NEW YORK, AUG. 31 -- The tennis match everyone wants to see took place this afternoon on the stadium court at the National Tennis Center. On one side of the net was Boris Becker. On the other side, John McEnroe. No voices were raised, the only shots fired came off tennis rackets and there wasn't a TV camera in sight.
The last time they played was in the U.S.-West Germany Davis Cup match in July and they exchanged angry words, pointed fingers and shouted often during the almost seven-hour classic that Becker won.
Today, they just played tennis. This was the last day of practice before the U.S. Open begins at 11 a.m. Tuesday, and Becker and McEnroe, not exactly dinner partners lately, were practice partners.
Actually, it made sense. Becker opens play Tuesday evening against a left-hander, Tim Wilkison, and McEnroe is a left-hander. McEnroe opens Tuesday afternoon against a big-serving right-hander, Matt Anger, and Becker is a big-serving right-hander. So, there they were, watched by a couple hundred spectators and Becker's ever-present guru, Ion Tiriac.
"I'm glad," Tiriac said dryly, "that lover boy is practicing."
"Lover boy" is Tiriac's latest nickname for Becker and indicates just one of the many soap-opera tales that always seem to crop up on the eve of a Grand Slam. Tiriac and Becker are still feuding over The Girlfriend. At the French Open and Wimbledon, Tiriac insisted Benedicte Courtin stay home in Monte Carlo. Becker played well in Paris and not well in London.
Courtin is here now and, although Tiriac greeted her in the player's lounge today like a long-lost daughter, he reportedly is not thrilled by her presence.
There is more. On the women's side, Steffi Graf is the No. 1 seed, the first time in what seems like centuries that someone other than Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert has been the top seed in a Grand Slam event. But Graf dropped out of a tournament last week because of root-canal work and Navratilova and Evert both are girding for what could be a last stand for their dynasty.
"I don't expect to be No. 1 anymore," said Evert, who has lost four straight matches to Graf this year without winning a set. "But I played better against her in Los Angeles and I always think I have a chance here."
In Los Angeles, Evert beat Navratilova and then lost a 6-3, 6-4 final to Graf. That's when the 18-year-old West German officially ascended to the No. 1 spot -- the first time since early 1980 that neither Navratilova nor Evert was No. 1.
Graf, Evert and Pam Shriver, the fifth seed, are all in the top half of the draw. Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova, Helena Sukova and Gabriela Sabatini are in the lower half. Sabatini will be a tough opponent for Navratilova should they meet in the quarterfinals.
Evert has won this title six times and has won at least one Grand Slam tournament each of the last 13 years and 18 Grand Slam events overall. Navratilova, the defending champion, has won it three times and has 16 titles. They are two of the greatest players in the history of the game and are not likely to cede their throne to Graf without a fight.
"If she wins here, she's No. 1," said Navratilova, who has been bothered by ankle problems most of the summer. "But I don't expect it to be easy for her."
If so, it will be different than the rest of the year. Graf, who is taller and stronger than when she first made the Open semifinals in 1985 (losing to Navratilova, 6-2, 6-2) has become a powerhouse. She has won 50 of 51 matches this year, beating Navratilova in the French Open final and losing to her in the Wimbledon final.
Here, on the hard court DecoTurf II surface, she is comfortable and confident. Last year, she had two match points against Navratilova in the semifinals.
About the only person roaming the grounds this afternoon who may be more confident than Graf is the other No. 1 seed, Ivan Lendl. There are no soap opera tales to be told about the two-time defending champion.
He isn't going to be playing his opening match Wednesday on his 35th birthday like sixth-seeded Jimmy Connors. He isn't expecting his wife to give birth in 10 days like McEnroe and he isn't being called lover boy by his manager. He'll just get in his car each morning, drive the 45 minutes from Greenwich, Conn., win his match and go home.
