The demons have chased him around the world. From Paris to Sydney, from London to New York. Everywhere Ivan Lendl has gone, the fear has chased him. Burdened by his talent and penchant for failure when the pressure was greatest, he suffered with the knowledge that people respected his skills and questioned his courage.
Today, perhaps for good, Ivan Lendl put all that behind him. On the stage on which he failed so often in the past, he played perhaps the best and certainly the most emotional tennis match of his life.
He routed top-seeded John McEnroe in the U.S. Open men's final, 7-6 (7-1), 6-3, 6-4, this afternoon at the National Tennis Center, purging his past while barraging the four-time champion with winners.
"I am so happy right now I cannot describe how I feel," Lendl said. "I have always wanted to win the championship of this country and I have had chances before. Today, I finally did it."
He did it by volleying as he never had volleyed in his life, by winning the big points as he never had won them in his life, by playing with his heart and his emotions riding on his sleeve and on his face for all to see as he never had done in his life.
If ever a tennis match was a catharsis, this was it. He pumped and jumped and yelled and, finally, he cried because this was the day he had long awaited, the day he could shed his mask and drink in the cheers.
"He really played a good match today, one of the best I've ever seen him play," McEnroe said. "Once he got into the match, he hit the ball as hard as he's ever hit it against me. I just wasn't able to move the way I can. He's gotten to the point now where I can't afford to be a half-step slow and still beat him."
This was Lendl's fourth straight Open final. In the first two, Jimmy Connors simply stared him down, dared him to win the title. Lendl backed down. Last year, McEnroe, playing tennis at a level he has not approached this year, routed him in the final.
This one started out like all the others. Lendl, the No. 2 seed, lost his serve in the second game, double-faulting on break point. McEnroe didn't lose a point in his four service games. But suddenly, after Lendl had saved a set point at 2-5, he broke serve at love with McEnroe serving for the set.
From that moment, this was Lendl's day. He never faced another break point. He easily won the tie breaker, ending it with a crunched backhand return of a first serve.
"After I broke him at love, I felt like I was flying out there," Lendl said. "I felt I would get to every ball and that there was no shot I couldn't hit. I just didn't want the feeling to go away."
It never did. And so, Lendl, who earned $187,500 to McEnroe's $93,750, became the first non-American to win this title since the National Tennis Center opened in 1978 and the first right-handed man to win it since 1973. He also completed a double for Czechoslovakia, joining Hana Mandlikova as champion.
But to Lendl, this was a victory for a wealthy young man from Greenwich, Conn., the fashionable suburb 28 miles from here. "This is the country where I live and which I enjoy very much," he said. "Because of that, no tournament in the world is as important to me."
That is why this day was so special to Lendl. In the past, the more a match meant, the worse he played. And, with the exception of the 1984 French Open, his only previous Grand Slam title, his major nemesis always seemed to be McEnroe.
"Two weeks ago, if you had asked me who I would want to beat in the final, I would have said my grandmother would be just fine," Lendl said. "To do it against McEnroe is that much sweeter."
McEnroe embarrassed Lendl in the final here last year, sweeping him off the DecoTurf II hard court in three remarkably quick sets. After that match, Lendl went on the same high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet Martina Navratilova has been on for several years and began building his body into its best shape ever.
But still, the toughest moments were too tough for him. He lost in straight sets to McEnroe in the Masters final, lost to Mats Wilander in the French Open final and was embarrassed in the fourth round at Wimbledon by Henri Leconte.
All the time, however, he was working with Tony Roche, the Australian who is considered one of the great volleyers of all time, on his net game -- always his weakest point.
"Tony worked with me on everything -- on where to volley, on when to come in, on how to hit my returns to set up my passing shots," Lendl said. "It was hard work."
But it was certainly worth it today. Everyone knew McEnroe was vulnerable. He barely survived a five-set, first-round match against Shlomo Glickstein. He got by Wilander in a five-set semifinal on grit and little else.
