Two old adversaries handed John McEnroe a thorough defeat today. They were clay and Ivan Lendl, and they drove him to his knees. Literally.
McEnroe, looking listless, suffered his worst loss ever to Lendl, 6-3, 6-3, in just under 90 minutes in the final of the Tournament of Champions at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. His last loss to Lendl came in the final of the 1984 French Open, and the previous worst came in 1982, when Lendl prevailed, 6-4, 6-2, in the semifinals of the Masters Indoor championships.
McEnroe appeared loose, almost to the point of laziness, for the entire tournament, which both players were using as a warmup for the French Open. McEnroe's footwork today was uncertain and his shots lacked their usual variety. Lendl beat him with his deep topspin base line game and an array of merciless passing shots.
"He played a good clay match," McEnroe said. "It's not that I played all that badly. It's his best surface and my worst. He was hitting it hard and keeping me off balance. It was nothing physical, I just felt half a step slow. Maybe I was mentally slow."
Lendl broke in the fourth game of the second set to lead, 3-1, when he hit an arching lob that McEnroe smashed into the net. The players held serve until the ninth game, when McEnroe fought to double break point. But his next forehand and backhand returns went long, then a backhand cut shot went into the net for match point.
Lendl's first serve went in the net but he nearly aced McEnroe with the second. McEnroe completed his own rout with a jerky forehand swing that almost missed completely, barely catching the ball with the edge of his racket.
Lendl served seven aces in the match. McEnroe, who had been serving poorly all week, had one.
"The last time I played this well was the French," Lendl said. "I am definitely playing better than I ever have in my career. I was able to read him a little better than normally."
McEnroe berated the ball and himself, and inflicted untold pain and suffering on his graphite racket, but even those actions lacked energy. Lendl broke him in the very first game and again in the third game for a 4-0 lead in the first set before McEnroe woke.
McEnroe finally held serve and broke back in the eighth game for 5-3. But he opened the next game with a double fault. At set point, Lendl's forehand passing shot rocketed cross court. McEnroe dived, lost his racket and fell onto the clay.
Even McEnroe's line disputes were uncharacteristically short-lived, and at one point in the second set he actually awarded Lendl a call. With Lendl serving at 30-love in the third game, his first serve was called out. McEnroe checked the mark and called the ball good. It was a shocking gesture in view of his long and bitter rivalry with his opponent.
"It surprised me very much, especially since the ball was out," Lendl said. "I don't what his reasoning was, but it was definitely wide."
McEnroe couldn't pick one culprit: His serve, his volleys, his forehand and his backhand all went astray. His failings -- he had 18 unforced errors, 12 in the first set -- were accentuated by Lendl's brilliance.
Lendl seemed to know where the ball was going and put it out of reach time after time. He was content to stay on the base line, going to the net only once.
"I beat my previous high by one," he said.
Lendl now holds a 3-2 edge over McEnroe on clay. He had been relaxed and moving well all week, the result of a new fitness drive. He came into the final on an 18-match winning streak and his impressive victory might be a sign that the distance finally is closing between the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world.
"He (McEnroe) was putting distance between all of us last year," Lendl said. "He wasn't going to come back to my level, so I had to go to his. I have been working very hard but I didn't expect the improvement to show for another six or eight months."
McEnroe acknowledged that Lendl would have to be considered the favorite in the French Open, which starts May 27.
"I beat him here last year and he beat me in the French," McEnroe said. "He's more consistent on clay right now. You have to give him the nod over me, but give me a chance. You have to give him credit for improving his game."