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Survival of the Fittest

In a U.S. Open that went on and on, Stefan Edberg and Monica Seles persevered for the second year in a row

It seemed like the longest U.S. Open ever, although not in "linear years," as tennis fan Barbra Streisand might say. Let's put it this way: The Open stayed open too long. With the smell of highly evolved garbage wafting through the players' lounge, each day was as endless as a freeway guardrail, and the night-shift matches at Louis Armstrong Stadium were numbing. The joke making the rounds was that some Italian governments hadn't lasted as long as the Open did.

The only one left standing at the end of the arduous men's competition was Stefan Edberg of Sweden, whose successful defense of his U.S. Open title was like a forced march. Edberg survived three consecutive five-set matches to reach Sunday's final, in which he enjoyed one of his easiest victories of the tournament, a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 defeat of a hobbled and ill Pete Sampras. In contrast, Monica Seles retained her women's title in what seemed like moments. Seles, who has won six of the last eight Grand Slam events, never dropped a set despite being plagued by a serious head cold for much of the tournament. Her 6-3, 6-3 final-round victory over fifth-seeded Arantxa Sànchez Vicario of Spain was as convincing as her 6-3, 6-2 semifinal win over Mary Joe Fernandez.

Flushing Meadow had many long matches—10 five-setters in the last four rounds of the men's competition alone—but no great ones. Ultimately, interest in the Open was revived by the antics of Streisand and Andre Agassi, and the transformations of Edberg and Sampras, who despite their elegant play, turned out to be the tough guys of the tournament. They hewed their way toward each other through a succession of hard-fought matches to arrive in the final, exhausted—Edberg having spent over 20 hours on court, and Sampras suffering from a stomach bug and shin splints—but clearly the most complete and resilient players in the field. The 26-year-old Edberg had only one word for his victory, which was his sixth Grand Slam title and returned him to No. 1 on the computer: "Bumpy."

The men's final was a meeting of scorching serves, liquid ground strokes and finely honed volleys. Edberg did nothing spectacular; he simply converted 63% of his first serves and prowled the net hungrily, while the weary Sampras steadily declined, eventually committing 11 double faults. Edberg knew he had the match in hand early in the fourth set, when he saw Sampras's head begin to sink and his shoulders start to curl inward. "My head was dropping and he saw that," Sampras said. "I just felt it slipping away."

Sampras had come from a set down to win five-set matches in the third and fourth rounds, and he had defeated top-seeded Jim Courier in the semifinals. That last victory would have been relatively untaxing—he lost only five games in the three sets he won—except that Sampras was stricken with the stomach ailment near the end, and he left the court bent over as if he had been stabbed. He spent three hours in the referee's office hooked to an IV, suffered from diarrhea, and didn't get to bed until 3 a.m. On Sunday he was feeling well enough to eat some rice and pasta and take the first set from Edberg. After the match, Sampras said of his ailment, "It's not an excuse."

Edberg had an equally difficult time. Were it not for an invention called the tiebreaker, Edberg and fourth-seeded Michael Chang might still be out on the Stadium Court breaking each other's serves. Even with the tiebreaker, their five-hour-and-26-minute semifinal is believed to be the longest in the 111-year history of the U.S. Nationals. Edberg will never forget how Chang, who is renowned for his staying power, beat him in five sets in the 1989 French Open final. But this time Edberg got stronger and Chang faded. After 404 points and 23 breaks of serve, Edberg prevailed 6-7, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4.

It seemed as if Edberg spent the whole tournament playing fifth sets. In all three of his five-set matches, he was down a service break in the final set. All the while, the normally sober Edberg showed an astonishing lack of reserve. He kissed the net. He jumped over it. He flailed balls high into the stands. He stabbed his fists in the air. He had never before been so exuberant. "Anybody would be proud of what I've done," he said after outlasting Chang. "I've been in a lot of trouble and come out of it. I think it shows a lot of good character."

