"If Becker's playing great, sorry, you have no chance."
This is an article from the Sept. 18, 1989 issue
For someone who 11 days earlier had come within a net cord of being eliminated from the U.S. Open by a guy who plays the tour out of a camper, Boris Becker was doing fairly swell on Sunday evening. The antithesis of the modern-day tennis pro, Becker, at 21, hasn't yet burned out. He hasn't found coping with money, the press or idolatry quite stressful enough to grow his hair down to his navel, question officials' parentage or credit religion with putting the topspin on his lob.
Little wonder then that when Becker prepared to serve while leading two sets to one and 5-4 in the fourth-set tiebreaker of the championship match against top-seeded Ivan Lendl, he didn't flinch. Boom! A rocket to the far corner of the ad court that Lendl could only wave at. Boom! A monster straight up the pipe that Lendl barely touched. With those two serves Becker duplicated the championship that his fellow West German, Steffi Graf, had won the day before and thus turned Flushing Meadow into a rerun of the Deutschland Double the two of them pulled off in July at Wimbledon. More important, he established himself as the No. 1 player in the world. Well, almost.
"We are getting closer to each other," Becker, a three-time Wimbledon champion, said graciously after he had out-resolved Lendl—who was appearing in his eighth consecutive U.S. Championships final, a feat matched only by Bill Tilden—over two tiebreakers to win his first U.S. Open 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6. The two are deadlocked at 7-7 in their rivalry, but Becker has won the last four matches. "When I beat Number 65 by an inch," said Becker, "you know everybody in tennis is also pretty close."
This time he was referring to Derrick Rostagno, the 65th-ranked heartthrob vagabond from Southern California who had driven his Volkswagen van into the second round in New York and nearly left Becker for roadkill. In the tournament's best competition, Boom Boom escaped from two sets down and from two Rostagno match points. On the second one, Becker's running forehand ticked the net and hopped over Rostagno's waiting racket. "Is more damned drama," Becker's manager, Ion Tiriac, kept growling last week.
In truth, however, after the Rostagno match, there really wasn't much doubt about Becker's chances. In straight-set victories over Yannick Noah in the quarterfinals and Aaron Krickstein in the semis, Becker alternately practiced serve-and-volley and baseline stuff, as if he were simply warming up for Lendl, who after a tense five-set duel with Andrei Chesnokov in the Round of 16, mowed down Tim Mayotte and Andre Agassi to complete his half of the bargain. "It's harder to play Ivan than Boris because Ivan's more consistent," says Agassi. "He never plays a bad match. But if Becker's playing great, sorry, you have no chance."
Which is about what happened as the final eased out of the suffocating heat and into the evening shadows. Becker, whose ground game is tenfold as solid as when he won back-to-back Wimbledons before he was out of Pampers, had control of the match after three sets by staying with Lendl from the baseline. "He always has more power than me," said Lendl afterward. "He stays back and stays back, and all of a sudden he takes that big swing."
As the match progressed, Becker approached the net more and more, turning up the pressure on Lendl's crumbling backhand. From 0-2 in the fourth set, Becker won four straight games and 16 of 23 points before Lendl righted himself and made one last gasp, breaking Becker to tie the set at 4-4. After Boom Boom converted nine of nine first serves in his next two service games and Lendl held his, they were in another tiebreaker. "Shoot-outs," Lendl calls them. "Only, when a guy has a serve like Boris's, what can I do?"
What he shouldn't have done was double-fault on the fourth point of the tiebreaker and flub a forehand into the net on the fifth. With five minibreaks between the two players, this denouement looked more like a shoot-your-own-feet-out until Becker approached the line with the match on his racket. "When it gets down to a Grand Slam final, it is not so much anymore about tennis," said Becker afterward. He meant it's about fortitude, tenacity and spirit. "I am a 10 in spirit," he said.
Or, as Tiriac suggested after Becker had become champion, "This guy Boris, he is symphony."
