John McEnroe always had exquisite control of a tennis ball. The fuzzy, yellow sphere waltzed at his behest. But too often, McEnroe danced to a petulant, discordant tune and the sweetness of his game was all but ignored.
Not today. His anger was replaced by humor, the newest McEnroe touch. His control of the racket was matched by his control of himself. Ivan Lendl never had a chance.
McEnroe won, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, for his fourth U.S. Open championship. He not only defeated Lendl, he defused him and Lendl became the first man since William Johnson in 1925 to lose three straight finals here.
It's odd how things work out. The only blemishes in McEnroe's otherwise perfect year (66-2) were an opening-round defeat to Vijay Amritraj in the ATP Championship last month, and a five-set loss to Lendl in the final of the French Open, in which he relinquished a two-set lead and much self-control.
"I learned about the waste of energy, the controversy," he said. "It hit me there the hardest that I just have to stop doing it."
McEnroe couldn't afford to waste any energy today. He had played Jimmy Connors late into the night Saturday to gain his first final since 1981. He had no emotion to spare. He wanted to make the points quickly. His mastery was as complete as his concentration.
"I feel tired," he said. "I really feel exhausted. I feel unbelievable and terrible at the same time. My body said, 'That's enough.' But he looked pretty bad himself."
At his best, Lendl looks stolid. Today, he looked leaden. It was hard to know whether that was the result of his five-set semifinal against Pat Cash Saturday afternoon or the contrast with McEnroe's feathery touch. McEnroe defeated him in 1 hour 47 minutes -- seven minutes less than it took Martina Navratilova to beat Chris Evert Lloyd in three sets for the women's title Saturday.
McEnroe's plan was simple: to attack at will, as he as in every match against Lendl since the 1983 U.S. Pro Indoor Championships in Philadelphia, where he ended Lendl's six-match domination of him. Before that match, McEnroe sought out Don Budge and asked for advice. "Attack," he was told. "Be relentless."
Now, McEnroe has won six of their seven matches this year and 11 of the 20 in their careers.
He attacked Lendl's serve with a vengeance, coming in behind second serves, dominating the net. McEnroe broke Lendl once in each of the first two sets, then held at love in the next game. He came to the net 54 times and won 37 of the points.
"If I hit my shot well enough," McEnroe said, "it doesn't matter what the other guy's got."
His serve was indecipherable. When he missed his first serve (he made 61 percent), Lendl was befuddled by the second. Time and again on crucial points, McEnroe jammed him with serves into the body. The backhand return invariably went wide.
In the third and mercifully quick set (26 minutes), Lendl managed only four points off McEnroe's serve. He was never able to break him.
"I thought I was hitting the ball well," Lendl said, "but in order to play even or beat him, you have to return his serve and break him, too."
He had two chances, both in the second game of the second set. The mood and the time seemed right to pressure McEnroe. If he was going to crack, it would be here. The game before, there had been a call he didn't like on a lob that went just long. "Grow some hair," he yelled at the linesman, who had none. The fans laughed. They were expecting an obscenity.
On the first point of the next game, McEnroe missed a first serve and Lendl stepped into the second. For once, the backhand return down the line wasn't wide. Or was it? McEnroe wasn't sure. Mildly, he questioned the call. Then he went back to the base line, shook his head and snapped his finger, as if to say, "Oh darn." So much for volatility.
A double fault made it 0-30 and another made it 15-40. On the first break point, Lendl hit a forehand passing shot that headed cross court. The net interrupted its flight.
For an instant, McEnroe was mesmerized by the ball. He did a double take and then a pirouette. He was waltzing to a music few can hear. As he spun out of the turn, he hit a forehand down the line.
"I was leaning in that direction," McEnroe said. "I knew it was somewhere in that area. So I just adjusted."
A routine -- for him -- serve-and-volley point saved the second break.
Lendl tried to adjust. He began to come in. McEnroe had dictated the terms of the match and Lendl looked as comfortable at the net as a grown-up in a sandbox. Soon it seemed he was caught in quicksand.
Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, and Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) were among many celebrities and politicians in the crowd. Hart was asked if he'd like to be able to volley like McEnroe just once in his life. "I'd like to hit one volley in my life like Lendl," he said.
Lendl might not agree. He will have to improve at the net if he is going to beat McEnroe on a fast surface like this. When he fell behind in the next game, 30-40, he retreated to the safety of the base line. Surely, Lendl's forehand on the next point was long. McEnroe looked at the same bald linesman for relief. There was none. He lay down and threw his hands up in the air as if to say he was at heaven's mercy.
He lay there for a while contemplating his options. Perhaps he was thinking about the third set of the final in Paris, when his rage got the better of him. When McEnroe sat up and hugged his knees, the fury was contained. His performance drew laughter. He said he hadn't noticed. He was concentrating too hard.
Lendl saved those two break points but his day was over. McEnroe's concentration had not been broken. It was only a matter of time. It came in the seventh game. He was up, 40-15, and McEnroe fought back to deuce. Lendl came in behind his own serve and was passed.
He missed a first serve and in his mind's eye saw McEnroe charging the net after the second. He could feel McEnroe breathing down his neck. Lendl netted a backhand pass and McEnroe led, 4-3. The banner that hung from the rafters -- "Ivan Devours Big Mac" -- disappeared from view.
McEnroe broke again in the first game of the third set when Lendl missed two volleys that made it 30-30, then 30-40. Still, Lendl came in. He took a short ball and approached the net. McEnroe's forehand topspin lob was the cruelest cut of all. He did to Lendl what Lendl had done to Cash just a day before.
There was another break for 3-0 and another that ended the match. There was applause for the champion and empathy for the man he vanquished. There was a $160,000 check for McEnroe and an $80,000 check for Lendl.
All week, McEnroe talked about his desire to play before a home-town crowd that appreciates instead of reviles him. He is a perfectionist and he wants to be loved.
"I'm not sure what the fans really wanted," he said. "I don't know if they wanted another five-setter. I think everyone was kind of tired."
He said he understands the consequences of his past behavior, how it has alienated those who have wanted to love him. He asked that they try to understand "our pressure."
McEnroe was never under pressure today and he was lovely to behold. Who knows how long it will last? In the past, he has needed anger to motivate him to his best performances.
"Hopefully, the motivation will come in some form or other," he said. "I think that's the sign of a champion. You know, like Connors, that he can go out there at 32 years old and play a match like he did last night. I mean, the guy's got that inside of him and that's what I want to try to keep as long as I can."
As long as he does, he will be more than a winner. He will be a champion.