In this U.S. Open women's final on a Decoturf court, I imagined Chris Evert Lloyd's odds at beating Hana Mandlikova at about 4 to 1. What I had not counted on was that Mandlikova would simply choose not to compete.
If she was disappointed after her 6-3, 6-1 loss, the crowd was even more so because Mandlikova had, as usual, chosen to play hit-or-miss tennis. And she made more mistakes than a finalist is entitled to make.
The contrasting styles of Evert and Mandlikova seemed to ensure an entertaining final. Evert's game is mechanically fluid, the product of thousands of hours of repetition under the tutelage of her father. Mandlikova looks as if she was born with a racket in her hand. She is, at her intermittent best, the most graceful woman player since open tennis began in 1968.
Only Maria Bueno, in the late '50s and Suzanne Lenglen in the 20s could float about a tennis court like Mandlikova. But undisciplined talent seldom reaches its potential.
So how could such a brilliant but erratic player reach the final? Because Tracy Austin is nowhere near what she was in 1981, when she was healthy. And because, although there are many exciting young women players on the tour, two are clearly superior to all the others: Evert and Martina Navratilova.
Even Evert noted in her acceptance speech that Mandlikova is "very talented and very young". And that "she has 10 more good years ahead of her."
If she plays for 10 more years like she played today, she may very well waste them all. And that could happen since Mandlikova is only 20.
But today, she was not near that level. All great players take stock of their situation after each set. This mental rerun is helpful in a best-of-five set match but absolutely necessary in women's matches, which are best of three. After losing the first set today, Mandlikova didn't change a thing. And I know she knows better than to persist with a losing strategy. She is coached by a former top player, Betty Stove.
Stove has been trying desperately to get her star pupil to temper her shot making. Says Stove, "Hana's biggest problem is that she always feels as though she is just about to start a hot streak. She knows she has more raw talent than anybody else on the tour. But she just thinks that it is a little crazy not to use all those shots she has."
Stove talks of Mandlikova's victory over Evert in the French Open two years ago. The French is played on clay, which is a slow surface, and Evert was supposely invincible on that gritty orange stuff. "Hana blew her off the court," Stove remembers. "So she became convinced that if she could beat her on slow clay -- Chris' best surface -- surely she could beat her on a fast surface."
Evert's home-court advantage must also be noted. It is too bad that three of the world's Big Four titles (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, French, Australian) are played in English-speaking countries. Americans (and New Yorkers in particular) are as chauvinistic as any people in the world. The fans wanted to see a great match. But they also wanted Evert to win. I have yet to see a crowd that did not want her to win.
Toward the end of the second set, resignation had settled into Mandlikova's demeanor as well as her play. It seemed that she just wanted to get it over with, that she would play better next time.
More faulty reasoning.
As an ex-player, I hate to see so much talent wasted because of a lack of will. It's not that Mandlikova cannot change; it's that she won't change. And the longer she waits, the more firmly entrenched her bad habits will become.
Women's pro tennis is heavily dependent on the crowd appeal of its handful of top stars. It can ill afford televised match-ups when one of them refuses to change what is obviously a losing strategy.
Hana Mandlikova, with all her grace, shot making and speed, has much to offer. We all love to watch her play. But we could gradually lose interest if it continues to appear that her attitude toward her game is as casual as the game itself. And today against Evert, she played as if she hardly cared at all.