Tuesday, he will open the tournament on the stadium court against South African Barry Moir. His draw looks fairly easy until the quarterfinals. Then, it gets tough. Because of some flip-flops in the rankings, Lendl, Becker, Connors and McEnroe are all in the top half of the draw.
The only people more upset about that are the CBS officials, who had to deal with a somnolent final a year ago (Lendl-Miloslav Mecir) and now face the prospect of Lendl against Stefan Edberg or Mats Wilander or Mecir this year. They are not thrilled by such a prospect, especially since the most likely person to emerge from that lower half is Edberg, who has yet to prove he can rise to a truly major occasion outside of Australia.
"If Stefan doesn't make the final, he should really feel badly," said one member of his camp today. "He's got a dream draw."
It is a dream draw largely because Wimbledon champion Pat Cash is a major question mark. Since his remarkable performance on the hallowed lawns, Cash has been moaning about the responsibilities of fame, ducking interviews and playing mediocre tennis.
He was beaten in the third round at Stratton Mountain by teen-ager Andre Agassi and a week later in Montreal by Peter Lundgren. As luck would have it, Cash has drawn Lundgren as his first opponent and the Swede, after winning a second-level tournament in Westchester Sunday said, "I'm going to win that match."
Maybe that brashness will spur Cash and he will find his form. If not, he could be an early upset. There are other intriguing first-round matches, most notably Becker-Wilkison. Last year, Wilkison was the surprise story of the tournament, upsetting Yannick Noah (not here this year because of another case of burnout) in the second round and becoming the only American to reach the quarterfinals.
Wilkison has not had a good summer, but if he is spurred by an evening crowd, he could give Becker some trouble. Agassi, also playing at night, will test 11th-seeded Henri Leconte and Peter Doohan, Becker's conqueror at Wimbledon, should make life interesting for 13th-seeded Brad Gilbert. One match between unseeded players that is worth a look: 1985 Wimbledon finalist Kevin Curren taking on Russian Andrei Chesnokov. The Soviet reached the round of 16 here last year.
For 13 days, the National Tennis Center grounds will be packed, the crowds and the planes making plenty of noise. Today, though, all was calm, even with Becker and McEnroe on the court together again. TODAY'S FEATURED MATCHES DAY
Stadium Court: Ivan Lendl (1), Greenwich, Conn., vs. Barry Moir, South Africa; Kate Gompert, Rancho Mirage, Calif., vs. Martina Navratilova (2), Fort Worth; Matt Anger, Pleasanton, Calif., vs. John McEnroe (8), Cove Neck, N.Y.
Grandstand: Nathalie Herreman, France, vs. Hana Mandlikova (4), Czechoslovakia; Claudia Kohde-Kilsch (9), West Germany, vs. Alycia Moulton, Carmichael, Calif.; Peter Doohan, Australia, vs. Brad Gilbert (13), Piedmont, Calif.
Court 3: Catarina Lindqvist (14), Sweden, vs. Amy Frazier, Rochester Hills, Minn.; Ricardo Acuna, Chile, vs. Anders Jarryd (16), Sweden; Kathleen Horvath, Largo, Fla., vs. Larisa Savchenko, Soviet Union; Emilio Sanchez (14), Spain, vs. Wally Masur, Australia.
Court 16: Jimmy Arias, Jericho, N.Y., vs. Peter Fleming, Glen Cove, N.Y.; Akiko Kijimuta, Japan, vs. Barbara Potter (15), Woodbury, Conn.; Robert Seguso, Sebring, Fla., vs. Guy Forget, France; Tine Scheuer Larsen, Denmark, vs. Zina Garrison (7), Houston.NIGHT
Stadium Court: Boris Becker (4), West Germany, vs. Tim Wilkison, Asheville, N.C.; Gabriela Sabatini (8), Argentina, vs. Beverly Bowes, Lubbock, Tex.
Grandstand: Helena Sukova (6), Czechoslovakia, vs. Melissa Gurney, Palos Verdes, Calif.; Henri Leconte (11), France, vs. Andre Agassi, Las Vegas.