The day was as rich as it was long. It began in the glare of expectation and ended 12 hours later with a full moon over the stadium. In the interim, the earth had turned halfway around on its axis and the tennis world was spinning madly.
It was one of those rare summer days that got better as it got longer. Shot by shot, game by game, match by match it improved until no one could absorb anymore. Maybe that's why the stadium was half empty when John McEnroe finally ended Jimmy Connors' two-year reign as the king of Queens, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
"Today was probably the best day in the Open ever," McEnroe said.
Who could doubt him? Anyone who watched Ivan Lendl, the No. 2 seed, vanquish Pat Cash, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-4) in 3 hours 39 minutes and had the energy to wait out McEnroe and Connors, who played for 3 hours 45 minutes, understood what he meant.
It will be hard for McEnroe and Lendl to top today's theatrics, but they will try. McEnroe, U.S. Open champion in 1979-81, has never lost in the final. Lendl, who has played in the last two, has never won. They have played six times this year. McEnroe has won five; Lendl's victory came in the French Open final after being two sets down.
They were classic confrontations today: the serve and volleyer against the base line gunner. The first match, played before a full-house that exhorted Cash, the tempestuous teen-ager from Australia, was more exciting. The second match was better, reminiscent of McEnroe and Connors five-set 1980 semifinal.
"It was just a great match," McEnroe said. "I had a feeling I was the only guy who could stop him. He's won the last two years and if I didn't want him to win three years, I had to take matters into my own hands."
And so he did. For four sets, they were virtually even. Connors was unyielding. His ground strokes made it difficult for McEnroe to dominate the net. His return equaled McEnroe's serve. McEnroe had 20 aces but not the number of easy points he had in the Wimbledon final when he beat Connors in 80 minutes.
"I served more than 70 percent for the match and he broke me eight times," McEnroe said.
McEnroe held at love in the first game of the fifth set. A forehand cross-court winner gave him a break point in the next game. A forehand cross-court approach gave him the break. They exchanged their best shots at the net as if they were trading compliments. It was so quick. And soon it was 4-2.
Connors had one more chance. McEnroe missed a first serve at 30-30 and elected to come in behind his second. Connors passed him with a backhand cross court, fists pumping in the night air.
McEnroe missed another first serve, Connors returned the second one long. An ace ended the game.
"I'm always willing to go out and play for four or five hours if I have to, but so is he," Connors said. "That's what makes our matches so great. With us, it's never over."
"I gave them my blood, my guts, my skin and my flesh," Connors said. "I don't have anything left to give them."
Lendl has often been accused of failing to do just that. No longer will his opponent be able to expect Lendl to crumble in those crucial moments when the better player is the one with more resolve. He fought off Cash. He fought fought off 20,092 people mostly cheering for him to fold. "If I was getting upset, I'd have to go to a clinic for treatment," he said, "because it is happening every time."
In the 12th game of the fifth set, with Cash serving for the match, Lendl fell behind, 0-30, fought back to 30-30, squandered a break point then fought off a match point with a running forehand lob over Cash's head. "I said to myself, 'You have been match point up,' " Lendl said. " 'It's 6-5, 30-0, just try, just keep trying for two more points.' "
Lendl has been tempered by time and defeat. At 19, Cash is just beginning the process. This year, he has reached the semifinals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
"He was playing very well and it was like a roller coaster," Lendl said. "I was a set down, then it looked like I had the match under my belt. There were so many turns and twists that it is hard to imagine."
For three sets, it was close but uninspired. Cash served and volleyed and hung on the net, taking every opportunity he could to come in on his second serve and on Lendl's. Lendl stood his ground at the base line, whacking passing shots from every conceivable angle. They both made errors, lots of them. Lendl had 20, Cash 54.
In the fourth set, Cash held his own but was unable to make a dent. He won only nine points off Lendl's serve before the tie breaker.
But the crowd was his. When Cash came out to receive leading 5-4 in the fourth, the crowd roared for him to break Lendl, something he had not been able to do since the second game of the match. He raised his arms in salute.
Lendl was impassive. He saved three break points in his next service game to force the tie breaker. Errors abounded. Cash made fewer and won it when Lendl's backhand cross-court return of a second serve went wide.
Lendl double faulted (his fifth of six in the match) on break point in the first game of the fifth set, but he refused to capitulate. He broke back with a searing backhand pass down the line. The tempo of the match escalated along with the roar of the crowd and the quality of the play. With Cash serving at 4-5, he double faulted to give Lendl a match point and saved it with a service winner. Cash broke for 6-5 and served for the match.
Cash was two points from victory. Lendl fought back to 30-30 only to squander his second match point when he couldn't handle Cash's serve. He rediscovered the topspin lob on Cash's only match point of the day. Cash's forehand reply was wide.
After Lendl had secured the break and tied the set at 6-6, Cash pointed his finger in Lendl's direction. Later, he said, his wrath was aimed at a linesman who had denied him what he was sure was an ace. But Lendl was sure the gesture was meant for him and returned it.
Who knows how much that moved him, how much force carried over into the two service winners, two resounding serves, that made it 4-4 and then 5-4 in the tie breaker?
A running backhand passing shot gave Lendl his third match point. This time he wouldn't let go. The joy and determination were were there for all to see as he thrust his fists at the sky. Cash served and volleyed. The ball caught the net.
Peter Housting, a businessman from Illinois, caught the racket that Cash flung 10 rows into the crowd (after which he was fined $2,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct). "If he wants it, he can have it back," Housting said. "I think he'll want it."
Cash will want to play again, but maybe not tomorrow.