Even from the topmost rim of Louis Armstrong Stadium, you could hear the last sweet note of the horn sounding for John Newcombe and Fred Stolle.

The sun was going down, sinking, like the careers of the two old Australian tennis legends. Darkness crept into the deep bowl of the stadium, turning the afternoon warmth to cool.

At this hour made for inspiration, not perspiration, no one was leaving the centennial U.S. Open. Drama is rare, even at vast events concocted solely to produce it. And here, at the bottom of the tennis bowl, was something real.

On display was tormented, alienated youth against cheerful, graceful age. Or, to put it differently, a vanished tennis era of devil-may-care characters pitted, with a nothin'-to-lose grin, against a new age of callow cash and bad manners.

In short, those funny old champions, Newcombe and Stolle, were in a war with those grim, humorless children, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming, the best doubles team in the world.

The combined age on one side of the net: 80. On the other: 12.

No, nobody walks out on that. Especially not in the fifth and final set. Especially not in one last tie breaker.

"I'm beat . . . fatigue, I guess," said Newcombe, 37, winner of seven major titles, including three Wimbledons and two U.S. championships.

"Is that what you call it?" gibed Stolle, 43, winner in his bygone time of both the French and U.S. titles. "Some call it age."

They laughed. As they had laughed throughout the afternoon and into the evening. As they had made the large crowd laugh -- when Newcombe accidentally conked his partner on the head with a volley, or when Stolle ended up on the wrong side of the net and pretended to be ready to play, three men against one.

But the laughter was mostly on the outside. Inside of all four men was fire.

The match, which had begun as a curiosity had turned serious long before.

The kids -- the defending champions -- had won the first two sets, 6-2, 6-2. But they couldn't resist rubbing it in.

Before the match, all four had dressed in the same locker room. "We were joking about what we were going to do to them," recalled Fleming. "But they were, too."

Newcombe and Stolle weren't sure it was all joking. "Fred warned me that if they got a loose ball, they'd gun for us," said Newcombe.

Early in the third set, McEnroe hit Stolle on the neck with a point-blank volley.

"I got really mad at Fred being hit," said Newcombe. "A shot like that could put out his eye . . There were two balls hit at me like that, one at my head and one at my crotch. But then, I just forgot about them. I feel sorry for them both. In our day, we never forgot it was a sport. I think they take it over the fringe . . . kill the opponent, like it's a jungle. That's all crap. They're missing out on all the pleasure."

"The game used to be a lot more bloody fun," said Stolle. "That's why you see us old guys out here playing whilst we can still enjoy it a bit. I'll wager there's not many of the top 10 players today who will be playing when they're 43."

The oldsters won the next two sets, 7-5, 7-6.

McEnroe and Fleming held their heads at breaks, sitting apart, while Newcombe and Stolle chatted, then took the court first.

In fiction, the old-timers win the tie breaker at dusk. In reality, youth wins easily, 7-3.

Afterward, McEnroe and Fleming were clench-jawed. Even in victory, men can be humiliated.

Being told Newcombe's remarks didn't help.

"When you're hitting a ball 100 miles an hour it's ridiculous to say that you're deliberately trying to hit someone," said Fleming. "It's just not valid. As for us not enjoying the sport, okay, those guys played in the (pre-open tennis) days when all you got was expense money, trophies and some good parties. But why can't they understand that it's a different world now?"

"Newcombe doesn't have to feel sorry for us," said an upset McEnroe. "John Newcombe is the perfect example of somebody who will take advantage of everything and use it for himself -- whether it's playing to the public or the press.

"I can't win either way," McEnroe said. "If I talk, I'm wrong and if I don't, people will think I'm wrong."

While McEnroe and Fleming suffered in victory, Newcombe and Stolle basked in defeat, recalling the time, 15 years ago when Stolle beat Newcombe in the final of Forest Hills here.

"Different days, different kind of people," said Newcombe. "I won a runner-up plate. We had a party and served food on it. When the blokes got to the bottom and saw 'runner-up,' they gave me a hard time about what sort of fellow is proud of finishing second."

"Didn't you finally throw that plate in a gorge?" asked Stolle.

"Yes," said Newcombe, "when I realized who I'd lost to . . .

"When I came here in '67, all I got for two weeks expenses in New York for my wife and I was $500. We ate take-out food every night. And I had just won Wimbledon," continued Newcombe.

"You had to play for the game itself and the good times and the friends. It seems like now, with so much more money, there ought to be more fun.

"But there isn't."

As McEnroe and Fleming left tonight, the silent crowd gathered before them to get autographs.

These men are rich celebrities. Their signatures have a value.

As Newcombe and Stolle left, the fans asked for no autographs from the has-beens. Instead, they applaused.

These men, you see, are heroes. And the smiles on their roguish faces are their signatures.