For John McEnroe, the road into the final of the Volvo Grand Prix Masters tournament today was smooth and uncluttered. For Ivan Lendl, it was full of potholes and an uncharacteristic Jimmy Connors fold.
When the two men advanced to Sunday's final (WRC-TV-4, 12:30 p.m.) each had done so with an extremely satisfying semifinal victory. But the two victories could not have been more different.
McEnroe gained an overpowering 6-1, 6-1 victory over Mats Wilander, the man who had beaten him in straight sets in last month's Davis Cup final. He needed just 60 minutes to win, sending the No. 4 seed home before some in the sellout crowd of 18,741 at Madison Square Garden had reached their seats.
Lendl and Connors followed. For three hours, the two old rivals who make no secret of their dislike for each other, twisted and turned, punched and counterpunched, before Lendl finally prevailed, 7-5, 6-7 (7-5), 7-5. What was most remarkable was the finish: having blown a match point in the second set, lost the tie breaker and fallen behind by 5-2 in the decisive set, Lendl seemed ready to add to his list of famous folds.
Instead, with Connors serving for the match at 5-3, 30-15, Lendl got a couple of breaks on Connors' errors, took five straight games (15 of the next 17 points) and won the match.
"No, I didn't get tired," said Connors, 32. "I made a couple of mistakes at 5-3 and then he just started going for everything. He just went for it on every ball and the shots went in. He's not exactly known for gutsy play at the end of close matches."
Perhaps not. But if anyone folded today, it was Connors. He led the last set by 4-1 with Lendl serving at 0-30 and couldn't win. He led, 5-2, and served for the match at 5-3. He even had a volley in that game that would have put him at match point.
But he didn't win. Lendl came to life and started spraying winners all over the court. The key game was the ninth -- at 30-15, Connors missed a chip volley.
At 30-40, Lendl broke with a gorgeous backhand crosscourt to trail, 4-5. He held serve at love and then broke Connors again with a forehand winner down the line. Rejuvenated, Lendl held serve, Connors punching a backhand long on match point.
"I think he got tired," Lendl said. "Even in the game at 4-2 which he won, I felt like he was getting tired. He was coming to net more and cheating on his footwork. I was just hoping he wouldn't come back because he has done that to me before."
Connors almost did it to Lendl today. After blowing a 4-1 lead in the second set, he faced match point serving at 4-5, but survived it when Lendl netted a forehand pass with the court wide open for him.
Lendl then whined his way through the tie breaker, complaining about calls and the crowd. At 5-5, Connors's second serve hit the line. Lendl punched a forehand long and complained that the serve had been out.
Umpire Frank Hammond, who had earlier warned Connors for a "visible obscenity," waved in Lendl's direction, refusing to change the call. Lendl complained some more, then netted a backhand at set point, turned to the cheering crowd and screamed angrily.
Both players failed to take advantage of breaks all day. There was suspense throughout, but not a lot of great tennis. Connors made 36 unforced errors and hit only 25 winners. Lendl made 23 errors and hit only 18 winners.
Lendl said victory was sweet because he did not think Connors had treated him well after beating him at Wimbledon last year. "He didn't act sportsmanlike," Lendl said.
Connors' response: "Does he deserve to be treated sportsmanlike? . . . Anybody with his reputation in matches has to prove themselves to me."
Connors' attitude towards Lendl dates to this tournament in 1981 when he called Lendl "a chicken" after he thought Lendl had tanked a match against him to avoid playing Bjorn Borg in the semifinals. Since then, their rivalry has produced two kinds of matches: one-sided affairs won by Lendl and close matches won by Connors.
"This is the first time I can remember winning a close match with him," Lendl said. "It is a very good feeling."
If Lendl-Connors was a fight in which neither fighter could find a knockout punch, McEnroe-Wilander was a lightning-fast KO.
McEnroe had struggled in his quarterfinal against another Swede, Anders Jarryd. But today, he had Wilander in trouble from the beginning. In the only two games Wilander won, he had to survive a break point to do so. McEnroe never faced so much as a deuce on his serve, losing a total of nine points on his serve.
"I felt a little rushed before the match because it started so early (12:40 p.m.) and I'm used to playing at night," McEnroe said. "Once I got out there, though, I felt pretty good."
This surface is well-suited to McEnroe. The court is fast, but the balls come up high enough so that returns can be punched deep, especially on second serves. Today, McEnroe attacked Wilander's second serve nonstop.
In each set, Wilander managed to hold serve on his first attempt and that was it. "I've played better," McEnroe said. "I was better in the Wimbledon final last year against Connors. I beat him worse than this."
Lendl has also played better than he did today. But he never has come from that far down against Connors in a final set to win.
"I will go home now and try to rest," he said, thinking ahead to McEnroe. "In the morning, I will wake up and try to figure out something to do with him."