Murder, he wrote. For those who wished to return home from the 7 p.m. tennis final at Rock Creek Tennis Stadium on Sunday in time to watch "Murder, She Wrote" on TV at 8 p.m., Ivan Lendl did his very best to oblige.

Faster than you can say Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic, Lendl killed B(r)ad Gilbert in cold blood, leaving clues everywhere. Time of death: 56 minutes. It took longer to get out of the parking lot. Even Lendl had to wait through 14 minutes of speeches to get his $39,440 check. If Gilbert were a Volvo, he'd still be in Jiffy Lube. You can wait longer for a pizza.

Okay, bring back clay. In 18 years on ugly dirt, no final was this lopsided. The score would have been worse than 6-1, 6-0, but Gilbert got a free game for finding the stadium. By the end, the only things applauding were the crickets.

Did you ever go to a formal affair in your Mr. Potato Head T-shirt? (Just an innocent mistake.) That's how out of place Gilbert felt. "I wanted," said Gilbert, "to crawl under a rock." They don't make rocks that big around here. Silly Brad. He wore whites and brought a tennis racket. He needed a ladder and a machine gun.

As the match sped to a close, only one drama remained. Would Gilbert get 23 points in the entire match? Why 23? Because the 5,500 customers paid $23 a ticket. Would Gilbert give them a point per buck? With a late rush, he got 25.

So, it was a terrible match. So what? It was also a magnificent match in its perverse way. The goal of switching to hard courts here this summer was to attract the best players in the world so Washington could see mastery and magic, not Karel Novacek. And what happened? The 17th-ranked player on earth, a guy good enough to beat Boris Becker the day before, stepped on court "actually feeling good tonight" and ended up with no ears or tail.

"After a while, you get so confident," said Lendl, "that on the tough shots, you make them all."

Though Lendl now has beaten Gilbert all 12 times they've played, Lendl has noticed an annoying pattern in their matches. He either wins without breaking a sweat or else Gilbert "gets his nails into the match" and makes the whole affair exceedingly long and unpleasant.

That's why Lendl was such a vicious killer last evening. He didn't just chip, he nailed his backspin softies right on the lines. He didn't just fire nonchalant topspin backhand cross court lobs -- the shot that hackers only dream of hitting in the hereafter; Lendl would hit them on return of second serve or come up with two in the same game as when he broke at love to end the match with panache.

All in all, this wasn't quite as wonderful a weekend for Gilbert as fans in his hometown of Oakland might assume. To say he got faint praise from Becker and Lendl would be stretching a point. Becker listed 10 separate excuses for his loss -- heat, humidity, wind, sun, sore elbow, bad leg, general rustiness, Wimbledon aftermath, lack of stamina and a bad case of being infected by watching Gilbert's game. Yes, Becker said that Gilbert played so badly in the first set that he caught the bug.

Lendl topped Becker. "I kept hearing that the {Becker-Gilbert} match wasn't very good. Which now I understand." Very gracious, Ivan. Lendl then added that he knew he'd win by a blowout after the third point of the match. "Sometimes he psychs himself out before the match . . . I intimidate him . . . When he's nervous, I can tell."

Tennis is one of our crueler sports. One day you take a wild swing on a crucial point, hit the ball on the wood and end up with a perfect half-lob on the back line to help break Becker's serve in the final set. The next night, you try to make Lendl skip rope with bullets at his feet and he dishes back reflex half-volleys that bite like a Lee Trevino sand wedge.

"You're a professional, so you have to finish," said Gilbert. "But, you know, I've done this a few times before. Great match one day, bad the next. I beat {John} McEnroe at the Masters one year, then lost to Anders Jarryd the next day, 6-2, 6-1. I saw Lendl beat Connors love-and-love and lose the next day, 2 and 1, to McEnroe. The game is like that."

One of the inherent misfortunes in tennis is that the best player almost always wins. So many rallies, so many points. Talent prevails. Even within one match. And when an upset does occur, the brave player who's pulled it off usually gets slapped back into place in the pecking order immediately. In golf, a Scott Simpson can beat Tom Watson at the U.S. Open or a Tom Kite can run away from Greg Norman by seven shots in the Kemper Open. But in tennis, the Brad Gilberts don't get to enjoy their days of luck or brilliance very long. Back into the pit with Ivan you go.

"He had me on the defense all the time. He just played too strong," said Gilbert. "This doesn't do much for your confidence . . . It's not going to crush my life . . . {but} thank God I've got a day off."

All in all, Washington got its money's worth for the week at 16th and Kennedy streets. Saturday night's tense, excellent semifinal between Lendl and Connors turned out to be the real final. Unfortunately, from the moment when Mayor Marion Barry said a few inaudible introductory remarks this evening -- then took the court to exchange ground strokes with Lendl and whiffed a forehand -- this was a night that devolved into slapstick.

What redeemed this last match was the pure sublime level of Lendl's play. At the awards ceremony, he announced he would buy a box in the new stadium planned for Rock Creek next summer. "If you don't invite me back to play," he said, "at least I'll have a seat."

Last evening, Lendl could have won carrying that chair.