But this is McEnroe's tournament. He never had lost a final here. And when he raced to the lead early, it looked like deja vu.
"I felt pretty good at the beginning," McEnroe said. "But after about half a set, I started to feel a little stiff and tired. Yesterday, playing five sets in 115 degrees definitely affected me. Last year, when he had to play five sets in the heat on Saturday, I think it affected him.
"The scheduling here is a major injustice to have us play two straight days in a major championship. You know that the semis and finals are going to be the toughest matches and are going to take the most out of you. It's a shame that TV controls what we do at this point."
In 1980, McEnroe played a four-hour semifinal and beat Bjorn Borg in the final. Last year, he played four hours in the semifinals and beat Lendl. But he is not the same player. His serve isn't as consistent; neither is his volleying. Today, once he broke back, Lendl seemed to sense that and he kept charging, going for winners and, time and again, he got them.
"I had made up my mind to just go out and hit the ball as hard as I could and not be afraid of anything," Lendl said. "In the beginning, I think my timing was off a little and I was missing. He was also serving well. But once I got into the match, I was playing very well."
Better than very well. From set point at 2-5, Lendl went on a binge that simply doesn't happen in a major tournament final: he won 22 of the next 28 points to close out the set. He won eight of nine games. On his own serve, he won 35 of the next 39 points. In short, he kept McEnroe completely off balance.
He rolled through the tie breaker, pumping his fists on each point, doing a respectable imitation of the player he probably likes least -- Connors.
Quickly, he broke McEnroe in the second game of the second set, driving a backhand winner off McEnroe's first serve at deuce, then watching happily as his opponent pushed a forehand deep.
It was all falling apart for McEnroe now. At 3-1, 40-0, he felt a serve by Lendl that was called wide had been good, and gave his opponent the point. "I've done it before," McEnroe said.
It didn't help. Lendl served out the set. In the third, McEnroe had one shot at a break, with Lendl serving at 2-3, 30-all. McEnroe hit a good return and came in. Lendl hit a forehand cross court and McEnroe read it, but Lendl picked off his shot for a winner.
McEnroe never had another chance like that. Serving at 4-all, he put himself in a 15-40 hole with a double fault. He saved one break point with a pretty forehand volley, a sort of momentary flashback to the McEnroe who owned the net. But on the second break point, Lendl smacked a backhand return.
Off balance, McEnroe got his racket on a forehand volley. But as his momentum carried him toward the net, Lendl lifted a gorgeous topspin lob. McEnroe took a couple of steps back, then stopped, knowing the ball was past him and knowing it was in. He didn't even look back to see where it landed.
Instead, he just walked to his chair as Lendl leaped in the air and skipped to his chair, knowing he would serve for the match.
It only took four points: a protoype backhand that McEnroe watched, two service winners and, finally, somehow appropriately, a solid, punched forehand volley.
McEnroe watched the ball skip by as Lendl leaped in the air -- once, twice, three times -- his face alight with joy. As he shook his hand, McEnroe leaned across the net to Lendl and said, "Congratulations."
One word, but it said it all today. Lendl never cried in defeat, never once in six Grand Slam final losses. But today he buried his head under a towel, knowing he finally had done what many people said he never would do.
He played not only with flair and power, he played with guts. He dug deep and he hit the big shots. "Right now, I would have to say he's No. 1," said McEnroe. "He was the better player today."
Throughout the tournament, Lendl kept insisting there was no pressure on him, that no one expected him to win. He played golf on his off days, went to aerobics classes and played with his dogs. "No one expected I would win," he said. "I had everything to gain, nothing to lose."
Perhaps so. But the look on Lendl's face today said more than any of his words. "The worst thing you can do," Lendl said, "is be afraid of something."
Today, Lendl played without fear. By doing that he did far more than just beat John McEnroe.
Today, Ivan Lendl beat Ivan Lendl. At last.