Ivan Lendl readied himself for the men's final of the U.S. Open Sunday by watching the fourth quarter of the New York Giants-Atlanta Falcons game. Jimmy Connors prepared with a last-minute rub on the trainer's table (he had back spasms following his semifinal win over Guillermo Vilas).
Lendl seemed detached, genuinely absorbed in American football. But for Connors, this final started Saturday. No jokes, no bantering this day. At age 30, Connors might not have this chance again.
Although I picked Connors to win in four sets after the semifinals were decided, for the second day in a row I was wrong about how a final developed. True, Connors won, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, but could it be that in Czechoslovakia they forgot to tell their stars to change a losing strategy? Two checkmated Czechs back-to-back may not be a coincidence.
In the women's final Saturday, Hana Mandlikova seemed to give up after she was down a set and 2-love to Chris Evert Lloyd. Although Lendl at least was competitive against Connors, he didn't materially change his tactics after losing the first two sets.
No one doubts that Lendl wanted to win badly. He has yet to win a Big Four title, but came as close this year as one can come--losing the French Open final to Mats Wilander and here to Connors.
His problem was not desire, as Mandlikova's appeared to be. I became convinced Lendl is afraid to try anything new. For a tennis player, that borders on arrogance.
Lendl came to the net only a handful of times. Even Bjorn Borg comes to the net against Connors. John McEnroe sets up camp there when playing him. Are Connors' passing shots that fearsome? Not when you hit as hard as Lendl.
There is one other strange aspect to Lendl's game. Everyone knows he hits his forehand harder than possibly anyone has, that it is supposedly reliable. But it often is the first shot to waver when things get tight.
Lendl uses what is termed a semi-Western forehand grip, in which he places his hand a notch or two lower around the handle of the racket. When he hits a forehand with his kind of top spin, the racket is moving almost straight up, much like Borg's forehand. Consequently, Borg and Lendl often mis-hit.
Stroke production aside, Lendl needs to take a hard look at his game. More variety is a must. He is only 22, so he has plenty of time.
Perhaps we should have paid more attention to Lendl's decision not to play Wimbledon three months ago. He said he wanted to rest and get ready for Davis Cup play. But perhaps he was just afraid to try to win that grass-court title with his clay-court game.
Lendl is the best athlete on the men's tour. If he didn't come to the net because he thinks he doesn't volley well, he should do what Don Budge did in 1937 and what Borg did in 1977. They took three months off and learned backhands and serves, respectively.
Lendl should not have to look back at the summer of 1982 years from now and admit he skipped Wimbledon and lost the U.S. Open because he didn't know how to volley.