To Vitas Gerulaitis, the scene was depressingly familiar. There he was, on the grandstand court at the National Tennis Center. Across the net was a young player almost no one on the grounds had ever heard of before today. After winning two sets easily, Gerulaitis had double-faulted himself into a fifth set.
Was he thinking deja vu? Absolutely.
"It was unbelievable," Gerulaitis said. "I'm trying to get out of here alive and all of a sudden I have to make it exciting for the crowd. I said to myself, 'Oh God, not again.' But here come the people, packing in there, going crazy. Now, everyone wants a fifth set so much that even my friends are rooting against me."
In the third round of the last U.S. Open, on the same grandstand court, playing then-unknown Aaron Krickstein, Gerulaitis blew a two-set lead and lost in five sets. Today, in the third round of the Open, Gerulaitis fumbled away a two-set lead against Ken Flach. But this time he produced one of the most magnificent shots seen here in a while to get the break he needed in the fifth set and went on to win, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-7 (2-7), 6-1.
Gerulaitis' escape act was the highlight of a day in which two men's seeds and two women's seeds were beaten, although none of the upsets was shocking.
The highest seed to fall was the youngest, the 17-year-old Krickstein. Seeded eighth, he lost tonight to Greg Holmes, the former NCAA champion who hits his forehand and backhand with two hands.
Holmes, 21, had just a little more power than Krickstein, who is still essentially a back court player, and won by 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-5), to advance to a round of 16 match against 15th-seeded Pat Cash, a winner in straight sets over Todd Nelson.
Krickstein, who survived a two-set deficit in the first round and two set points to avoid a fifth set in the second round, simply could not survive another tightrope act tonight. He served for the fourth set at 5-4, but Holmes broke with a brilliant backhand.
In the tie breaker, Krickstein's forehand got balky. The match ended when he looped one long off a weak second serve that was close enough to being a double fault that Krickstein stopped to stare at the service line on his way to the net to shake hands.
The other men's seed who lost was No. 10 Eliot Teltscher, beaten, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, by big-serving Tim Mayotte, who has been known primarily as a grass-court player. On the women's side, seventh-seeded Zina Garrison lost in straight sets to a resurgent Sylvia Hanika and No. 16 Andrea Temesvari also went quietly in two sets to Petra Huber. The rest of the seeded players, men and women, moved easily into the fourth round.
Top-seeded Martina Navratilova needed 34 minutes to embarrass Jennifer Mundel, 6-0, 6-0, and second-seeded Chris Evert Lloyd took an hour to beat Bettina Bunge, 6-1, 6-3. Third-seeded Hana Mandlikova ousted Anne White, 6-1, 6-1.
Among the men, second-seeded Ivan Lendl, sloppy in his second-round victory, was much sharper in bouncing Jimmy Brown, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4; fourth-seeded Mats Wilander played his best tennis in the clinches in beating Bill Scanlon (last year's winner over John McEnroe), 7-6 (7-5), 7-5, 6-3, and fifth-seeded Andres Gomez defeated Jay Lapidus, 6-2, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3.
But the highlight of the cool, breezy afternoon was Gerulaitis' struggle with Flach,, a 21-year-old who has been a pro less than a year.
For two sets, it appeared Flach's only notable contribution to the tournament was going to be the award for worst behaved player, given his continual complaining and racket tossing.
Gerulaitis already had had a wearing week. After his second-round victory Thursday, he said he would bet his house that Martina Navratilova could not beat the 100th-ranked male player in the world. Today, after being up a break in the third set, Gerulaitis looked as if he might make a humbling exit against No. 224.
"I just went completely flat," said Gerulaitis, who next plays Gomez. "I never eat breakfast and I almost never play this early (noon), so I just had four pieces of bacon this morning. All of a sudden, up, 3-2, in the third, my hands started shaking and it wasn't because I was nervous."
Flach, using a two-fisted backhand effectively, won four of the next five games and the third set before Gerulaitis sent out friends to get some food. "First they brought me this huge roast beef hoagie and I thought I was going to barf," he said. "So I sent them back for a fruit plate. After I ate that, I felt like I could play four more sets."
Gerulaitis, who got into trouble against Krickstein because of double faults, lost the tie breaker by double-faulting twice at 2-3 to give Flach a 2-5 lead. When Flach served out the set, Gerulaitis still felt confident.
"The tie breaker is pot luck and I lost it," he said. "But going into the fifth I still felt I was 75 percent likely to win. That's a little dicey, sure, but I was kicking the guy's butt for almost three sets and then I let down. When he won the set, he was jumping around like he had won Wimbledon or something. I said to myself, 'Let's roll him right out of here.' " And so he did.
With people jammed into every nook and cranny of the 7,000-seat grandstand, the two proceeded on serve to 1-2, Flach serving. At 30-all, Gerulaitis chipped a delicate bachand crosscourt past a lunging Flach for break point.
Then came the shot.
Flach came in behind a backhand and Gerulaitis tried to go cross court. Flach was in position and punched a hard volley to the forehand corner of the court. It looked like a winner. But Gerulaitis chased the ball down and, as he tumbled into a flower pot, sent a curving forehand that hooked into the corner down the line as Flach himself tumbled over in shock.
Gerulaitis, stretched out across the flowers and a distraught photographer, never saw the ball land. "When I heard the crowd, I figured it might be in," he said, smiling.
That was all for Flach. "I'm hitting the ball as well as I have in 10 years," Gerulaitis said. "Technically, I'm playing great. Today, I just had to be sharp mentally to get by."
Mental concentration also has been a problem for Mayotte. At 24, he is known strictly as a grass-court player, having been to the semifinals at Wimbledon once and the quarterfinals twice. Today, he was more than a serve-and-volley player in beating Teltscher.
Now Mayotte must face Wilander, a less than pleasant task. Today, Wilander simply wore down Scanlon. Wilander lost his serve in the third game, then never lost it again. He won the tie breaker with a superb forehand that Scanlon couldn't pick off his shoe tops.
"He did not hit his ground shots too well," Wilander said. "I was worried about him because he played so well here last year against McEnroe."
This Scanlon didn't resemble the player who beat McEnroe a year ago. And, fortunately for Gerulaitis, that wasn't the only thing that was different from a year ago.
Two days after they exchanged barbs over the quality of women's tennis, Navratilova and Gerulaitis today begged for mercy -- and the end of the controversy. Gerulaitis said Thursday that Navratilova could not beat the No. 100 male player. Navratilova contended that under the right circumstances she might have a chance.
Today, both players said they wished people hadn't made such a big deal of the whole thing.
"I think it's gotten out of hand," Navratilova said. "This is the U.S. Open and I'm trying to win a tournament. I'm not here to be talking about that. I think it's ludicrous. You don't mix middleweights with heavyweights."
Gerulaitis said, "I am not the greatest men's player in the world . . . I never said I could beat the 100th guy in the world or that I was the greatest. Martina is the greatest woman player, maybe in history, and all I said was that I did not think she could beat the 100th guy in the world."