PARIS, JUNE 3 -- It was not a good day for heroes at Roland Garros Stadium.
The French tennis fans lost a favorite son and an adopted son in one afternoon of superb clay court tennis. First, Jimmy Connors, adopted by the French because he has entertained them for years, played well but not well enough, going down gamely but convincingly to second-seeded Boris Becker, 6-3, 6-3, 7-5.
That, thought the French, was a shame. They cheered Connors as he exited, watched him give what may be a final wave here and then settled back for the main attraction, fourth-seeded Mats Wilander against No. 6 Yannick Noah.
It was Wilander whom Noah beat in the 1983 final to become the only Frenchman in the last 40 years to win this title. It was Wilander who beat Noah in the quarterfinals last year. Today, it was Wilander who gave Noah the worst beating he ever has suffered here.
"He just dominated me, simple as that," Noah said after the 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 romp was over. "He was just too good for me. I can't ever remember getting beaten like that here."
It is a measure of Wilander's brilliance today and of the maturation of his tennis game that it took him less than two hours to win the match. Clay court matches just don't end in two hours unless one of the players is crippled. Noah did appear to limp a couple of times near the end.
"I was thinking," he said, "that if I limp maybe I'll have an excuse."
Like Connors, he really didn't need an excuse. Both were beaten by very good players who were, as the players say, "zoning," most of the day. Wilander and Becker will meet in one semifinal and Ivan Lendl, a winner here on Tuesday, will play Miloslav Mecir in the other. Mecir, the only player left in the tournament who has not lost a set, finished up a rain-delayed 7-6 (7-5), 6-1, 6-2 victory over Karel Novacek this morning.
By the time they were finished, a hot sun had climbed high into the sky, baking the court. For Becker, that was just as he liked it; the harder and faster the court, the better.
But from the start, Becker was a different player than everyone, including Connors, is accustomed to seeing. He picked his spots to come in, patiently staying on the base line and rallying with Connors, the eighth seed. He chipped the ball low to Connors' suspect forehand, moved him around and, for all the world, looked almost like a Swede out there.
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Connors said. "But he was very patient today. He played very well. But he had to because I played pretty well myself."
Connors had chances. He saved two break points in the second game of the match but lost the game. He had three break points in the third game but lost it, also. He had another game point in the fourth and lost that one, too. Time and again, the big points escaped him. At 34, against someone playing as good as Becker, he could not afford to let such chances slip away.
"For two sets, I played almost perfectly," Becker said. "I thought I controlled him, especially from the base line. He played well, I thought; he always plays well against me. But I was very confident today."
With good reason. Connors poked and pried and chipped. He came in, he stayed back, he played drop shots. This was not the Connors of 1985, flailing at Kevin Curren's serves, or the Connors of the U.S. Open a year ago, losing in straight sets to Todd Witsken.
On many days, this Connors would have beaten Becker. Even after he lost the first two sets, he had a chance, especially after a 40-minute rain delay gave him a rest. He had Becker diving and rolling, knocking him down three times. If it had been a fight, he might have won a TKO. Connors even broke in the seventh game with two vintage passing shots.
Suddenly, he seemed to be into the match. Win a set, make the kid a little nervous and who knows? But Becker, even though he is just 19, is simply not your average kid. He is smart and tough and plays his best tennis when he must. Down a break, he turned the volume up slightly and broke back for 4-all.
Connors hung on for 5-5 but, after Becker held easily for 6-5, quickly fell into a 15-40 hole when Becker rammed a backhand down the line. Becker was doing his fist-pumping act and the end was in sight. Connors had one last burst of bravura left. He saved one set point with a forehand that Becker lunged for and netted. He saved the second set point with a service winner.
Back to deuce. From all over the packed stands came the shouts: "Allez, Jeembo!" Becker would have none of it. He dropped a lovely backhand just out of Connors' reach and shook his fist again. Match-point three was the last. Connors, as always, attacked until the end, coming in behind a backhand. But it was too fine, sailing just wide and Becker was into the semifinals.
"It could have been a lot different match if I hadn't let some big points get away," Connors said. "I had chances at 15-30 and 30-40 and let them get by me. That's not like me. But I'm not discouraged. I played good tennis and I got a lot of exercise. I would like to have gone on, but . . . "
He shrugged. He knew he had done all he can do. Becker wants more, much more. He has now been a semifinalist in the world's three most important tournaments before the age of 20. Only Ken Rosewall equaled that feat.
"I'm not satisfied to be in the semifinals," Becker said. "I believe I can win the tournament. I'm not going to be stupid and go out and say, 'Okay, I made the semifinals so that's enough.' It's not enough. I came here to win."
So did Wilander, who won here in 1982 and 1985. If he plays as he did today, Wilander will be tough for anyone to beat. Once, he was a base-line machine, scurrying around retrieving everything, never attacking. He still runs everything down, but he also attacks. His serve is stronger and he is not afraid to volley.
"He's a much better player," Noah said. "Always, he puts pressure on you. It's not like before where the only pressure was knowing he would never miss."
For most of the first set, Noah stayed even. But at 4-5, Wilander uncorked a backhand volley and a perfect topspin lob. Set point. Noah came in, Wilander ripped another backhand winner. It went quickly after that. Wilander broke in the second game of the second, saved one of the three break points Noah had in the whole match in the next game and cruised.
In the third, Noah had one good chance with two break points in the second game. But Wilander came up with a big serve and a serve-and-volley to hold. In the fifth game, Noah double faulted on break point and it was just a matter of time. Wilander climaxed with two near-perfect games, finishing with a crescendo, a forehand winner, a crosscourt pass and a crunched volley. It was like signing a masterpiece.
"I played very well," Wilander understated. "I have a lot of confidence now and I think I'm tougher to play because guys know I can come in, too. That's the way you have to play tennis today to win. You can't just get everything back. You have to do something with the ball."
Today, Becker and Wilander did just about all you can do with a tennis ball short of turning it into a rabbit. The tennis they produced was truly magical. TODAY'S FEATURED MATCHES Center Court
Steffi Graf (2), West Germany, vs. Gabriela Sabatini (7), Argentina; Martina Navratilova (1), Fort Worth, vs. Chris Evert (3), Boca Raton, Fla.