Vitas Gerulaitis was trudging back to the base line, having missed yet another first serve this afternoon, when a lone voice shrilled from the stands: "Come on Vitas, come on."
"I'm tryin', pal. Believe me, I'm trying," Gerulaitis answered.
It was that kind of day at the U.S. Open tennis championships for Gerulaitis and underdogs everywhere. They tried, but they just couldn't do it.
Gerulaitis lost to fifth-seeded Andres Gomez, 6-4, 7-6 (10-8), 6-1, in what was certainly the most entertaining match of an afternoon in which several top players breathed hard a couple of times but nevertheless prevailed.
Second-seeded Ivan Lendl, Gomez's opponent in the quarterfinals, romped past Anders Jarryd, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. Fifteenth-seeded Pat Cash faced two set points early before ending the run of Greg Holmes, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 6-1, to move on to a quarterfinal against the winner of the match between No. 4 Mats Wilander and Tim Mayotte. That match was stopped by rain tonight with the score tied at 3 in the first set and will be completed Tuesday.
On the women's side, even No. 1 seed Martina Navratilova and No. 2 Chris Evert Lloyd had competitive matches, although neither came close to losing.
Navratilova defeated Barbara Potter, 6-4, 6-4. Potter, a strong server, lost her serve only once in each set but that was plenty because Navratilova was never in danger of losing hers. Evert was shaken early by base liner Bonnie Gadusek, losing the first three games, but came back to take 12 of the last 13 in the 6-4, 6-0 victory.
"With Barbara, it is usually tough," Navratilova said. "It usually goes three or four."
Third-seeded Hana Mandlikova had a genuine scare against 20-year-old Texan Lori McNeil, the 111th-ranked player in the world. McNeil led her, 6-3, 4-2, before Mandlikova finally got her power game rolling and came back to win, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. The match turned with McNeil serving at 4-5 in the second set when, after saving one set point, McNeil double faulted twice to give Mandlikova the set.
"Sometimes you have to be a little bit lucky," Mandlikova said. "She missed a couple of easy shots and I came back."
The only match that produced what some might consider an upset was Helena Sukova's 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 defeat of ninth-seeded Lisa Bonder. But considering the fact that Sukova, 19 -- who is ranked 18th in the world -- had already beaten fifth-seed Kathy Jordan, that result hardly was surprising.
Gomez's emergence this year as a hardcourt player is, however, a surprise. The 24-year-old Ecuadorian has always been a clay court specialist. Twice, he has won the Italian Open on clay but before this year, despite being 6 feet 5, he had never fared well here or at Wimbledon.
Now, he has reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and here. Despite the straight-set victory today, it was not easy.
"My serving saved my life," Gomez said. "It's the most improved thing in my game this year and it's why I am playing better here. It really saved me in the tie breaker."
In sharp contrast, Gerulaitis was undone by his serve. He double-faulted nine times, once to lose the first set, once in the tie breaker and twice to lose the first game of the third set. He was also one for nine on first serves in the tie breaker and got only 49 percent in for the match.
"The first serve wasn't going in too well, and I was probably going for too much on the second serve,' Gerulaitis said. "He wasn't going to do too much with it so I probably shouldn't have tried so much."
Gerulaitis went into the Open as the 14th-ranked men's player in the world, and he could have pushed it higher today had he managed to win the second set. It was that wild and often weird set that decided the outcome.
The strangeness began with Gerulaitis serving at 2-3. He saved a break point with a rare first serve that Gomez netted and then got the ad on an overhead. Gerulaitis retreated to serve. Gomez leaned down to receive. Gerulaitis tossed the ball and Gomez put his hands over his head as if cowering in fear. The ball whizzed by for an ace.
"I wasn't ready," Gomez complained to umpire Joseph Snyder.
"Game, Gerulaitis," Snyder answered.
Gerulaitis stalked to the net and told Gomez, "You went down, you were ready, you had plenty of time, then you turned away. I'll play a let, but don't do it again."
Exactly why Gerulaitis chose to play the point over at such a crucial moment, even he wasn't sure of later. "It was just a spur of the moment thing," he said. "It wasn't calculated or anything." Whatever the reasoning, it seemed to help Gerulaitis. After losing the replayed point, he won the game with two good serves.
His act of sportsmanship won him the stadium court crowd, save for about 20 flag-waving Ecuadorians in the upper reaches of the stands (Gomez: "They seem to be wherever I go. I am used to it"). With the crowd urging Gerulaitis, the two proceeded on serve into the tie breaker.
Now, things got wacky. Leading 2-0, Gomez netted an easy backhand, then double-faulted for 2-2. Leading 3-2, Gomez botched a sitter to make it a 3-3 tie.
Having been given three points, Gerulaitis returned the favor with a double fault of his own. Alphonse-Gaston had nothing on these guys.
Then the tennis got serious. At 4-4, Gerulaitis won a remarkable point, each man slamming volleys back and forth until Gomez finally hit a forehand deep as the crowd screamed its approval. Gomez came right back with a running forehand winner to make it 5-5.
"I have played more tie breakers than anybody this year, 28 after today," Gomez said. "I have won 23. I don't know why. Today, I hit that great passing shot out of nowhere. It just happens."
Even so, Gerulaitis had a set point at 6-5. But he threw up a weak lob that Gomez crushed for 6-6. Disgusted, Gerulaitis pirouetted, then wrapped his towel around his neck as if to choke himself during the court change.
"I had the chances there," he said. "On the other big points, he hit serves for winners or did something good. That one I messed up."
Gerulaitis had one more chance at 8-7, after saving a set point himself with a touch volley, but Gomez served an ace down the middle. Gerulaitis disputed the call, to no avail.
Gomez hit another service winner and won the set when Gerulitis pushed a forehand long.
As he stalked to his seat, Gerulaitis made a rude remark to Snyder, who gave him a verbal warning. "Yeah, I shouldn't have said it," Gerulaitis said. "But I asked him, 'If you screw up, can we warn you?' And he just said, 'No.' "
The tie breaker was Gerulaitis' last stand. The same could have been said earlier in the day for Holmes, 21, a former NCAA champion from the University of Utah who upset eight-seeded Aaron Krickstein in the third round.
Holmes had broken the service of Cash, a Wimbledon semifinalist this year, and was serving for the first set at 5-4. But leading, 40-15, Holmes, who hits two-handed off both sides, began to fade.
He pushed a forehand wide and watched as Cash, a 19-year-old who is expected to be Australia's next big star, hit a forehand winner. Holmes made two more errors to give Cash the game.
In the tie breaker, Holmes trailed, 5-6, when the two engaged in a base line rally. Cash finally came in and his backhand volley hit the net cord and just popped over. Holmes could only watch it dribble away.
"I should have won the set at 5-4," he said later. "But losing a tie breaker like that is tough. It shouldn't take that much out of you, but I guess in this case it did."
He smiled weakly. Like Gerulaitis and the others he had tried. Today, that just wasn't quite enough.