NEW YORK -- After the first set of the Ivan Lendl-Mats Wilander match took 91 minutes, meaning that if it went five sets they were on pace for 7 1/2 hours of this stuff, two things occurred to me:
They shoot base-liners, don't they?
And, who's babysitting Dan Rather?
I mean it's one thing to postpone the final for one day because of rain, but when was the last time you heard of a tennis match suspended because of the Blue Laws?
Hey, Mats, whaddya wanna do today?
Gee, I don't know, Ivan. What do you wanna do?
How about we play tennis until our arms fall off?
Mats The Merciless versus Ivan The Insomniac. (Attention K-Mart shoppers: only 14 shopping days till Christmas.) Won't somebody tell these guys this is hard court, not clay? Forehand, backhand, forehand, backhand -- repeat at least 10 times -- until someone wins the point; check your strings; bounce the ball; bounce, bounce, bounce; serve and repeat process. I guess they had so much fun playing 4 hours 23 minutes in the final of the French Open, they thought they'd do it again in the final of the U.S. Open. Parlez vous Anglais? Does the word "somnambulant" ring a bell?
They went 4:47 (counting time off at 2-1 in the third to, as they say, "use the facilities" at the aptly named Flushing Meadow), the most elapsed time in the history of this tournament. After four metronomic sets Lendl won, although he was admittedly "heavy, slow, dizzy . . . out of juice for three and a
half sets" from a flu that kept him mainly in bed the last few days.
This gives him three Open titles in a row, confirms his No. 1 ranking and paradoxically widens the hole that not winning Wimbledon continues to poke in his otherwise brilliant career. "I'm very happy now," Lendl said after the match, then quickly conceded, "It's still a disappointment, Wimbledon. But there will be another year." It is the one great prize that eludes and obsesses him, his Moby Dick. Win there, and maybe then the people will finally cozy up to him.
Once again, as they've done consistently at his U.S. Open matches, the fans rooted for Lendl's opponent; after he won the 1986 Open, a Sports Illustrated cover called Lendl "The Champion That Nobody Cares About." Acknowledging the frosty quality of the public response to him, Lendl has said, "The way to win them over is by winning and winning and winning," as if their reluctance to embrace him was a wrinkle that could be removed by repeated ironing. It's hardly surprising Lendl would imagine such a mechanical solution.
The emotional distance between him and the American tennis fan is the central irony in Lendl's life. How much more American could he be? This is his homeland of choice. Most of the rest of us were fortunate enough to be born here. Lendl risked exile from family and friends to come here and fill his plate full of The American Dream: He owns a huge home in Greenwich, Conn., the city with America's most expensive median housing costs. (Wilander, incidentally, is building there, too, and we're not talking about a bungalow with a carport.) He plays golf. He loves baseball. He drives fast, imported sports cars. He barbeques. He's smart and quick. He shops at Bloomingdale's. He is, from all accounts, a world-class consumer, a real live Yuppie of his Uncle Sam.
But there is something about him that his fellow Americans find forbidding. Perhaps it's the walls around the house, or the guard dogs on the grounds, or the robotic way he plays, or his metallic, derivative gestures of enthusiasm, or -- and this is the unpardonable sin in the pop culture -- his lack of smoothness as a talk show guest. Maybe Americans are xenophobic, and they resent foreigners doing what they do better than they do it. Maybe Lendl is trying too hard to pledge the fraternity. Nobody dismisses his accomplishments or doubts his sincerity, but Americans seem enamored of more expressive athletes like Boris Becker, or Pele, or Greg Norman.
Regardless, Lendl loves America so much that he wants to play Davis Cup and Olympic tennis for the United States, and he wants to do it now, in his prime. Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.) has tried to help by sponsoring a bill that would enable Lendl to become a citizen without waiting the customary five years. It's an unusual request in that Lendl is already a legal resident in the United States, and these private bills normally seek relief for those who are illegally here and in danger of deportation.
I commend Lendl's commitment to America and applaud his desire to play under its flag. (Lendl would, however, need a waiver from the International Tennis Federation to do so, since he's already played Davis Cup for Czechoslovakia.) People should be allowed to live where they want, and play for the country of their hearts. But even now when we're so pitifully ineffective in the competition, winning Davis Cup isn't worth the trivialization of the citizenship process. Martina Navratilova didn't jump the queue, and neither should Lendl -- especially for reasons of convenience, not humanitarianism. Let the needier cases be pleaded first. The republic can survive the Davis Cup collecting dust elsewhere.
Lendl will be 32 when he's eligible for citizenship under conventional procedure. If he still wants to play, we'd be grateful for his presence. And who's to say he couldn't? Jimbo's 35, and he made the semifinals here and in Wimbledon. With Lendl, a few spare parts, a few microchip replacements, he'll be as good as new.