Helpless at the net after staggering/lunging for a backhand that popped straight up from his racket, Jimmy Conners knew he had no change to reach any kind of shot from Ivan Lendl. All Lendl need do was tap the ball into play. Instead, he loaded a cannon. The bomb of an overhead exploded maybe a foot from Connors and bounced high into the bleachers.
The overkill irritated Connors. Among the least attractive aspects of Lendl is his reputation as a headhunter at the net. Besides which, Connors simply doesn't like Lendl, whom he once called "chicken" on court when Lendl seemed to lose a Masters set on purpose to avoid a match with Bjorn Borg. So before the ball descended from orbit, Connors was yakkety-yakking in Lendl's direction.
Lipreaders covered the ears of small children. "Oh, nothing," Connors said sweetly when asked by reporters what he had said. He shook a finger of reproach at Lendl, who had his back turned and was walking to the service line. Then Connors crooked his index finger at Lendl, as if inviting him outside. To all this provocation, Lendl answered not at all.
"I don't even look at him," Lendl said later.
Maybe he should. For the fourth time, James Scott Connors is the United States Open champion. He won at Wimbledon in July for the first time since 1974, the year he also won his first Open. Certainly, he has won while Bjorn Borg takes a year off. Still, to win at 30, to leave behind the raging McEnroe and automatonic Lendl, to rise again to heights most people figured were beyond his reach -- to succeed so grandly is to remind us again that Jimmy Connors is made of Champions' stuff.
The right stuff was there when Lendl crashed his overhead. Another player might have slinked away, humiliated. Connors roars against the darkness. He fights. He transformed a tennis court into a combat zone. "This is war," he often says. Alone a decade ago, he made tennis safe for men who don't eat quiche. He came to work today with a dark stubble of beard. Insulted by Lendl's unnecessary cannonade, Connors as much as said, "Meet me in the alley, buster."
Only 22 years old, Ivan Lendl is learning his sport. He is big for a tennis pro (6-foot-2, 175) and very strong. He strikes the ball magnificently from both sides. His looping forehand carries so much weight it kept John McEnroe pinned to the back wall for two hours the other night. Off the backhand, Lendl hits top spin that carries deep. He has not won $1.2 million in 1982 without being very good.
The flaw in the diamond is yet clear. Lendl has reached the championship match of only two Grand Slam tournaments. He lost the 1981 French Open in five sets to Borg. Now he has lost in four sets to Connors. At the French this year, he lost in the quarterfinals to Mats Wilander. Because he doesn't play well on grass, he then skipped Wimbledon.
Would Connors skip Wimbledon? The day elephants fly and rocks talk, Connors will walk away from a good fight. Lendl walked away from Connors tonight. It is one thing to be a gentleman, as Borg is. It is another to burn with a competitor's flame, as Borg does. Connors won tonight because he sought the heat of battle and Lendl shied from it.
"I don't even look at him," Lendl said. If true, that is convicting evidence that Connors owned his opponent's mind. If the words are an attempt to deny Connors' presence, they mean Lendl figures it is enough to be an automaton. He need not be a fighter. Wind him up and he hits forehand winners. Automatons have no blood.
"In the fourth set, my blood was pumping," Connors said afterward. All day he had been wonderful. Look at the winning point of the first game of the last set. One of those thunderous forehands rolled from Lendl's racket, flying past Connors. But it couldn't escape his reach. All day Connors sprinted from side to side, corner to corner, lunging to reach Lendl's good shots. Not only did Connors touch them, he somehow made them into good shots of his own.
The winning point of that first game: Lendl's forehand nearly passed Connors until Connors, reaching, ripped a forehand of his own down the line so quickly that Lendl was left flat-footed. Instant reflex earned him $1.2 million; instant reflex this time was too slow too late.
And Connors, seeing Lendl helpless, pumped a clenched fist in celebration. He rolled his head back and screamed. He swaggered across the court. "I blank out, I go crazy, it's going berserk," Connors has said of these moments when he feels the blood pumping in a good fight.
Against McEnroe, Lendl made 25 unforced errors. Against Connors, the number was 49. Trying to figure out the difference, Lendl could only say, "I played everything the way I wanted to, I was just missing more than I wanted to. He was hitting all over the place like always, but I was a little slow."
For the U.S. Open title, Ivan Lendl came up slow.
He is 22, he is learning, he will win the U.S. Open someday soon.
This day he came up slow. Too slow to fight a heavyweight. Someone tried to give him an excuse. Was it the racket? Lendl smiled wanly. He wished it was the racket, he said. Unfortunately, it wasn't.
"If it was the racket, I'd ask Jimmy to go out there and play again," Lendl said, adding with a little smile, "You think he would go?"
Ivan Lendl, better than most, knows why Jimmy Connors now has a 9-1 career record against Ivan Lendl.