In addition to determining who was No. 1, the Becker-Lendl concerto returned the Open to the land of the living after the tournament had nearly been swallowed up by a pair of ghosts of tennis past. As both Chris Evert, 34, who had announced this would be her final major competition, and Jimmy Connors, 37, who hinted he would also quit soon—like when hell freezes over—reached the quarterfinals, they even diverted attention from Donald Trump. When Trump wasn't trying to escape the shadows cast by the Dale Evans-autograph cowgirl hat worn by his wife, Ivana, or sitting with the courtside entourages of both Evert and Gabriela Sabatini, his helicopter, with TRUMP emblazoned across it, was buzzing the stadium to thunderous boos. And you thought New Yorkers had no class.
But not even Trump's considerable ego could diminish the spell Evert cast over the tournament where Americans had adopted her 18 years before. If it had not been for Evert's taste for symmetry, she might have taken the advice of numerous friends, who tried to persuade her to pass up the Open, thereby making her emotional farewell after losing to Graf in the Wimbledon semifinals her grand finale. Evert's good buddy, Ana Leaird, the WITA publicity director, even flew to the player's home in Aspen to express her concern that Evert might suffer an ignominious early-round upset at Flushing Meadow.
The doom watch reached a crescendo in the fourth round, when Evert faced 15-year-old Monica Seles, the elegant urchin from Yugoslavia who had defeated her at the Virginia Slims of Houston this spring. All the ponytailed Evert did was apply an exquisite, call-back-the-years 6-0, 6-2 spanking to Seles, who, while leaving the court, started to raise her hand to acknowledge the tumultuous applause before realizing that all the noise was being directed at her conqueror. "Chris has had one more lifetime than me," said Seles charmingly.
Two days later, after 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 157 tournament victories and 1,304 match wins—more than any man, woman or child, living or dead—Evert's glorious career came to an end at 4 p.m. on a leaden Tuesday afternoon. The audience, which was peculiarly subdued, seemed to realize it was too late to do anything but remember.
Her opponent, fifth-seeded Zina Garrison, gave an inspired and heady performance to win 7-6, 6-2. Evert owned a 5-2 lead in the first set, but Garrison rallied by keeping her composure in the face of a crowd that was clearly behind her opponent and by chasing down everything Evert hit. Afterward Evert mused about her erratic play. "This is why it's time," she said. Everyone knew what the Goodbye Girl meant.
At the end, Garrison wasn't the only one sobbing. Diana Nyad, the former distance swimmer and longtime acquaintance of Evert's from their common hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was covering the tournament for the USA Network, had to leave the studio to compose herself. There was hardly a dry eye anywhere in the sport.
The emotions surrounding Connors's exit could not have been more different. Jimbo had been infuriated with Agassi ever since he correctly predicted a straight-sets victory over Connors at the 1988 Open. In preparation for last week's quarterfinal meeting with Agassi, Connors concocted another of his vampire-by-night conquests. In the Round of 16 Jimbo stunned third-seeded Stefan Ed berg 6-2, 6-3, 6-1, along the way indulging in a characteristic curse-fest against chair umpire Richard Ings that cost him $2,250 in fines.
Meanwhile, between hurling sweaty shirts to his distaff wannabes and gulping sincerity pills, the frosted-locks Agassi was obviously reconsidering his humble opinion of himself. "My image is not bigger than the sport," he said, "just a slight detour around the sport." This reassessment may have helped him to a 6-1 lead over Connors but did nothing to gain him support from a crowd that sounded like rejects from the cheap seats for a Ranger hockey game at Madison Square Garden. Just as Connors overtook Agassi to win the second set, a wave of nausea overtook Connors in the stifling heat of the stadium pit. "I'm not going to make it," he told his wife, Patti, who was in a courtside box. Then a funny thing happened. Agassi tanked. Slugging overheads into the seats and trying ridiculous drop shots, Frosty the Showman lost a 6-0 set to a sick old guy who could barely keep his balance.
