For two sets today Johan Kriek played the best tennis of his life. Then, with the biggest win of his career so close he could almost reach out and touch it, he collapsed completely.
Kriek had a simple explanation for his inconsistency: "After the second set I started thinking I could win," he said. "That's why I lost."
He lost to Bjorn Borg, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, in a match that had two personalties. For two sets the tennis was crisp and sharp with Borg a little off, especially at the net, and Kriek playing superbly. But the last three sets were almost embarrassing for Kriek as Borg ripped the young South African apart.
What happened to Kriek often happens to Borg's opponents when they get ahead of him -- as the possibility of victory looms closer, the pressure builds. Most players react worse under pressure, as Kriek certainly did today. Borg is at his best with a rope around his neck.
"The first two sets I served exceptionally well, probably the best I've ever served my entire life," Kriek said. "The last three sets I started missing my first serve and he began passing me consistently on my second serve. If you're going to have any chance to beat Bjorn you have to serve very well the entire match. There's no way to beat him from the baseline so you have to serve well and be able to get to net."
Kriek did just that for two sets, when in the last three sets he tried to come in behind weak shots which Borg nailed easily for winners. When Kriek did reach a volley he tried dinks or drop shots. Time and again, he missed.
"He hits the ball so hard you can't just hit volleys back at him, you have to hit really good angles or make him come in and reach for the ball," Kriek said. "He doesn't hit as many winners that way."
"In a fifth set all the pressure is there because you know this is it, this is the last set for sure," Borg said. "Sometimes there are a lot of nerves; you're not relaxed and you don't hit through your shots.
"I always feel strong in the fifth set," said the unflappable Swede, who has not lost a fifth set since 1976, a string that encompasses 13 matches. "I know I can stay out there all day because I'm in great shape. Johan maybe got a little tired."
Kriek said physical fatigue had little to do with his defeat. Judging from his assessment of the match, it was probably his mental attitude as much as his playing that brought about his defeat.
"After he won the fourth set I was thinking I had to go all out the fourth and fifth sets," he said, unwittingly pointing out that he had all but conceded the fourth set to Borg before it started. "I'm not that disappointed because I played well and because I got as far as I did. The next time I'm in a situation like this I'll play better, I'll handle it better. Before today I'd never won a set off Borg, much less two sets in a row.I feel good about the way I played."