PARIS, MAY 31 -- The ghosts of Harold Solomon and Eddie Dibbs stalked the grounds of Roland Garros today. Memories of the American moonballers and the interminable matches they made famous in the 1970s were stirred almost from dawn till dusk on the middle Sunday of the French Open.
The Longest Day never really ended, since top-seeded Ivan Lendl and Joakim Nystrom went home with their match a long way from being over. Nystrom led, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5, 0-4 after 3 hours 20 minutes of push-it-back tennis that ranged from boring to thrilling to amazing before darkness closed in.
That was the climax of a day of true clay court tennis.
First, came the mini-marathons, Andres Gomez needing five sets and four hours -- including a saved match point -- to beat Emilio Sanchez in a match that at times threatened to take longer than a six-day bicycle race. Then came Karel Novacek, an unheralded Czech joining Gomez in the quarterfinals with another brief match, just under four hours in a four-set upset of No. 14 Martin Jaite.
There was a brief respite after that: Miloslav Mecir destroying the wild card, wild-haired Frenchman Patrice Kuchna in three quick sets.
And, at least for a few minutes, the women had a chance to play. The two veterans, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, took easy steps towards a semifinal meeting. Navratilova wiped out Sylvia Hanika, 6-0, 6-2; Evert cruised past Katerina Maleeva, 6-3, 6-2.
Their next opponents each needed three sets to win. Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, ignoring the shouts of the crowd, came through with a strong third set to beat France's Nathalie Tauziat, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0, to advance to a quarterfinal match with Navratilova. And 14th-seeded Raffaella Reggi upset fifth-seeded Helena Sukova, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.
Sukova's loss means that Evert will not get a chance to beat the woman who upset her in the U.S. Open semifinals last September. But it also means she gets to play a base-liner instead of a serve-and-volleyer.
But all of that was mere preliminary. Sure, Gomez and Sanchez treated the area around the net as if it were electrified. Certainly, Novacek and Jaite had rallies that lasted longer than some marriages. All of that was just an appetizer for the last act of the night.
The word night applies here. It was after 6 p.m. by the time Lendl and Nystrom took the court. At 6:15, Lendl and Nystrom began playing. By 7:25, they had completed two sets, Nystrom winning the first, 6-2, Lendl the second, 6-1.
Lendl, who had been missing with his forehand throughout the first set, began finding the corners in the second. The sun was fading a little but with two solid hours of light left, it seemed likely he would finish Nystrom before dinner.
That seemed especially likely when Lendl broke to lead the third set, 5-3. The stadium was half-empty, many fans believing that since the result was inevitable there was no sense staying.
Then came the ninth game. Undoubtedly, there have been better-played games. Surely, there have been more dramatic -- the Borg-McEnroe tie breaker at Wimbledon in 1980 comes to mind -- but perhaps there has never been a longer game than this one.
It took 28 minutes to play -- seven minutes less than Steffi Graf's second-round match. There were 15 deuces. Lendl had nine set points, Nystrom had seven break points. At one stage, after blowing the sixth set point, Lendl looked across the net at Nystrom and offered to spin a racket to see who would win the game.
There were winners and there were errors. Three times on set point Lendl crushed first serves, and all three times Nystrom came up with returns. After getting to set point for the seventh time, Lendl yelled to himself, "Now come on!" He tried. But when Lendl went to a surprise move -- coming in -- Nystrom ripped a backhand down the line for a winner.
By this point, those who remained were in ecstasy, chanting Nystrom's name as he walked around the court showing absolutely no emotion. Lendl yelled at himself, hopped up and down when he just missed the line once and offered his racket to several people in the stands when they hooted him. It was wonderful theater.
Lendl abandoned his attacking tactic after Nystrom's backhand pass and the two men went back to basics, each of them glued to the base line. At times the crowd began to murmur with the points in progress, causing others to shush them. In the meantime, the players blithely kept knocking the ball back and forth.
Lendl missed a backhand on set point eight; saved break point five with a forehand winner and break point six with a backhand. Set point nine also went on forever before Lendl, losing patience, pushed a backhand wide.
It was now almost 9 p.m. and it was apparent the match would not end before dark. The question was whether the game would. Finally, it did. Lendl, closing on a forehand, overhit it. Break point seven: again Nystrom outwaited Lendl, waiting for the error. It came on a forehand and the place exploded.
It was still only 5-4, though. Nystrom had to hold serve to square the set. He did -- but it wasn't easy. Lendl had two more set points, making 11 in all, but couldn't convert either one. On the first, he had a virtual sitter, but knocked a backhand volley deep. On the second he missed a forehand after another long day's rally into night.
Nystrom finally held with two winners and, amazingly, it was 5-all. Clearly bothered, Lendl quickly got into trouble. Nystrom broke serve on the first break point, closing on a net-cord forehand and cracking a forehand winner for the game. Then he held, Lendl netting a forehand on set point after a Nystrom shot hit the center tape and bounced funny. It was an appropriate ending to a set that lasted 1 hour 45 minutes.
Lendl, discouraged, had seen enough. It was 9:10 p.m. and he wanted to call it quits and start fresh Monday. But tournament referee Jacques Dorfman did him a favor: he insisted the two men play on. Nystrom, though he didn't argue with Dorfman (Lendl did) was at least as drained as Lendl and more tired since no one on the tour is as fit as Lendl. They had played three sets in three hours. Nystrom had nothing left.
Lendl broke in the second game, then he broke in the fourth. Finally, with Lendl up, 4-0, Dorfman waved them off for the night. Both players left quickly and without comment, knowing they will have to wait until after the first match Monday -- Mats Wilander against Tarik Benhabiles -- is completed because of the strange rule that always places a suspended match after the first match scheduled for the next day.
That means a long wait for the two players, especially knowing they will basically go out to play one set to decide the match. With luck, they will finish that set before dark. But after this evening, nothing is certain except this: Eddie Dibbs and Harold Solomon would have loved being here to see this. TODAY'S FEATURED MATCHES Center Court
Steffi Graf (2), West Germany, vs. Manuela Maleeva (6), Bulgaria; Tarik Benhabiles, France, vs. Mats Wilander (4), Sweden; Ivan Lendl (1), Czechoslovakia, vs. Joakim Nystrom, Sweden (resumption of match suspended by darkness); Yannick Noah (6), France, vs. Kent Carlsson (11), Sweden; Gabriela Sabatini (7), Argentina, vs. Aranxa Sanchez, Spain. Court 1
Boris Becker (2), West Germany, vs. Jimmy Arias, Jericho, N.Y.; Jimmy Connors (8), Sanibel Harbor, Fla., vs. Ricki Osterthun, West Germany. Sunday's results, C10