LONDON, JULY 3 -- For the second time in four days, the occupants of the Royal Box gave Jimmy Connors a standing ovation as he left Wimbledon's Centre Court early this evening. But this time, it was not for a miracle comeback.
Instead, it was perhaps a valediction and certainly a tribute to the player Connors has been for so many years. But not to the player he was today. Connors was beaten soundly, 6-4, 6-4, 6-1, by 11th-seeded Pat Cash, who was nearly flawless, never letting No. 7 Connors get into the match.
Cash's victory put him into Sunday's final against No. 2 Ivan Lendl, who was equally impressive, coming from behind to beat fourth-seeded Stefan Edberg, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (10-8), 6-4. That match was decided by the third-set tie breaker. Lendl saved two set points with big serves, won it with a cross-court backhand and had the match.
"If I had won the third set, I think it would have been a different match," Edberg said. "But I really let him back into the match in the second set when I was down, 4-5, and he broke me at love. Until then he wasn't serving that well. But when I lost that game, he began to serve much better."
Lendl's serve and volley have improved the past fortnight. He could have run away with this match early. He hit three winners to start and had Edberg down, 0-40. But Edberg saved that game, broke for 4-2 with a gorgeous backhand pass and saved two more break points in the next game. A moment later he had the set, crucial against Lendl who is great when ahead.
But the 10th game of the second set turned the match around. Edberg, up 40-0, got careless. At 40-30, he hit a popup first volley that Lendl nailed for deuce. Then, Edberg netted a volley. Finally, Lendl ripped a backhand return and, in a flash, the match was even.
"I started feeling better after I got that break because I had other chances and hadn't done anything with them," Lendl said. "After that, I started believing I could hit out on his serve and break again. I just got more and more confident."
Not that the third set was easy. Lendl went up, 4-1, but Edberg got back to 5-5 after Lendl missed an easy volley serving at 5-3. Edberg had set point at 6-5, but Lendl blew a serve past him. Then Lendl had set point at 7-6, and Edberg came up with a serve. At 8-7, Lendl unleashed another big serve.
It ended with Edberg serving at 8-9 on Lendl's second set point. He came in, but Lendl hit a wonderful forehand cross court that Edberg lunged at and could only touch with his racket frame. Lendl, who does a decent Connors imitation when he hits an important winner these days, shook his fist all the way to the chair. He knew he was in control.
Quickly, he broke Edberg to begin the fourth set and got a second break to lead, 5-2. Edberg briefly showed life by breaking back, but Lendl served the match out at 15, ending it with one more hammered serve that handcuffed Edberg.
"It may not have been a convincing win," Lendl said. "but I'll take any win I can get. Convincing doesn't matter. Winning does."
The victory was important for Lendl not only because it was a semifinal, but because of whom he beat. On sheer ability, Edberg is probably the second-best grass-court player in the world, behind Boris Becker. He is a natural serve-and-volleyer, and his high-kicking serve is tough to handle off the grass. Lendl believes he must win Wimbledon to go down as one of the game's all-time greats.
"To win this tournament would mean so much to me that I wouldn't even try to describe it," Lendl said today. "Everyone knows how hard I've worked. I would give up one U.S. Open for this and settle for one and one. Winning the Open meant a lot to me because I live there, but this would mean a lot for different reasons, because it's so much harder for me to play well here."
That is Lendl's approach. Winning here is almost an obsession. Edberg? Last year, when he was upset in the third round, he said it wasn't that disappointing because he was playing in Gstaad the next week. Today, after being so close to the Wimbledon final, his reaction was just as placid: "I feel a little bit sad for the moment, but I have to get ready to play doubles this evening."
His team lost.
Surprisingly, the other loser today -- Connors -- was almost as serene as Edberg. But, in spite of Connors' street-fighter nature, that is understandable. He refuses to make excuses for his age, 34, but after a remarkable week to reach the semifinals, he just didn't have enough left to deal with such a hot player as Cash.