In the fourth round he overcame Holland's Richard Krajicek, the No. 15 seed, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Then came a quarterfinal meeting last Thursday night with Ivan Lendl, a three-time winner at Flushing Meadow. They played for four hours and three minutes over two days before Edberg prevailed in a fifth-set tiebreaker. Lendl, who hadn't won a tournament in more than a year, was down triple match point at 4-5 in the fourth set, served his way to deuce, fought off a fourth match point in the same game and forced a fifth set before rain halted play for the night with Edberg ahead 2-1. The turning point came the next afternoon in the tiebreaker when Edberg struck a low forehand volley that caught the net cord, hung for a moment and toppled over to give him a 3-2 lead. Edberg leaned over and kissed the net, and then won four of the next five points for the match.

Some credit for Edberg's success must go to his coach of nine years, Tony Pickard. Last April, after Edberg married Annette Olsen, Pickard stopped traveling with the couple at their request. "It was fine by me," Pickard said last week. However, there were signs that Pickard felt shut out, and he and Annette conversed little as they watched Edberg play during the tournament. Pickard's absence had clearly not been fine for Edberg's game, which has improved markedly since Pickard rejoined Edberg on tour five weeks ago. "I know the boy," Pickard says. "I can tell after 10 minutes with him what's wrong. We tell each other the truth. That's why it works."

For his part, Sampras has won three tournaments in the last two months and seems to be fulfilling the promise he showed in 1990, when he became, at 19 years and 28 days, the youngest man to win the U.S. Open. He has long possessed a serve that could fell a tree, and now he has the rest of the game to go with it. "I've had to find the game to match my accomplishment," he says.

Sampras has called the day after he won Flushing Meadow, "the worst day of my life." Overwhelmed by demands from sponsors and the press, and then afflicted with nagging injuries to his shins and shoulder, he went into a tailspin from which he didn't begin to recover until last August. Since then, he has gotten healthier, adjusted to life on the circuit and hired a new coach, Tim Gullikson, who has taught him to play a brand of tennis based on percentages rather than miles per hour and glamour shots. "Pete's serve is a blessing and a curse," says Gullikson. "He's got so much talent, it gives him a lot of choices. Sometimes too many."

The women's side was as beset by ill health, moodiness and upsets as the men's was. Seles was no sure thing coming in: She had lost three consecutive tournaments. The two strongest favorites were Olympic champion Jennifer Capriati and the 35-year-old, four-time Open champion Martina Navratilova, who had demolished Seles 6-4, 6-2 in the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles four weeks earlier. Capriati and Navratilova, however, were stunned in the third and second rounds, respectively. Those losses helped explain why seven seeds failed to reach the round of 16, and why only one U.S. player, Fernandez, made it to the quarters.

The 16-year-old Capriati fell in straight sets to eventual quarterfinalist Patricia Hy, 27, who had emigrated to Hong Kong from Cambodia with her family in 1972. Capriati absorbed the defeat with outward equanimity, saying, "Stuff happens." But she burst into tears as soon as she was away from the cameras.

Navratilova had the peculiar luck to land in the same quarter of the draw as the three Maleeva sisters of Bulgaria. It was the youngest Maleeva, 17-year-old Magdalena, who beat her, 6-4, 0-6, 6-3. The third-seeded Navratilova was so cautious in her play that she seemed almost disoriented. She was also easily distracted. In midmatch, she stared balefully at a spectator reading a newspaper and said, "Would you mind reading that later, please?"

Navratilova's earliest exit from the U.S. Open since 1976 was a telltale one. She said she cannot foresee playing beyond two more years. "Now I know I'm really at the end of the road," she said. "I'm still physically capable of competing with these girls. But mentally.... Everything is going to be a struggle from now on." Navratilova was so uptight she complained of a sore wrist, elbow and leg, all of which magically improved after the upset. "It's all nerves," she said. "It's hard, because I care so damn much."

