In the afternoon, there was an upset. In the evening, there was a superb tennis match. When it was all over, Ivan Lendl -- no surprise -- and Brad Gilbert -- holy Boris Becker -- were in tonight's 7 o'clock final of the Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic.
Gilbert stunned Becker yesterday afternoon, beating him, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0, in a match that would politely be described as desultory. The two players used words like horrible, flat and bad to describe it. Becker said it best: "If I had been a spectator, I wouldn't have clapped, either."
The evening match could not have been more different. The weather, so sultry and brutal earlier, was cool and breezy, and the tennis was at a different level. This was the upset the crowd in Rock Creek Tennis Stadium really wanted to see, but Lendl was too strong on the crucial points and he beat Jimmy Connors for the 12th straight time, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3).
"I thought it was a hell of a match," said Connors, disappointed but not discouraged. "He served about as well as I've seen him in a long time and I was still able to hang in there. I had a chance to win the second set and if I had, who knows. Unfortunately, I threw in a god-awful game there at 5-3."
That game and one extraordinary point in the tie breaker were the difference in what was, in truth, a much closer and much more compelling match than the Gilbert-Becker match. Lendl had won the first set routinely, breaking Connors in the fifth game and serving out the set.
Connors must have felt as if the tennis gods were against him at that stage. Twice he slammed shots into the net cord and watched the ball rebound on his side of the net. Twice Lendl hit identical shots that smacked the tape and crawled over for winners.
"Things weren't exactly going my way, were they?" Connors asked rhetorically.
Slowly, he turned them around. He saved two break points in the opening game of the second set, although a missed forehand angered him so much that he muttered, "put on a skirt and play," in disgust.
But once out of that game, Connors began to sizzle. He had a chance in the next game but at 30-all, a serve by Lendl that appeared to be out was ruled an ace. Connors jawed about it, but tended to his business once the game was over. Then, up 2-1, he got his only break of the match, looping a return at 15-40 that seemed to fool Lendl. He reached for it, but netted a backhand volley.
The crowd, which had been enthusiastic from the start, was really into the match now, urging Connors on. Gilbert had complained bitterly after his match that the crowd had been behind Becker in the final set. "We're in the States," Gilbert said. "With all the talk about the problems in American tennis, they should be rooting for the American."
Last night, they were. Connors didn't much care.
"If they root for me, that's great," he said. "But to be honest, where were they 16 years ago? Where were they when we had the best players in the world? Now, we don't and they're panicking. I don't want them to root for me because I'm 34 and they feel sorry for me or because I'm an American and Americans aren't winning. That stuff is bull, man."
Actually, they root for Connors now because he is Connors, because they know he will give them something to talk about win or lose. After he broke and then held for 4-1, it looked like he would give them a three-set match to discuss.
But Lendl was resolute. With Connors serving for the set, he took advantage of Connors' errors to break back. That was the game Connors called "god-awful." It was. Three errors put him down 30-40. He saved that one with a good serve. But then he double-faulted. Break point two. Lendl missed a backhand.
This time, Connors netted a half-volley. Break point three. Lendl took no prisoner this time, ripping a forehand winner.
"Except for that one stretch when he broke me I played very well I thought," Lendl said. "It was a pity I didn't break him in the first game of the second set because if I had it would have been a much easier match. When he held that game he got some confidence and began to play better."
Actually, the quality of the tennis was high almost the entire match. Connors had one more shot at the second set, when he got Lendl in a 30-40 hole with Lendl serving to get even at 5-5. But Lendl saved the set on one of the best points of the tournament, cracking a backhand that Connors scooped with a neat half-volley. Lendl walloped a forehand, Connors walloped a volley and Lendl closed on it, picked it out of the air and punched it past Connors. Two aces later, it was 5-all.
They each held routinely to 6-6, the only suspense coming when a car alarm began to beep in the parking lot. "I think it's my car," Lendl told Connors.
"Maybe you ought to go out and check," Connors answered.
"If you want the match that bad, I give it to you," Lendl said, smiling.
"The hell with the match, I want the car," Connors said.
The car was a blue Mercedes. "I really did think it was mine," Lendl said afterward. "I've been having trouble with the alarm for two weeks."
Couldn't he afford to get it fixed? "I haven't played any tournaments for a while."
He reached the final of this one with one fantastic point in the tie breaker. They were on serve at 4-3, Lendl, Connors serving. In behind a strong approach, Connors had an easy volley. He crushed it, but not at a sharp enough angle. Lendl ran it down and lobbed -- on the line. Connors chased, blasted back and came in again. Lendl slapped a perfect backhand past him and shook his fist in triumph -- which he knew was imminent. Two more textbook backhands later, it was over.
The afternoon match had none of the verve or shotmaking the evening match did. Part of it was the awful weather. Part of it was Becker, sore and wrung out all week after his Davis Cup ordeal in Hartford, Conn. "All week I was just getting through matches," he said. "When you play a decent player, he is going to take advantage when you play bad."
For a set Gilbert was worse than bad. "At 4-1 down in the first set I was playing so bad I was embarrassed to be out there," Gilbert said. "I didn't think there was any way I could win. But after I lost that set I realized he wasn't playing well, either. If I could just pick my game up a little bit, I could win."
Gilbert did that, soft-balling Becker to not give him any pace and getting to net -- which Becker never tried to do. Once he had saved a break point at 2-all, Becker faded quickly, losing 10 of the last 11 games. "It surprised me," Gilbert said. "In the past when I've played the top guys when I start to play well they pick up their games and make it very tough for me to win. Today, Boris was horrible the last two sets."
Becker agreed and left for a much-needed rest. Gilbert will be back tonight, trying to reverse a lifetime of futility -- 0-11 -- against Lendl.
"If I serve well and get my returns in play, I'll win," Lendl said.
The words of a confident man. How confident? Consider this: Lendl drove here because he knew the final was at night and he couldn't get a flight out afterwards. "If I win, it's a nice drive home," he said. "If I lose, it's a lousy 4 1/2 hours."
The winner's prize here is $39,440. Should be enough to fix that balky alarm. RESULTS SINGLES Semifinals
Brad Gilbert (4), Piedmont, Calif., def. Boris Becker (2), West Germany, 3-6, 6-3, 6-0; Ivan Lendl (1), Greenwich, Conn., def. Jimmy Connors (3), Sanibel Harbor, Fla., 6-4, 7-6 (7-3). DOUBLES Quarterfinals
Paul Annacone, Bridgehampton, N.Y.-Christo van Rensburg (1), South Africa, def. Kelly Jones, San Diego-Tim Pawsat (7), Tustin, Calif., 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4. Semifinals
Gary Donnelly, Scottsdale, Ariz.-Peter Fleming (2), Glen Cove, N.Y., def. Steve Denton, Houston-Sammy Giammalva, Houston, 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 7-6 (7-3); Laurie Warder, Australia-Blaine Willenborg, Miami Shores, Fla., def. Paul Annacone-Christo van Rensburg, 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (8-6). TODAY'S SCHEDULE
7 p.m. -- Brad Gilbert (4) vs. Ivan Lendl (1); Gary Donnelly-Peter Fleming (1) vs. Laurie Warder-Blaine Willenborg.