Then Ivan Lendl is right--and he was very right today--time seems to stop the instant before he serves. The ball hovers over his head as he looks up, summoning his resources.
In an instant, the illusion explodes and the ball with it. What goes up must come down and today it came down on John McEnroe.
Playing with undeniable, unreturnable strength and authority, Lendl beat McEnroe, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2, to become the third man ever to win the Volvo Masters in consecutive years and, along with it, $100,000.
Even the announcement that Bjorn Borg is leaving competitive tennis could not overshadow Lendl's performance today.
The confluence of events--Borg's absence, and Lendl's demolition of Jimmy Connors in the semifinals Saturday and McEnroe today--served notice that 1983 may be Lendl's year. Lendl said he had never played better matches back to back.
McEnroe, who was visibly and vocally distraught throughout the match, said, "In blunt terms, he kicked my butt.
"He hit the ball down low. I was very disappointed. I thought I was playing better. I just have to work harder, concentrate better, get in better shape because he did all those things better than me."
McEnroe, who is now 2-7 lifetime against Lendl, won $64,000. The $64,000 question was: how can he beat Lendl? "At this rate," McEnroe said, "I'll probably have to play him in mud."
McEnroe said, his best chance against Lendl is on grass. He may get the chance. Lendl said he will play Wimbledon this year.
Although the Supreme Court surface used here is hardly muddy, it is slow. And that favored Lendl's game. "He can stay back and hit the ball and come in if he gets the big shot," McEnroe said. "It's his best surface without question."
Lendl did not lose a set in the tournament and his serve was broken only once, by Connors. "If I'm serving well, I can return better. And if I can return well, I can serve better," Lendl said. "I would say this match was very similar the match we (he and McEnroe) had at the U.S. Open."
McEnroe, who lost to him, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6, in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, seemed tentative.
He changed the pace, served and volleyed when he could, mixing in slow, offspeed shots and trying to prevent Lendl from taking a good whack with his fearsome forehand.
But it didn't work. McEnroe made 15 unforced errors to Lendl's six. Lendl's fierce ground strokes moved McEnroe around the court seemingly at will. Too often, McEnroe had to hit the ball on the dead run.
To win, McEnroe, who has lost 19 of the last 20 sets and seven matches in a row against Lendl, must serve well. Though his first-serve percentage was a bit higher (49 percent to 47, and he had two more service winners and two more aces), it was Lendl who made the big serves.
Lendl broke in the first game of the match, as McEnroe missed all five first serves and was forced out of his game, forced to stay back. A forehand down the line that McEnroe reached late and returned wide gave Lendl the break point. A forehand cross court that McEnroe also returned wide gave him a 1-0 lead.
"He broke in the first game and that was it for the first set. I made a mistake in starting slowly. You just can't get down like that. You've got to keep on top of the guy," McEnroe said.
But it was the other way around. Twice in the match, Lendl saved break points, the only ones against him, with overpowering serves. The first time, in the fourth game of the match, Lendl fell behind, 30-40, as McEnroe kept the ball low and Lendl netted a backhand.
Lendl's response? Three consecutive service winners. "He had me off balance with his big first serves and it was all over with," McEnroe said.
In the second set, McEnroe never had a break point, and only got eight points on his serve (20 of 79 in the match). "I had chances," McEnroe said. "Chances are relative. I got a lot of 30-30 points. But I didn't break serve. You wouldn't say I was on the verge of winning."
Lendl was forceful, forcing the pace constantly. At 3-3 in the second, McEnroe fell behind, 0-40. He saved five break points in the game. But Lendl once again asserted himself with a backhand winner off a return of serve.
On the sixth break point, Lendl sent a low backhand cross court skidding across the net at McEnroe's knee. McEnroe netted a backhand and Lendl had the only break of the set.
Lendl wasted no time in the third. He broke in the first game as McEnroe fell behind, 0-40. Now McEnroe was talking to the crowd of 18,257 as well as himself. They had been with him all day, to no avail.
There was nothing he or they could do about the backhand passing shot, one of 17 Lendl backhand winners. It left McEnroe stranded at midcourt, a broken man.
He had one last chance, a break point in the fourth game. Lendl's ace sounded absolutely sonic.
"Every single time I hit the first serve I was going for an ace," Lendl said. "It was very tiring for my arm."
But more tiring, more frustrating for McEnroe. He smashed a racket. He did a sommersault at the net when a shot went long.
And finally, he went over to a Volvo parked at courtside and tried to get in. It was locked. There was no opening for him there, either.