"I just never felt like I got into the meat of the match today," Connors said. "I just didn't have the zip, I can't explain it. One of those days. I was just a little flat, and he played very well. Everything I did, he was ready for. Everything he did, I wasn't ready for."
That summed the match up neatly. It was late afternoon when they took the court, and the first nine games went quickly, Connors winning one point on Cash's serve, Cash winning two on Connors' serve. "Not exactly enthralling tennis," Connors said.
But in the 10th game, Cash began to draw a bead on Connors. He started to attack off Connors' serve, and when Connors knocked a forehand pass wide, it was suddenly set point. A moment later, it was set to Cash after he hit a strong backhand return and watched Connors net a forehand.
"I finally got my eye in that game," Cash said. "I wanted to get on top because Jimmy is such an emotional, inspired player. You don't want to let him get going, but he can't be caged very easily most of the time. Today, though, I didn't feel like he was moving his feet that well. To tell you the truth, I thought he was a little bit flat."
Part of that was Cash. He served superbly -- Connors won only 14 of 69 points Cash served -- and volleyed with a touch almost reminiscent of John McEnroe. Not only did Cash, who is 22 and the darling of the teeny-boppers here, cover the net like a blanket, he often dug out Connors' good returns and turned them into winning volleys.
Connors had one chance to get into the match. After Cash broke to lead, 5-3, in the second set, Connors played his best game of the day to break back, winning the game with a crushed forehand return down the line.
For the first time all day (Lendl-Edberg did not inspire the crowd very much), the fans were pumped, trying to will Connors into the match as they had earlier in the week. He served with the opportunity to even the set at 5, and after he won the first point, he produced his first stoke of the match. He also had three game points. On the first, Cash hit an amazing running forehand down the line.
Connors shrugged. The shot was simply too good. On the second, Connors got in behind a backhand and then had a sitter volley. But the shadows had taken over Cash's side of the court, and as the ball came from dark to light, Connors lost it. The ball floated long.
"I saw it come off his racket, but then I lost it," Connors said. "That was the kind of day it was. I guess I should consider myself lucky that I didn't get hit in the head by the ball. That was my best break of the day."
The third game point was nobody's fault but Connors': he double faulted. A moment later, Cash hit the line with a backhand volley. Connors argued the call briefly, then delivered an excellent backhand on set point; but Cash stretched almost horizontally for it, hit a perfect forehand volley and gave a stoke of his own as the ball skipped past Connors.
That was the match. There would be no miracle comebacks tonight. Cash was too cool and too much in control, taking a 5-0 lead. Connors had one last breath in him, holding for 5-1 while chatting with the crowd as it urged him to do the impossible. Cash ended it with one more serve and volley, punching a backhand that Connors got to on the run but smacked into the net. It had taken less than two hours.
"I lost a tennis match," Connors said. "Nobody died. If he plays as well as he did today, he has a damn good chance of winning on Sunday.
"If I had gotten to 5-all in the second, maybe it would have been a different story. You get in a tie breaker in that set, and one swing maybe changes the match. But it didn't happen, and it was nobody's fault but my own."
Perhaps. But even if he didn't play as well as he would have liked today, Connors could leave Centre Court with his head up. The light was fading by then, but as Connors and Cash departed, the sun bathed Connors; in such warmth he long will be regarded at Wimbledon. TODAY'S FINALS Centre Court Women's Singles
Martina Navratilova (1), Fort Worth, vs. Steffi Graf (2), West Germany. Men's Doubles
Ken Flach, Sebring, Fla.-Robert Seguso, Sebring, Fla., vs. Sergio Casal-Emilio Sanchez, Spain. Women's Doubles
Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, West Germany-Helena Sukova, Czechoslovakia, vs. Betsy Nagelsen, Kapalua Bay, Hawaii-Elizabeth Smylie, Australia.