When Brad Gilbert said after his semifinal upset victory over Boris Becker that anything could happen in last night's Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic final, surely he didn't have this in mind.
The sun had dropped below the advertising banners rimming the stadium, the breeze had freshened the day's muggy air, flowers had been added to dress up the court and the sellout crowd and all the dignitaries were in place at Rock Creek Tennis Stadium. It was a perfect night for tennis. But the only perfect tennis came from one side of the net -- whichever side Ivan Lendl was on.
Gilbert lost his first final of 1987, 6-1, 6-0.
"When I was a kid, I lost love and love lots of times," said Lendl. "It doesn't feel too good, I've got to tell you."
When it's going like that, when your opponent says he could feel a blowout brewing on the third point of the game, when you feel that from the first point "he ripped the first return and I was running right off the bat," what do you do?
Gilbert had early indications that, this night, he and his racket were not allies. In the third game of the match, after Lendl broke him at 15 in the first game then held at love, Gilbert was in another double-break point hole. He escaped one break with a forehand volley.
On the second he moved in with a backhand. Lendl answered with a cross court backhand that Gilbert reached with a forehand stretch. Reached and that's all. The ball dribbled off his racket with less zip than flat soda pop.
Gilbert had wanted to play serve and volley, to avoid the base-line game he knows Lendl could dominate. But to serve and volley, there's got to be a serve. Lendl succeeded on 78 percent of his first serves, Gilbert 47 percent. As Gilbert said: "My serve went on me a little bit . . . The two big differences tonight were my low percentage of first serves and his high percentage of first serves. And that kept me away from the net."
So, what to do with that recalcitrant racket?
After having only one break point in the first set, and only one game point -- in the fifth game, the only one of the match he won -- Gilbert tossed down his racket as he took his seat during the changeover. It bounced back up, tangling his legs and nearly tripping him before he sat down.
It continued to trip him up in the second set. Lendl held at love in the first game -- hitting the ball just five times to win four points. In the next game, Gilbert double-faulted to give Lendl triple break point. He threw down the racket.
The frustration showed in other ways. After falling behind 3-0 in the second set, having won one point to Lendl's 12, he bounced the balls hard against the new rubberized cement and high into the barely darkened sky, letting the second one bounce off his head.
After he squandered two game points and Lendl took a break point in the fourth game, Gilbert took to squeezing the bridge of his nose and shaking his head, body language that spoke of one bad headache.
He tried balancing that enemy racket on his head as he headed for the changeover after losing the fifth game of the second set -- and seventh in a row. Still, no cooperation. It tottered for a moment, then slid down his back.
Soon the crowd was cheering as Lendl's topspin backhand lob found the base line as if drawn to a magnet for the second time in that game. It was triple match point, and Gilbert's furrowed brow and bridge-of-nose squeezing showed the pain in pantomime.
One sympathetic official took a moment during the awards ceremony to reflect that for Gilbert, sitting by the side of the court, this "might be a moment when you're down," he said, drawing consoling applause from the crowd.
Gilbert drew a towel over his head, shrouding his down moment in white terry.
"Thank God, I've got a day off," he said.