As with all other great sporting events, the U.S. Open men's final today began before the first ball was struck. Ivan Lendl, the No. 2 seed, smilingly pranced around the locker room with a T-shirt that read, "Ivan Lendl joue avec Adidas." That is French for "Ivan Lendl plays with Adidas."
By contrast, John McEnroe, the top seed, sat dourly by his locker, saying nothing to anyone, no trace of a smile. But each in his own way was getting ready for the encounter.
McEnroe, who lost to Lendl in the French Open final three months ago, anticipated a more determined opponent today. The first set began as most Grand Slam finals do: with cat-and-mouse exchanges. McEnroe played his usual way, serve-and-volley mixed with more than normal variety on the speeds of ground strokes.
When McEnroe broke serve at 3-2 in the first set, he did so with a passing shot after drawing Lendl to the net.
For his part, Lendl would prefer almost any other approach than coming to the net. When he volleys, it looks like something learned from an army manual.
McEnroe worried about his ability to go five long sets. His semifinal Saturday night lasted 3 hours 45 minutes and did not end until after 11. Lendl also played for nearly four hours, but finished in the late afternoon.
This concern usually causes players to take shortcuts. With McEnroe, one cannot tell because he can hit winners from anywhere on the court. He breathed a sigh of relief when he had the first two sets in hand in 1:13.
The first game of the third set signaled the end. Down two sets to love, Lendl came to the net twice and missed easy volleys to lose his serve. Down, 2-0, in the third set, Lendl served and volleyed the first two points for a 30-0 lead, then stopped and lost that game. Subsequent deliveries fell shorter and shorter.
Lendl's second serves were sitters for McEnroe. With natural touch and years of aggressive returning in doubles competition, McEnroe returned cross court with his forehand from the backhand side and down the line with his underspin backhand on the forehand side. Both were done "on the rise;" that is, before the ball reached waist level.
In past Open finals, Lendl seemingly gave up near the end when he sensed he could not win. Today was different in that at least he tried down to the last ball. But he did not compete well because he elected to stay with a losing strategy too long.
McEnroe's 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 victory was never in doubt. Lendl must teach his hands how to volley and his legs to move up and back as well as he moves from side to side. Playing more doubles would help.
Unless Lendl adds more variety to his base line game, victories on hard courts over McEnroe will remain few and far between.