Ivan Lendl climbed out of the chaos of the Volvo Masters last week with much more than the thrill of victory in his first important tennis championship. After three years of trying to win a big one, the gifted young Czech had finally lived up to expectations. Sadly, though, so did the eight-man event, which is the culmination of the previous year's Grand Prix tour but once again was plagued by a ludicrous format that shortchanged the fans and had even tournament officials holding their heads in despair.
But just when everyone was ready to pelt the court at Madison Square Garden with rotten tomatoes, along came Lendl to put a better face on an ugly scene. His hair plastered down and his hollow eyes eerier than ever, Lendl was the hangman come calling. In the semifinals on Saturday he roared through John McEnroe 6-4, 6-2 in a devastating display of power tennis. Then in Sunday's final, against Vitas Gerulaitis, he overcame a two-set deficit and a match point to win 6-7, 2-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4. That victory was worth $100,000.
Gerulaitis had planned to attack behind sliced approaches to Lendl's backhand. For the better part of three sets that strategy worked as Lendl repeatedly missed backhand passes. In the third-set tiebreaker, which Lendl had led 4-1, Gerulaitis had match point at 6-5. But instead of following Lendl's second serve in to net, this time Vitas stayed back. Lendl responded with a wicked forehand that set up an easy smash.
From then on Gerulaitis was slower and slower afoot. Lendl had found the range with his backhand and had begun to dictate play with his forehand. When Gerulaitis double-faulted on break point at 2-2 in the fifth set, Lendl thought, "He's tired. This is my chance." Lendl lost only two points on serve the rest of the match.
This was a different Lendl—not the dour one prone to choking in big matches. Now all of 21 years old, he seems ready to achieve the greatness that Bjorn Borg predicted for him almost two years ago to the day. When asked where to look for his next challenger, Borg responded with Lendl's name.
Borg wasn't in New York to defend his Masters title. During his sabbatical from the game, he has been attending to his ailing wife, staying in shape by working out with a Division I hockey team in Sweden—in one impromptu game he scored three goals—and now. undoubtedly, reflecting on how correct he had been as a prognosticator. Lendl's victory in the Masters was his seventh straight Grand Prix tournament triumph, an all-conquering swath cut through six countries on clay, hard courts and indoor carpets. Excluding exhibitions, his last defeat was by Gerulaitis in the fourth round of the U.S. Open in September. Since then, Lendl has won 35 consecutive matches and 75 of 82 sets. Those numbers suggest domination, but Lendl, who has climbed to No. 2 on the computer behind McEnroe, realizes he still has a few fellows to stand and face. While he has won his last three matches against McEnroe, he has beaten Borg only twice in eight tries, and he is 0-8 against Jimmy Connors.
Last week he didn't have to face Connors, who couldn't play his way through the round-robin format used to determine the semifinalists. After defeating Eliot Teltscher 7-5, 6-1, Jimbo lost 6-2, 7-5 to McEnroe. The following night a gutsy performance by Roscoe Tanner finished Connors. Tanner, who had dropped his first two matches and had no chance of qualifying for the semis, played for something he said was more precious than money: dignity. Sticking out his jaw, sassing right back when Connors made belittling gestures, and plagued by cramps, Tanner needed three tiebreakers to win. The last set was the most remarkable, as Connors fought off five match points at 5-3 with Tanner serving. In the tiebreaker, Connors squandered two match points of his own before Tanner clinched it 9-7. "There's at least one who tries," Tanner said.
What Tanner was referring to centers around the round-robin format. The nightmare always occurs on Friday, the third day of play, when defaults and meaningless matches prevail. Assured of berths in the semis, both Borg and Guillermo Vilas defaulted their Friday matches in 1978, and Lendl admitted tanking last year against Connors to ensure he wouldn't face Borg in the semis.
This year it was more of the same. Told by tournament officials after his victory over Connors that he had clinched $30,000 for winning his round-robin group (that bonus was added this year as an enticement to eliminate tanking), McEnroe stayed out until 2:30 a.m. at a rock concert. But wait! The embarrassed officials discovered they had been mistaken. McEnroe actually needed a victory over Teltscher at the ungodly hour of 1 p.m. Friday to win his group.
What happened that afternoon was a disgrace. First a baggy-eyed McEnroe stumbled through his match, winning only five games and losing 12 of the last 13 points, as the fans booed. Then José-Luis Clerc, who was to play Lendl, was a no-show, claiming tendinitis in his left ankle. That announcement was greeted with cynical hoots because Clerc already had lost twice and was out of contention.
This year the insanity spilled over into Saturday. On Friday, Gerulaitis had beaten Vilas 6-1, 6-4 in a match that didn't end until midnight. When he heard that his would be the opening match on Saturday to allow McEnroe-Lendl to appear on live TV, Gerulaitis announced he might default rather than play without proper rest. In an effort to placate him, officials moved his starting time from noon to one. The result: untold misery for thousands of fans who had trekked through the slush, snow and cold only to wind up standing outside the Garden waiting for the doors to open. When they finally got inside they saw Gerulaitis defeat Teltscher 7-5, 4-6, 6-2. Afterward, Gerulaitis told the press that his threat had been only "a moral protest."
In the other semi, McEnroe faced an opponent who bore little relationship to the Lendl model of only a short time ago. In 1980 Lendl played a tournament or exhibition virtually every week, but lately he has learned to relax. He spends a lot of time in Greenwich, Conn., where his best friend on the tour, Wojtek Fibak, lives, and at Boca West in Florida, a resort where capitalists enjoy spending lots of money. Lendl has a home on the golf course there, and when not practicing, he often can be found on roller skates, occasionally being pulled along behind an automobile at breakneck speed.
In his opening Masters match against Gerulaitis, Lendl lost the first set and was at 5-5 in the second before a line call upset Vitas, who finally fell 4-6, 7-5, 6-2. By Saturday, Lendl was well over his early jitters, and he dominated McEnroe in a way that seemed almost impossible. "I got my butt kicked," a subdued McEnroe said later. Time and again Lendl's powerful returns handcuffed McEnroe at net, and his service was overwhelming. He exploded five aces past McEnroe, and 10 times Lendl sent winners screaming by him with his whiplash forehand. Rarely even questioning line calls, Mac looked as if he had misplaced his spunk.
Later McEnroe came up with the best evaluation of the tournament. "It's all kind of confusing anyway," he said with a shrug. "I don't even know if this is the last tournament of last year, or the first tournament of this year. It's kind of hard to tell what exactly has happened."
Though known as a baseliner, Lendl served notice that he could serve with the best.
Gerulaitis had Lendl down two sets to love but then faltered and let him off the hook.