PARIS, JUNE 7 -- Undoubtedly, there have been more artistic championship matches in tennis history. Certainly, there have been more dramatic matches and without question there have been more exciting ones, too.

But when it comes to strange, even eerie, today's French Open final is right at the top of the list. Almost five hours after they began, after one rain delay, a first set out of The Dark Ages and a tie breaker played in a downpour, Ivan Lendl emerged from the darkness of Roland Garros Stadium with his third French Open title, beating Mats Wilander, 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3).

The playing time was 4 hours 17 minutes. The rain delay was 36 minutes. It was 8:30 by the time they finished and, if Wilander had been able to extend the match to a fifth set, it probably would have been played Monday because it was raining so hard during the tie breaker that puddles were forming behind the base lines.

"I knew if I didn't win it then we were coming back here tomorrow and I didn't even want to think about that," Lendl said. "I told myself that if I was going to lose the tie breaker, I better do it by making him hit good shots. I wanted to come in and make him pass me. Fortunately, I hit some great shots."

Modesty aside, Lendl did just that. He hit four straight winners to lead, 4-0, got lucky on a near double fault to reach match point, then won it when Wilander hit a forehand deep. The ending was appropriate because this was not a match filled with winners or great tennis.

It was a match that started as a torture test for the fans, neither player willing to attack during a first set that lasted 80 minutes. To compare, the women took 69 minutes to play two sets during their final Saturday.

The villain of the piece was Wilander, who came into the net exactly three times during the first 62 minutes of play. For the set, he came in seven times in 12 games. Lendl, who came in 21 times during the set, was a wild-eyed attack dog compared to Wilander.

"I don't know exactly why I did that," Wilander said. "It wasn't my plan going in. But I didn't feel really comfortable at the start and I got a break right away playing that way so I stuck with it. It was a mistake. By the third set, I had to do something, so I started to go in. If I had played that way the whole match, who knows, I might have won."

Lendl recognized that the first player to show some kind of initiative was going to benefit. He began to jump on Wilander's weak second serve, began to hit out on his forehand and pushed Wilander further and further back. During the first eight games, each player broke twice. During his next five service games, Lendl lost two points.

"I wasn't surprised Mats played the way he did because he usually starts that way," Lendl said. "I had that in my {scouting} book so I wasn't surprised. He likes to start defensive then pick it up, pick it up. If you get tired, he'll just bury you."

It looked as if Wilander would be the one buried today -- though not quickly, because nothing in this match was quick. These two players are among the great time-killers in the game. They examine their racket strings over and over as if they contain coded Swiss bank account numbers. They tap their shoes, shrug their shoulders, look at the sky, look at the ball and then they serve.

The first set was such a debacle that the French crowd, normally wildly enthusiastic during a final, alternated between near silence and occasional whistles. The second set was much shorter because Wilander's game departed entirely. "It just ran away from me," he said. "I don't know what I was thinking about."

Maybe he was thinking about the skies, which had grown so black overhead that the court looked a little bit like the darkened courtyard in Act I of Hamlet.

Lendl could have put Wilander out of his misery quickly had he converted two excellent break opportunities at the start of the third set. Now, Wilander was starting to get some first serves in and Lendl, although he was still holding, was not doing it at love as he had done four times in the second set.

The crowd, which hates straight-set matches, sensed that Wilander had some life and got behind him. Wilander's game picked up. He began to volley with some sharpness, a revelation since the first eight times he came to net at the start of the set he got exactly one volley into play.

"I had to go for it at that point, there was no choice," Wilander said. "All of a sudden I had some confidence in what I was doing. I still thought I had a chance to win."

He won the third set when he broke Lendl to go up, 5-3. He got the break with two sharp volleys, a Lendl error and a crunching backhand pass down the line. Normally so placid, Wilander shook his fists joyously as the backhand sailed past Lendl. Quickly he held for the set and stalked to his chair.

He began the fourth on the same roll, hitting two winners for 0-30, getting to 15-40 on a Lendl double fault and then crunching a Lendl overhead past him down the line. But the last shot landed an inch wide. Lendl saved two more break points to hold. Then they traded breaks to reach 2-2. Lendl held for 3-2 and then came the rain.

"After I broke to lead, 2-1, I had him, 30-0, and I lost my concentration for some reason," Wilander said. "I think if I had held there I would have won the set. The match, I don't know, but I think I would have won the set."

As it was, they returned after the 36 minutes to play in near darkness. No one broke or even got to deuce until they hit 6-all. By that time it was raining harder than it had rained all day. "If he {chair umpire Jacques Dorfman} had stopped it, I wouldn't have minded," Lendl said. "It was raining hard. But he wanted to get the tie breaker in. I'm glad he did."

Lendl attacked on point one and Wilander hit a forehand pass wide. Lendl then hit two gorgeous winners, a backhand pass and a screaming forehand return. A near ace and he led, 4-0. Wilander came back to 4-2, but Lendl responded with the shot of the match, a running, reaching backhand pass right down the line for 5-2. He was screaming at himself on every point by now, urging himself to finish it.

Lendl had four match points. Wilander saved one with an overhead, but on the second, one last topspin forehand missed and, at last, it was over. For Lendl it was his third French title in four years, his fifth Grand Slam championship overall and vindication after a spring full of whispers in the locker room that at 27 he might be slipping just a little.

"This was my toughest Grand Slam win of all," he said. "I had tough matches {he lost six sets} through the whole tournament, so I had to work for it. I heard coming in I wasn't fit, I wasn't prepared, I had lost confidence. I'm glad I proved everybody wrong. Then I read I wasn't mentally tough, that Mats was mentally tougher than me. I said to myself, 'Where do these guys get these things?' "

Today, Lendl is a proven winner and a proven champion and proved himself again today.