Big-time men's tennis in the United States reached a nadir tonight.
Not that it was a shock or even a surprise. Ever since John McEnroe began to unravel in Europe last summer and Jimmy Connors simply began to show his age, it has been apparent that the 12-year era of American domination of this sport was about to end.
Tonight, when top-seeded Ivan Lendl blew away Tim Mayotte, 6-3, 6-3, and Anders Jarryd embarrassed Brad Gilbert, 6-1, 6-2, in quarterfinal matches, the last two Americans departed the Nabisco Masters tournament. Lendl will meet Andres Gomez on Saturday after Jarryd plays Boris Becker. Those matchups will mark the first time since 1974 that an American has not been present for the Masters semifinals.
With Connors absent with flu and McEnroe absent in mind if not in body in his first-round loss to Gilbert, the lack of depth in the U.S. ranks never has been more evident than this week.
Tonight, before 12,072 in Madison Square Garden, neither American was ever in the match. Jarryd, blasting returns from the start, led Gilbert 4-0 before Gilbert even knew he was on television. Mayotte had two break points early in the first set against Lendl, but lost his own serve at 3-3 and then was inexorably ground down by Lendl's ground game, which these days is machinelike in its precision and power.
"I didn't feel that I played that good a match tonight," Lendl said. "My serve wasn't that good and I'm sure he (Mayotte) didn't feel that he played that well either. I was just able to play my best points when I felt pressure."
Considering that Lendl is 10-0 lifetime against Mayotte, there was little reason for him to feel much pressure. On the grass at Wimbledon, Mayotte can play with anybody. On other surfaces he is a solid, big-serving player but with not enough of an all-court game to beat Lendl.
"Even if you have never lost to someone, you still worry that he can beat you," Lendl said. "After all, it can't go on forever."
Why can't it? The way Lendl has been playing since the U.S. Open (one loss), only Becker, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg and the old McEnroe have a reasonable chance -- if any -- of beating him. His serve has improved, his forehand is as huge as ever and his volleying, though still awkward at times, is markedly better than in the past.
"He's been playing this way for nine months now," Mayotte said. "I thought I played well tonight, but he just seems able to do whatever he has to to win. That's one of the signs of being the best player in the world."
Jarryd is not the best player in the world but he is vastly better than Gilbert. Tonight, it took Jarryd just 75 minutes (Lendl needed all of 82 against Mayotte) to sweep Gilbert away, ending the Californian's Andy Warholian 15 minutes of fame swiftly and brutally.
"He just played really well," Gilbert said. "He jumped on me. I had a lot of trouble with my serve and that seemed to dictate the match."
Mayotte at least had chances. He started out strongly, running down balls that looked like winners and at one point making one of the great gets of all time, chasing a Lendl overhead to the back well and somehow slapping the ball back. Unfortunately, his effort landed him in a line judge's chair and he was unable to extricate himself in time to chase Lendl's return.
That pretty well summed up the match: Mayotte's best just wasn't good enough. Lendl got the break he needed to gain control in the seventh game, chipping a backhand return at Mayotte's feet. When Mayotte scooped it wide, Lendl was ahead and he never looked back.
"You just can't let your chances go by against him," Mayotte sighed. "You don't get many of them."
These days, with McEnroe reeling and the Mayottes, Gilberts and Paul Annacones just not good enough to compete with the world's best, there aren't many chances for U.S. men in the major tournaments. Since McEnroe won here a year ago, an American has not won a major and only McEnroe at the U.S. Open and Kevin Curren, the transplanted South African at Wimbledon, have reached finals.