In addition to being the best tennis player in the world, Ivan Lendl is a student of the game he plays so well. He can tell when his game is on or off and he often can tell when an opponent is or isn't sharp.
Last night, it took him exactly three points to assess Brad Gilbert. "He was pushing his serve," Lendl said. "He does that when he's nervous and psyched out."
Lendl's analysis was perfect. His tennis was almost as good. It took him 56 minutes to humiliate Gilbert, 6-1, 6-0, to win the Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic. Gilbert has never beaten Lendl in 12 meetings and last night he never had a ghost of a chance.
The sellout crowd of 5,500 in the Rock Creek Tennis Stadium watched in the same kind of daze Gilbert appeared to be in, hoping against hope that Gilbert might somehow turn this, the most one-sided final in the 19-year history of this tournament, around.
He never did. Perhaps the only thing more startling than Lendl's total dominance was tournament director Henry Brehm's postmatch comment: "Let's have a big round of applause for a great match."
Undoubtedly, Brehm was referring to Saturday's Lendl-Jimmy Connors semifinal. This was nothing more than a clinic by Lendl with Gilbert the pupil. "I actually felt good going out tonight," Gilbert said. "But then I didn't serve well in the first game and he broke me right off. After that, my serve went."
Along with the rest of his game. If Lendl didn't end a point quickly with a winner, Gilbert ended it soon after with an error. "When I saw the way he was playing I said to myself, 'Don't give him any free points and you've got it,' " Lendl said. "All I had to do was play solid. I just didn't want to lose my concentration and let him get his nails into the match. That could have been irritating."
Irritating, the way a gnat can be irritating.
In truth, the result was not that surprising. Gilbert, who will turn 26 Sunday, had not played well all week and, by his own admission, didn't play that well in upsetting Boris Becker in Saturday's semifinals. Becker just had, as Gilbert put it, a "horrible" day.
By contrast, Lendl's play had improved with each match, peaking in the semifinal against Connors when both men played near the top of their games. Lendl at his best against Gilbert nowhere near his best equals 6-1, 6-0.
"When you're down, 6-1, 3-0, it sure isn't a good feeling," Gilbert said. "But it's like a football team that's down, 30-0, at halftime. You're a professional, so you have to finish."
Gilbert did that, sticking around to pick up the $19,720 runner-up prize, half of the $39,440 that Lendl won. Gilbert might have willingly given up his money in return for avoiding this embarrassment.
That first game, when Lendl knew that Gilbert had come without his best stuff, ended with Gilbert's double fault. Lendl held at love, then broke for 3-0. At that stage, Gilbert had won three points.
"I've been on the other side of matches like this when I was a kid," Lendl said. "I know how it feels. But you can't think about that when you're playing."
Gilbert looked just as helpless in the first set Saturday against Becker, then came back to win when Becker faded. Lendl was at a different level at the start and stayed right there until the finish.
The first set was over in 28 minutes and the crowd, which included Vice President George Bush and Mayor Marion Barry, began to stir, wondering if Gilbert would revive. Before the match, Barry had volleyed briefly with Lendl. Someone had joked then that Barry had almost as much chance to beat Lendl as Gilbert did. By the end of the first set, many in the crowd could have been thinking that Barry's chances might have been better.
Lendl won the first 10 points of the second set, missed a backhand lob, then hit two more winners to be up 3-0 and two breaks. That was when Gilbert, who has a 6-35 career record against the current top 10, began looking for a rock to climb under. Unfortunately, none of the cracks in the recently laid DecoTurf II playing surface was wide enough for him to fit through.
Gilbert had two chances to win a game. The next game was the longest of the match -- six deuces -- but after Gilbert had two game points, Lendl won it with two winners, a cracked forehand and a backhand return that Gilbert got his racket on, floating it way out.
A moment later he had another chance when three Lendl errors put him at 15-40. That was the last point Gilbert won in the match. He missed a forehand, got aced and netted two serves. That made it 5-0. Would Lendl throw a game?
No way. In fact, he played a textbook last game. He nailed a backhand topspin lob for 0-15, a crushed forehand for 0-30, another backhand lob for 0-40 and a gorgeous forehand pass at match point. Gilbert waved at the last one just as he had done all evening but he could hardly be blamed. In the last game, Lendl was untouchable.
"I really couldn't ask for anything more out of the week," Lendl said. "I had tough matches, I did a lot of running and I won the tournament. That's a bonus."
At this stage of his life, winning tournaments like this one is merely a byproduct of preparing for Grand Slam events for Lendl, who is 27 and at the peak of his powers. This was the 65th Grand Prix victory of his career, his third in 1987 and his second in three tries in Washington. Gilbert, who won four times last year, had not reached a final before this week.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about the flat ending to the most successful tournament ever held here was the sense that nothing truly spectacular happened all week. Gilbert's upset of Becker was desultory and, though Lendl and Connors played at a high level, it was a straight-set affair. Then came the final that quickly went thud.
The awards ceremony lasted almost as long as the match. Everyone thanked everyone and then Bush topped things off with a blatant pitch to Congress to pass a proposed bill that would grant Lendl a waiver of the normal five-year waiting period for citizenship. Lendl is a friend of Bush's son and Lendl's girlfriend, Samantha Frankel, sat with the Bush entourage last night.
"A lot of people say American tennis has been on the downswing," Bush told the crowd. "I think it's on the upswing. I think the future of American tennis is standing behind me in Brad and Ivan. Ivan, we've got to get you on our side."
That would be fine with Lendl, the kid from Greenwich, Conn., by way of Ostrava, Czechoslovakia. Gilbert didn't quite see it that way on Saturday when he said he thought the crowd should root for him against Lendl since he is an American.
The crowd last night may have been willing to pull for Gilbert. But it never had a chance.