It started off for him the way so many Grand Slam finals have started off for him before: badly. Ivan Lendl, who had lost six of the seven Grand Slam finals he had played, and who was on a schneid here, having lost three straight U.S. Open finals, was losing again. He lost 13 of the first 14 points and was down, 3-0, in the first set in less time than it takes to say, "Pardon me, but it seems I've got something caught in my throat (again)."

Lendl moved sheepishly between points, staring down at the strings of his racket, carefully avoiding looking up into the crowd, as if fearful he would read in their faces the acknowledgement of what he had come to suffer most: that once again in a final, his game had no clothes on. More than any other tournament, he wanted to win this one, his tersely eloquent explanation being that "this is the championship of the country I wasn't born in, but where I live and I enjoy very much."

And it wasn't working, was it?

John McEnroe was beating him again, wasn't he?

How long could this go on?

"I think the worst thing to do is to be afraid of something," Lendl would say later. "To be afraid of losing, you can eliminate that. One way is to imagine you have lost it already, so then you can go out there and have nothing to lose; it's a way to live through the fear." He smiled, a rather vulnerable smile, all things considered, and said, "Unfortunately, I don't have to imagine it. I've been there so many times. But I tell myself, someday I'll win one. If I get to 75 finals, I've got to win one, no matter how good he is."

So what do we say now?

That every dog must have his day?

Or, that the Cluck stopped here?

Lendl climbed back into the set, holding his serve in the fourth game, then climbed into the driver's seat, overcoming McEnroe in the first set, 7-6, then cruising in the second and third, 6-3 and 6-4, without facing a break point. Pledging himself to a simple strategy, "Hit Everything Hard!" Lendl didn't just beat McEnroe, he beat him badly. From the middle of the first set on, after he first broke McEnroe's serve, Lendl felt like he was "flying." He felt there was no ball he couldn't get to, no shot he couldn't make.

It was a revelation, one of those pure moments of epiphany.

"I felt," Lendl said almost in wonder, "like I have been working on something, and it just came to me."

Drained from playing five sets on a court on which the temperature reached 115 degrees during Saturday's match against Mats Wilander, McEnroe quickly wilted against Lendl. "His pace took over in the middle of the first set," McEnroe conceded. "I was just on the run the whole time, and I just didn't feel fresh. I have to be at the top of my game to beat Lendl. That's where he's come -- to the point where I have to be at my best to beat him. I can't beat him if I'm not."

There are times in an athlete's career when a particular victory will, in retrospect, have served as a formal announcement of greatness. It will be like the flicking of a switch, and from then on the athlete's light shines down with a steady, blinding brilliance.

It was like this with Tom Watson. For years, he had labored under a choke-yoke similar to Lendl's. The great ones demonstrate their greatness in the majors, and twice Watson had lost leads in the U.S. Open, in 1974 and 1975. His breakthrough came in 1977 when he won the Masters by birdieing the 17th hole to defeat the preeminent Jack Nicklaus. And that same summer he followed with a victory in the British Open, going head to head with Nicklaus and bettering Nicklaus' closing rounds of 65 and 66 with 65s of his own. For the next seven years, Watson was the singular symbol of excellence in his sport.

Will this happen to Lendl? Can he surpass McEnroe and then withstand the inevitable challenges from players such as Mats Wilander and Boris Becker?

These things are learned only in time. But Lendl appears to have changed his game sufficiently -- finally moving off the base line, playing more of the court than he had before, even if he's still reluctant to come to net -- to stay ahead of Becker and Wilander, and force McEnroe into his current respectful posture, perhaps draw even with him.

"In my own mind," McEnroe said after losing a U.S. Open final for the first time in five tries, "I feel if I play my best, I can beat anyone." Then, addressing the question of who's No. 1, him or Lendl, McEnroe exhaled and said, "At this point, he is."

Ivan Lendl, the loyal citizen from communist Prague living the life of a Republican in Greenwich, Conn., is No. 1 in the world. Ivan Lendl, the once and who knows if ever again chokester, is our national champion, half of the Czech quinella that won the U.S. Open singles titles. And, tell the truth, who'd have bet a parlay like that?