It is unlikely Ivan Lendl ever is going to become the popular tennis champion he yearns to be. His play does not rouse the crowd like the flair of Bjorn Borg, the street-fighter mentality of Jimmy Connors or the pure instinct for the game of John McEnroe.
But today, with 17,000 fans in Roland Garros Stadium ardently rooting for him to fail, Lendl once again proved he is rapidly becoming a great champion, if not a beloved one.
In wiping out game but overmatched Mikael Pernfors, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, to win the French Open for the second time in three years, he played with the precision and power that has made him the world's dominant player for the last nine months.
"I had to play the best tennis of my life just to win points," Pernfors said. "The guy is just too good. He had too much for me."
Right now, Lendl, 26, has too much for the rest of the tennis world. Since August, he has a 73-3 match record. He has won the U.S. Open and now this title, giving him three Grand Slams in all.
If he can overcome his problems on grass and win Wimbledon four weeks from now, it will be time to start mentioning him with the great players of all time. His court personality, so dour and humorless, will never win him plaudits. But his sheer power and his dominance of the game must.
"The first time I won here 1984 , it was a special feeling because I came from two sets down against McEnroe to win and it was my first Grand Slam," Lendl said. "This is special because I feel like I have had bad luck with my health since mid-December, and I've been working to overcome that. Today made all the work worthwhile."
And yet Lendl, even with the title and $168,750, did not appear to leave here a happy man. The taunts of the crowd, which began as the players warmed up and continued almost through match point after two hours and 45 minutes of play, seemed to haunt him.
Asked if the crowd cheering for Pernfors had bothered him in the third set, Lendl said: "What do you mean, the third set? They started during warm-ups. When I heard it, it made me want to fight until I die just so I can win. I thought, 'I want to win so badly just so you're upset for hating me from the beginning.' "
Hate is a strong word. Certainly, the sun-drenched crowd was firmly behind Pernfors. He was, after all, a prohibitive underdog. Unseeded and virtually unheard of before the tournament, he wiped out four seeds to reach the final. Swedish born, American-educated at the University of Georgia, his showmanship made him popular, even after he beat the last Frenchman, Henri Leconte, on Friday.
Beyond that, the crowd wanted a match. The French love their clay court tennis; they thrive on four-hour matches. If Lendl played like Lendl and avoided the nerves that have attacked him at times in Grand Slam finals, the match figured to be one-sided. The French wanted a show.
Pernfors tried. He ran down ungettable balls all over the court, whipped his forehand toward the corners and attacked on the rare occasions when he had a chance. But Lendl was in a groove. His forehand was a laser, his backhand was consistently deep, and ever so slowly he has learned to get to the net behind his forehand to knock off easy volleys.
"The only thing that surprised me about him was his backhand," Pernfors said. "I knew about his forehand, but I was surprised how he never missed the backhand. I wanted to run around and hit my forehand, but he made it tough because he kept the backhand so deep."
Lendl should have had the first set easily, but he botched two set points at 5-2 and two more at 5-3 before Pernfors ended the suspense by double faulting. Still, Pernfors put himself into the match by breaking Lendl in the first game of the second set. He held for 2-0 and had three game points to lead by 3-1. But he made careless errors on the first two, and Lendl rocked a backhand return on the third. When Pernfors missed a drop backhand -- a shot that had worked for him early -- Lendl had the break back and took off on a nine-game run.
"I was feeling tired right then, my legs hurt and he was just playing so well it was hard," Pernfors said. "But then he lost his concentration a little bit and at least let me make the score a little bit better."
Lendl's run had taken him to 3-0 in the third set. The crowd had become tame. Even the small group of Swedes upstairs who had been performing a Swedish rendition of "How 'bout them Dawgs!" had quieted. All that was left for the crowd was to hoot and whistle as Lendl went through his irritating pre-serve fidgeting, often taking the full 30 seconds before serving.
"They would wait about one second and then start whistling," Lendl complained. "It's silly. I'll stay out there as long as they want, waiting for them to be quiet. My plane doesn't leave until 11 in the morning."
Crowd or no crowd, Lendl looked ready to run through the third set at love when he reached break point in the fourth game. Pernfors was tired, probably drained. But he didn't quit. He saved break point with another of his drop shots, knocked in a service winner and got another tough backhand past the sliding Lendl. The crowd screamed, Lendl walked away talking to himself. Pernfors lived.
That one game seemed to revive him. Suddenly, the quickness, which had caused Leconte to describe him Friday as "a little rabbit," returned. Lendl looked flustered. Pernfors broke, held and broke again to lead, 4-3. When Pernfors attacked behind a big forehand and slammed an overhead to take the lead, the place was bedlam. One might have thought it was two sets all rather two sets to love.
Lendl, remembering his comeback against McEnroe in 1984, was a little shaken. "I thought about that," he said. "I said, 'Don't let it happen to you.' It's nice to win that way, but it would be terrible to lose it that way."
Pernfors had no such thoughts. He was drained, playing on adrenaline. The comeback was nice, but winning never crossed his mind. "After the first two sets, I pretty much knew I was probably going to lose," he said. "When I got those games it was good because it made the score better, but I was thinking if it went four or five sets, I probably couldn't stay with him. He was too strong."
Pernfors' hopes to at least win a set disappeared quickly. He saved three break points in the next game, but on the fourth he pushed a backhand wide. Lendl now sensed the kill. He held for 5-4 and cracked a backhand down the line for 15-40 and match point a moment later.
Pernfors dug down and came up with a gritty play, going in behind a forehand. Surprised, Lendl floated the ball and Pernfors put it away. It was 30-40. But on the second match point, Pernfors' topspin forehand sailed deep. Lendl shook his fist, and the crowd saluted both players.
"I like winning here very much even if you pull for my opponents," Lendl said as his trophy glinted in the early evening sun. "I hope I can come back here and win again."