What began in a hot Atlantic sun ended 6 1/2 hours later in a dank evening chill. What it proved is this: Ivan Lendl is still the best tennis player in the world.

Lendl struggled with his game and with a 3-hour 13-minute rain delay, but by the time he left the court tonight he had beaten Mats Wilander again, this time by 3-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 to win the second Lipton International Players Championship at Boca West.

He began this tournament as the world's top-ranked player, and he went on to win his third title of 1986, which was the way it was supposed to be. But to do it, he had to struggle past 43rd-ranked John Sadri in the opening round, and was extended to five sets before Jimmy Connors was defaulted for refusing to continue play in protest of officiating in the semifinals.

Lendl said his game was ragged and, about 40 minutes after he left the press tent, he was on a flight to Connecticut for 10 days of practice before playing in Milan.

"He's winning on confidence more than anything," Wilander said. "He doesn't have to take too many chances if he doesn't think he's playing well. He doesn't have to practice, but in the Masters in New York in January , he was playing much better."

Lendl and Wilander, ranked No. 3 in the world, have what may be the best rivalry in tennis. Although Lendl has won nine of their 15 matches and seven of the last eight, Wilander has won some big ones, including the French Open last year.

Tonight's match surely will go down as one of their oddest. Wilander won the first set, 6-3, only the fifth set he has won in the last 13 against Lendl. But Lendl won the second, 6-1.

Lendl then began the third set by breaking serve, then lost his serve in the second game.

That set came down to a tie breaker, but with the tie breaker tied at 2-2 and Wilander serving, the rain came.

Twice in the next three hours, the courts were dried, but just when it appeared play was about to resume, the rain returned.

Inside the players' clubhouse, Lendl and Wilander watched televised golf from Los Angeles and "ate and ate," Wilander said.

Outside, more than a few of the 11,200 fans were sipping champagne and other beverages and, by the time the players walked back onto the court, tennis etiquette had turned into spring break in Fort Lauderdale. Fans were doing a "wave" routine and a takeoff on a television commercial with chants of "less filling, tastes great."

"It's great so many fans stayed around -- and that they were so cheered up," Wilander said. "They were happy."

When they resumed, Lendl immediately broke Wilander's serve for a 3-2 lead in the tie breaker and served an ace for a 4-2 lead. The tie breaker was tied again at 5, but Lendl held off two of Wilander's overhead slams to go ahead and put a drop shot over the net for the set.

The fourth set was strictly serve and volley, with each player holding his serve until the 10th game.

At that point, Lendl led, 5-4. Wilander started with an ace, but then missed a shot down the line, lost a volley exchange and missed from the base line. When he mis-hit an easy shot for the match, they'd been on the court 3 hours 24 minutes.

"Nothing you can do about a delay like that," Lendl said. "I played much better after we came back, but I've been lucky to get through some matches lately.

"I just kept hanging in there, and it's very satisfying when you win and are not playing well. Maybe people think I'm playing well, and maybe I am too tough on myself. Mats served like a genius in the last set until it was 5-4. I put two of them in play and that got it going."

Wilander has had trouble with Lendl in past matches because he has trouble matching Lendl in, not shots, but concentration.

Which was the case again. Wilander came to the net 35 times, but his judgment wasn't always the best (he won only 15 of those 35 points).

And he lost despite Lendl producing 41 unforced errors and only nine aces from his booming serve.

Still, Wilander typically hasn't played well early in the season, and has lost to Lendl three of the four times they've met on a hard surface.

"I think in the beginning I was playing very well," Wilander said. "I hadn't played so well since the French Open. In the second set, he played much better. I was out of the third set, but he gave me the break to get back in it."