"Jimmy raised his game," Agassi would say later. However, at the end of the second set Agassi called out to his coach, Nick Bollettieri, "I want it to go longer." And, shades of Muhammad Ali-Floyd Patterson, sure enough it did. Give Agassi credit for being talented enough to orchestrate a match so that he could boast about how he "toughed out" the first five-set victory of his career. But give Connors more for never backing down, for clawing almost all the way back from 1-5 in the fifth and stoking the fires of the Open yet again before falling 6-1, 4-6, 0-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Neither John McEnroe, who was shocked in the second round by the best little 115th-ranked (Paul) Haarhuis in tennis, nor defending champion Mats Wilander, who was a second-round victim of a promising young American serve-and-volleyer named Pete Sampras, could attribute his defeat to the heat. In fact, McEnroe was downright cold throughout his four-set defeat, but he warmed up enough to win the doubles with another lefty, Mark Woodforde of Australia. Their final-round victory over Ken Flach and Robert Seguso, the longtime U.S. Davis Cup team, gave the newly goateed Mac his first Grand Slam title in five years.
Did the heat, the airplanes from nearby LaGuardia and the usual ridiculous scheduling—unlike any other Grand Slam event, the Open has the semis and finals on successive days—bother our friends from West Germany? Ja. Did they let it affect them? Nein. In fact, of the seven majors Graf has won, this was her most courageous performance.
Both Sabatini and Navratilova could easily have beaten Graf. Sabatini led 6-3, but Graf bore down and body-punched her weary rival into submission, despite an attack of cramps. After her 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory, an ashen-faced Graf fled the court in tears and was treated in the locker room with liquids and an ice massage.
As for Martina, with Evert getting all that attention, hardly anybody noticed that Navratilova was winning her matches in approximately 37 seconds. For her semifinal match against Garrison, which Navratilova won 7-6, 6-2, she showed up in an ensemble featuring leather epaulettes and cuffs. It obviously put her on the cutting edge of country and western tennis fashion. "We're looking for a manufacturer," said Navratilova's companion, Judy Nelson. "If the public wants more information, they can call 1-800-MARTINA." We are not making this up.
In the final, Navratilova roared ahead 6-3, 4-2. She was serving like a woman possessed, ripping off some of the best tennis of her life. She had the championship won, and she knew it. Starting the countdown, Martina held up two fingers: two more games.
But while serving at 4-3, she faltered. She still has all her muscles and shots, but gone are the grit and tenacity. She double-faulted once. She double-faulted again. She slugged a volley too deep and the lead was gone. In the next game Navratilova had a break point for a 5-4 lead and another chance to serve for the match. "Virtually match point for me," she said later. Instead, Martina squandered another opportunity.
Quite simply, that was it. Faced with having to hold serve to remain in contention, Martina committed two unforced errors and lost the second set 7-5. After both women ran from the court early in the third to change tops and avoid a soaking wet T(ennis)-shirt contest, Graf swarmed all over Navratilova to lock up her second straight Open, 6-1 in the third. "I thought I had lost," said Graf, "but I kept fighting. I think I made her do more."
Like think. And think some more. And come to the horrifying realization that this wasn't Regina Rajchrtova or Julie Halard across the net but the great Graf. Regrettably, Navratilova refuses to acknowledge the champion's mettle, her superior competitiveness. In a graceless postmatch interview, she said that she herself had not played well and that Graf "swings for the fences...was lucky...hit so many unbelievable lines...hit a ball going to the rafters until it swirled in." Thanks, Martina. You all done now?
"I was a point from winning this thing, an inch," said a bitter Navratilova. "Tennis is such a game of inches. Look at Becker. He was half an inch from being out of the tournament in the first week, and [if he'd lost] you guys would be calling him a bunch of crap."
Hardly. Rather, does anyone possess anything but the highest regard for Becker, who seems to be unmatched among his peers in popularity? Consider that Lendl complained at a players' meeting just before the tournament about a proposal to alter the distribution of prize money next year by whining, "How can I make enough money?" Consider that when one of his second serves was delayed a few moments during his semifinal because a ball girl pulled up lame, Lendl requested two serves. Obviously, the field for the humanitarian award at the top of the sport isn't exactly crowded.
Becker even had nice things to say about New York: "I enjoy your city. This is a great place for three weeks."
Or just enough time to win the U.S. Open—after practicing up on hitting desperation net-cord winners.