set, Lendl allowed Gilbert just three games. And the same to Henri Leconte. Ahead 5-4, 40-0 in the first set, Leconte feathered a drop volley and then threw up his arm in joy. Only Lendl, racing from the opposite corner, somehow beat the ball to the DecoTurf, caught some dying fuzz and pushed a forehand down the line. It was the shot of this and many another tournament. The entire stadium, flabbergasted, finally gave Lendl his due. The stunned Leconte was soon history, falling 7-6, 6-1, 1-6, 6-1. "I never thought I would get [to that ball]," said Lendl afterward, "but the shot won me two sets before he could recover."
In that same press conference Lendl first acknowledged the emerging Mecir, the 16th seed who was whipping up on every Swede who came in range of his short, flat, ingeniously disguised strokes, which send balls to places only the Shadow knows. Against Mats Wilander, the No. 2 seed, Mecir hit a remarkable 75 winners in four sets, and he went through seventh-seeded Joakim Nystrom in similar fashion. In the last two years Mecir has won 18 of 21 matches against the Swedish juggernaut. "We try not to talk about him; it's too depressing," said Nystrom with a laugh.
"What Mecir has against him is he does not like playing in America," said Lendl. "He wants to go home. He wants to go fishing." Lendl should know because Mecir once stood him up for a Davis Cup practice session to search out a cool stream. "The fishes," Mecir calls fish, fishing, fishing holes, the fishing works. Once he telephoned the house where he was supposed to stay for a tournament in Washington, D.C., and asked his hosts if they had a swimming pool.
"Well, no, we don't."
"You have fishes?"
"Place to go fishing."
"No, we live right in Washington."
"O.K., I stay at hotel."
Mecir reeled in a whopper when he upset Becker in five sets in the semifinals. The lanky, languid Czech threw in soft-ball deliveries—"too weak to return," said Becker—and as he kept blocking back improbable returns, Becker's ground game disintegrated. Lighten his hair, and Becker was just another Swede. In the final set Mecir made only four errors and never permitted Boom Boom to reach deuce against his serve. Throughout it all Mecir appeared to be falling fast asleep. "The guy tells me last week he can't move on the court, he's slow, unhappy, he wants to go home," said Becker. "Tonight he plays like it's practice. I say what the hell is with this guy? I wish he'd left before he played me."
Mecir never experienced the horrid attack of nerves that left him shaking so much in a match last year that he had to serve underhanded. "The nerves never come back," he said after beating Becker 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. "That way I can play my best." Milo also had a simple explanation for his fabulously disguised shots and varied pace. "I try hit ball where I think is best place," he said. "I don't care if other guy knows or not."
The infant Graf (pronounced assassin) didn't care whether anyone knew what she thought of her chances to win at Flushing Meadow on her third try. She knew she could beat Navratilova. That she came so close after sitting out a five-hour rain delay and then an overnight postponement; that she recovered from a 6-1 first-set defeat en route to blasting 27 winners off the ground to Navratilova's 6; that she won a second-set tiebreaker only to lose a 10-8 third-set TB in which she held the third of her match points and fought off two of Navratilova's before finally succumbing—all of this underscored the toughness and resolve of the angular fr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üulein from Bruehl.
Let not one memory fade of the Chrissie-Martina spectaculars. But this match was truly special. As Pam Shriver said, "For women's tennis, it was as if we had died and gone to heaven."
If Graf-Navratilova was generations colliding, a gauntlet being hurled, neither woman blinked. "I couldn't waver," said Navratilova, who knows a torch about to be passed when she sees one. "I had to keep making her hit those wonderful shots." Even afterward Graf said things like, "Martina isn't that much better than everybody else" and "She's nervous playing me" and "Chris isn't great anymore, either." Imagine, had Graf won, the trashing she might have given, say, Billie Jean King.
Graf had used her forehand bludgeon—possibly an even more devastating weapon than Lendl's at her level—to win five tournaments this year, including Berlin, where she beat Navratilova 6-2, 6-3. Martina cried after that one, but in New York she heard the yapping and "was pumped up like I've never been for a semifinal."
The game was on when Graf hit a winner off a return to break serve for a 5-4 lead in the second set. Navratilova broke back to save the set. The players again traded breaks to reach the tiebreaker, whereupon Graf, bucking about the court like a frisky colt, raced to a 6-1 advantage and then served an ace to close out the set.
Navratilova broke Graf to begin the third set and was a point away from going up 5-2. Graf, however, held and then hit one of her forehand rockets to break at love and square the set at 4-4. A 14-point game ensued. Graf held. A 12-pointer followed, during which Steffi—we must all get used to "Steffi" as we did to "Chrissie"—reached match point. Martina dumped her first serve into the net, and she looked ready for the gallows if Graf could keep the ball in play. Instead, the receiver, too anxious, belted a forehand drive a yard deep.
Another Graf match point. Another wayward forehand. Navratilova escaped and the score was 5-5. Two games later they were in another tiebreaker. At 2-3 Martina's lob was long, and Graf had a minibreak. But serving at 5-3 she overhit another forehand and then played two more loose points to give Navratilova her first match point. Graf survived it with a brave backhand approach that grazed the line. That made the score 6-6. Navratilova volleyed for 7-6, and now she had another match point, this time on her own serve. Even strong men had a hard time breathing while watching this women's tennis. Said Becker later, "You should have heard it [in the locker room]. Maniac screaming on every point."
Navratilova clocked a first serve down the middle. Wrong guess. Graf's forehand reply was so hard and so true that Martina never moved for it. Again, the score was tied. Steffi converted a wondrous pass off her improved backhand for 8-7 and match point No. 3. Navratilova came to net and Graf sighted with the forehand one more time. Bam. Martina covered with a forehand volley. Graf took one step and had the lane open for a backhand pass. Bam—nothing but tape. So few chances, so much time.
The old lioness, almost 30 now, pounced quickly for the kill, volleying crisply and forcing another error. Serving into the ad court at 9-8, Martina unleashed an enormous southpaw spinner away from Graf's meal-ticket forehand. Steffi's backhand fell into the net, proving yet again that such dramas are seldom ova until it's Navratilova.
Within minutes Graf's father, Peter, rushed her to the airport for a flight to Tokyo. One presumes if she had won Steffi would have stayed around to play the final. But for the moment she had other fish to fry. Or fishes. It was quite enough that she had paused long enough to save the Open from a total Czechout.
Earlier Becker had said, "The Czechs are all maybe different. Maybe they have something in the head. Something somewhere. We never know. They are so strange. All of them. Maybe it's the land."
However, exactly which land is that? For the dour Lendl and the jaunty Navratilova, tennis's supreme Americanovakians, this land is their land, their land is our land and the U.S. Open was closed by both.