Chris Evert Lloyd barely blinked when her last backhand cracked the tape, perhaps because she knew it was coming. Or perhaps because on this day, there had been so many errors that one more hardly was a shock.
But if Evert wasn't stunned, the 21,101 fans in the stadium at the National Tennis Center certainly were. Hana Mandlikova was leaping for joy and Evert was standing at the net, the U.S. Open over for her in the semifinals, one day sooner than she expected.
The scoreboard had the numbers: Mandlikova, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, to reach the Open final against Martina Navratilova. But it could not begin to explain the strange events that unfolded in the lengthening shadows of this afternnon.
"I just wasn't charged up as I usually am considering that it was a Grand Slam semifinal," Evert said. "I just didn't play aggressive on the big points and she did. She played very well. I just didn't get pumped up enough."
Exactly why Evert, perhaps the most consistent athlete of her time (42 Grand Slam semifinals in 43 attempts, 30 finals, 17 titles), was not pumped up, is unclear. Evert insisted she wasn't overconfident. "I guess I'm just not a machine," she said.
Mandlikova was wonderful today. Evert was human, and the flashy, flighty Czechoslovakian pulled the upset at a time when it seemed unlikely for Evert or Navratilova to lose to anyone but each other.
Navratilova certainly held up her end of the parlay this morning, wiping out 16-year-old Steffi Graf, 6-2, 6-3, in 52 merciful minutes.
There were reasons to believe that Mandlikova could beat Evert, but none of them compelling. Mandlikova is the Nolan Ryan of women's tennis: when she is on, she is unhittable; when she is off, she's ordinary.
Mandlikova had beaten Evert once this year -- indoors. But she did not figure to win here, in the tournament Evert has won six times, in the stadium where she has been The Queen since the doors first opened in 1978, playing in six of the seven finals, winning three.
Evert hadn't lost a set in a Grand Slam tournament this year to anyone but Navratilova and was 18-3 lifetime against Mandlikova. This was supposed to merely be a preliminary to Saturday's main event: The Final, Evert-Navratilova LXVII.
The tennis was not very good at the outset. Evert was broken in the second game when she double-faulted twice and then Mandlikova disappeared for four games, rapping balls into the bottom of the net, spraying them to the fences and generally looking like the player who had exited early at the French Open and Wimbledon.
But Mandlikova began improving. Her approaches were pushing Evert and her net coverage was near perfect. Whichever way Evert went, Mandlikova was there, knocking off volleys.
What was most impressive about Mandlikova was her patience. Evert is the one who always knows when to attack, when to wait. Evert is the one who doesn't make the unforced error at the vital time. Not today. In fact, by the third set, it was almost a role reversal.
"I just got nervous out there," Evert said. "My serve let me down, that's the thing that usually goes first when I get nervous. But I just played tentative, especially when I had important game points."
Although Evert won the first set, Mandlikova had a rhythm and a little confidence. She held her serve easily at the start of the second set and, leading by 3-2, broke Evert with a little luck and the beginnings of Evert-nerves.
"I gave her control of that set in that game," Evert said. "I also gave her confidence."
Evert was leading the game 30-0 when she hit a forehand down the line that looked like a winner. But Mandlikova lunged, just got her racket on the ball as her body twisted away from the net. The ball plopped over, an inadvertent drop-shot winner. Also a crucial point.
Mandlikova followed with a perfect lob to get to 30-all and then Evert double-faulted and hit a weak forehand into the net. It was 4-2 and Mandlikova ran out the set, finishing it with a sharp backhand volley.
When Mandlikova dropped behind 0-40 serving at 1-1 in the third, many in the crowd wondered if the dam would break.
"I had hit good serves but she had hit good returns," Mandlikova said. "If she had won that game, I don't know what would have happened."
But Evert didn't win it, even with three break points.
"That was a big game, a huge game," Evert said. "I had so many chances in that game so many times and I just couldn't hit the shot I needed to hit."
Mandlikova quickly broke Evert and was pumping both fists.
But even on a day when she described herself as "less than 70 percent," Evert was certainly not going to quit. She broke right back for 3-2 and the crowd, sensing she had the match back under control, was shouting encouragement.
If Evert had won the next game, that might have been the case. But she didn't. She had seven chances to win the game. On four of them, she made unforced errors, three on backhands that weren't even close. Evert normally makes about three backhand errors in a month.
"That game just went back and forth about 1,000 times," Evert said. "I had my ad so many times."
"How long was the game, half an a hour?" Mandlikova asked, half-joking.
It was 26 points, 10 deuces long. Finally, on Mandlikova's fourth break point, she lofted a lob to Evert's backhand side after Evert followed a forehand in. Evert reached for the ball, but netted it just as Mandlikova, who had fallen twice before, was falling again, seemingly from exhaustion.
"I just tripped," she said. "I was lucky she didn't get the shot back."
As Mandlikova rolled over, the place went quiet, partly because she was down, partly because Evert was now, suddenly, very close to defeat.
A moment later, Mandlikova held serve at 15, cracking an ace, service winner and two ringing volleys. The Queen looked bedraggled. Match point came a moment later at 30-40. But Evert wasn't dead: she snapped a trademark backhand winner. There were two more match points at 2-5. Evert saved both and won the game when Mandlikova netted a backhand.
Pleas came from all corners. Quickly, Evert had a break point when she cracked a forehand return at Mandlikova's feet to reach 30-40. On break point, she hit another gorgeous return, this one a backhand.
But Mandlikova's spinning, one-hand pickup volley just cleared the net and it was deuce. Mandlikova slammed an ace down the middle. Finally, her final serve and Evert's final backhand and there they were at net, Mandlikova's blue eyes alight with joy, Evert's face a mask, hiding her disappointment.
"Her heart wasn't in it?" Mandlikova repeated, told of Evert's initial postmatch comment. "She is the one that is always so mentally tough, I am the one who always gets big leads and losing. That is funny for her to say."
Evert answered "no" when asked if Mandlikova had a chance in Saturday's final against Navratilova.
Perhaps not. But she at least has a chance. Christine Marie Evert Lloyd has none.