They played for another half-hour. But the U.S. Open final ended in the third set at 6:49 p.m. EDT, when Ivan Lendl double-faulted on set point.
He was on the verge of taking a two-set-to-one lead over Jimmy Connors In the instant it took for the wind to catch Lendl's second toss and the ball to catch the net, Lendl lost his chance to win his first Grand Slam title and Connors seized the opportunity to win his fifth Open, 6-3, 6-7 (2-7), 7-5, 6-0.
For Connors, it was his second consecutive victory over Lendl in the final of the Open and his 100th career singles title, more than any other male (Bjorn Borg is second with 62). For Lendl, it was another agonizing afternoon of questioning and self-doubt. "After the double fault," he said, "I never recovered mentally."
Connors took the opportunity the way he takes every ball: on the rise; and he rose to the occasion. "I said, 'Well, if he's going to do that he's going to give me a chance,' " Connors said. "I started getting in there and jumping on my returns more. I hit them more solid and started doing something with them instead of playing them back. I won that game and my spirits lifted 50 or 60 percent and I think his dropped a little. He played a pretty awful game to lose the set."
An understatement of some proportion. When Connors nailed volleys on the next two points to break for 5-5, Lendl buried his head in a towel; he might as well have thrown it in. He lost the last nine games of the match.
The match was inexplicably erratic and error-prone. Lendl made 48 unforced errors and Connors 51. The first outright winner did not come until the sixth game of the match, when Lendl hit a running forehand down the line. Connors did not hit his first winner until the last game of the first set, a forehand volley down the line.
"It wasn't quite as beautiful as the others," Connors said, "but it got the job done."
Lendl, who had 16 aces but made only 47 percent of his first serves, said nobody returns his serve better than Connors. Intimidated and fearful of being passed, he stayed back, rallied and erred--27 times with his forehand, 21 with his backhand.
Connors was the aggressor, forcing the action, taking the ball on the rise and taking any opportunity to come in. He gave Lendl little time to set up his shots or recover his composure. Time and again, as Connors came in behind his approach shots, Lendl's passing shots went awry.
Connors held in the first game of the last set, then broke in the second with a forehand winner down the line. "For me to jump on him and break him right away was important," Connors said. "I played a pretty good game and he missed two backhands just for no reason.
"I felt at that time, 'Well, if you're going to do that I'm going to try to hit one by one.' He kind of sank at that point. I played a pretty good game to hold my serve and go up, 3-0. Three-love is a lot different from 2-1."
When Connors broke again in the fourth, Lendl threw down the ball in disgust. Lendl served again in the sixth, trailing, 5-0, and saved some dignity as he served four aces, two on match points. But on his sixth game point, he tried a backhand drop shot. Connors swooped in on the ball the way he swooped at any opportunity and lifted a forehand lob over Lendl's head. A forehand winner gave Connors his third match point.
Lendl missed another first serve. On the second, Connors hit a forehand cross court that caught the line and caught Lendl standing at the base line in shock.
For the victory, Connors earned $120,000, putting his career earnings at $5,002,612, the first male player to exceed $5 million. Lendl earned $60,000 ($4,193,572 for his career) and some sympathy but little respect.
The match began in the late afternoon heat (107 degrees at courtside), lasted through a fiery red sunset that lit up the New York skyline in the distance and ended with a sliver of a moon hanging over the National Tennis Center. But it began the way it ended, with virtually all of the 25,075 people in the stadium roaring for their Jimbo, rooting against Lendl to the point of tastelessness, cheering his double fault. "I think I should have caught the ball and tossed it again," he said.
Lendl's day was surprising, considering that he came into the match not having lost a set and having lost only five service games. He beat Connors handily three weeks ago in Montreal, 6-2, 6-1, his third victory in 14 tries.
Both began the day tremulously. Connors said the windy conditions on the court had a lot to do with the unusual number of unforced errors. Lendl said, "I was a little nervous from the beginning. I was mis-hitting the ball a lot. Especially down the line, I was missing every single one."
Lendl double-faulted on the first point he served, just as he did last year. And he double-faulted again in the same game, the second of the match, to give Connors a break. Connors reciprocated, double-faulting to give Lendl a break in the next game after leading, 40-0.
Shadows crept across the court and across their faces. Connors broke in the eighth game, as Lendl netted an easy backhand to make it 30-40. On break point, Connors came in behind a forehand approach and Lendl hit a backhand that sailed so long it almost reached the stands.
In the second set, Lendl won four straight games and led, 4-2, but could not sustain his good fortune. Connors broke in the seventh, and excused himself, taking a 10-minute equipment delay because of stomach problems. While Connors was gone (six minutes), Lendl sat near his friend and manager, Wojtek Fibak. He looked angry and disconsolate. "I wasn't told anything," he said.
But he said it had no bearing on the match.
(Connors was also bothered by an injured toe on his right foot, hurt during his quarterfinal victory over Eliot Teltscher and aggravated Saturday during his semifinal victory over Bill Scanlon, when he accidentally hit his foot while swinging a two-handed backhand. Connors iced the toe for 20 minutes after that match and said it was "no big thing.")
When Connors returned, they traded breaks and went to the tie breaker, which Lendl won as easily as he had done anything all day, taking a 3-2 lead with an ace and winning the last four points. "I pulled out that second set somehow," Lendl said. "I can't say I never should have lost this match."
For Lendl, the challenge continues to prove himself at the moments that his talent and his sport demands--in the Grand Slam events. "I don't think choking has anything to do with it," Connors said. "I think he is a little lax in a final because he's never won one and that's probably on his mind."
Connors has won eight Grand Slam titles. He lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon to Kevin Curren this year and could not defend his title. He came into the tournament with only three victories, the defending champion seeded third behind John McEnroe (No. 1) and Lendl.
"Last year, I came off winning Wimbledon and I was on a roll," he said. "This year I told myself and everybody here if I could have half the year I had last year--and this is the half. It's not sweeter but it's the first time I've won it two in a row . . . If I never have the chance again, I had the chance this time and I took advantage of it."
Something Lendl must learn to do.