Magdalena's defeat of Navratilova led to a situation the Maleeva family had hoped to avoid: a quarterfinal match between Magdalena and her 25-year-old sister Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere. "It's what we dread," Magdalena said. Manuela won 6-2, 5-3 when Magdalena retired with a strained thigh muscle. The family hopes ended when Sànchez Vicario easily beat Manuela in the semis.

Indeed, Sànchez Vicario was the only one of the first five women's seeds who remained hale and hearty throughout the tournament. In the quarters she eliminated Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf, who showed up at Flushing Meadow with a cold and a sore shoulder and seemed as unsure of herself on the court as Navratilova had been. Sànchez Vicario toppled the second-seeded Graf in straight sets. Fourth-seeded Gabriela Sabatini, who had played only three matches since Wimbledon, was suffering from tendinitis in her left knee. She lost 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 in the quarters to Fernandez.

Also contributing to the flatness of the fortnight was a changing of the guard. For the first time in nearly two decades, Navratilova, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe all failed to bring their candlepower to the U.S. Open. In what were probably their last appearances in the singles draw, the 40-year-old Connors was feeble, the 33-year-old McEnroe was overwhelmed, and both were mean and sour. McEnroe succumbed in three sets to Courier in the fourth round. During the match he had a photographer ejected, and as he exited the stadium, gave Lesley Visser of CBS the strong arm and screamed, "Do not talk to me!"

Connors celebrated his 40th birthday with a first-round victory over Jaime Oncins of Brazil, but he could not reproduce his incandescent performance of a year ago, when he made the semifinals. Connors had high hopes of upsetting the 32-year-old Lendl in the second round, but he was frustrated by Lendl's handcuffing slices. After the 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-0 defeat, Connors, who hasn't beaten Lendl since 1984, said, "He doesn't play anything like he used to. He just bunts the ball back." Lendl absorbed the insult with silent dignity and proceeded to become a bit of a crowd pleaser for the first time, upsetting seventh-seeded Boris Becker in a five-hour, five-set marathon to reach the quarters.

It was left to Agassi, the Wimbledon champion and No. 8 seed, to provide the tournament with a real spectacle. By inviting Streisand to his matches, Agassi touched off a hilarious rumor that they were having a romance. Were the 22-year-old moussehead with the Midas touch and the 50-year-old director-producer-star of Prince of Tides doing the mambo? Before Agassi's third-round match with Jan Siemerink, Streisand gave him a gift in a silver box. During his fourth-round victory over Carlos Costa, she was interviewed by USA Network reporter Mike Barkann on the subject of Agassi. "He's very evolved, more than his linear years," said Streisand. "He's an extraordinary human being."

Barkann: "What moves you about him on the court?"

Streisand: "He plays like a Zen master."

Actually, Agassi's longtime steady, Wendy Stewart, was on hand at all times. Agassi and Streisand met over the phone when he called to tell her he admired Prince of Tides. Agassi, according to one of his representatives, Bob Kain, of IMG, has aspirations in the film industry. Said Kain, the friendship is "an L.A. thing."

Beset by the distracting squeals of Streisand's fans during his matches, a bout with tonsillitis shortly before arriving in New York and the lingering emotional hangover from his Wimbledon win, Agassi was not prepared to do more than fulfill his seed, and Courier made comparatively short work of him in their quarterfinal, winning 6-3, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4. Edberg, on the other hand, was a serious presence throughout the tournament, and he clearly hungered to retain his title. What Edberg demonstrated at Flushing Meadow is that he is one of the most persistent champions around. He is private, buttoned up and a bit of an enigma. "The guy is what he is," says Pickard. "He's very private. You'll never see into him."



Edberg found the big serves when he needed them.



By reaching the final, Sampras served notice that his Open win in '90 was no fluke.



Streisand and Agassi had tongues wagging last week.



Though known for his staying power, Chang fell short in his 5½-hour battle with Edberg.



After she knocked off Graf, Sànchez Vicario routed Maleeva-Fragniere in the semifinals.



Seles, who has won six of the last eight Grand Slam events, didn't drop a set all tournament.