NEW YORK, DEC. 6 -- It was Stefan Edberg, the man hurt most by the strange format of the Nabisco Masters Tennis Tournament, who best summed up this tournament -- and perhaps all of men's tennis.
"There are always problems with round robins," he said today after losing to Mats Wilander, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. "Yesterday I beat Mats and then today I have to play him again. I come out here for a Masters semifinal and there are 2,000 people in the seats even though we're told that all the seats are sold. It's hard to get psyched to play."
Unless you're Ivan Lendl. As the world's No. 1 player, he doesn't need crowds or round robins or straight elimination or best-of-three or best-of-five to get psyched, especially against Brad Gilbert. He has beaten Gilbert 14 times in 14 meetings and today was no different. He broke Gilbert in the first game of the match and cruised to a 6-2, 6-4 victory.
That puts him in his eighth straight Masters final, Monday against Wilander, who will be playing in the final for the first time. Lendl has won this tournament four times, including the last two years. If he isn't unbeatable, he's close to it.
"If I'm going to have a chance it will be because he isn't serving very well," Wilander said. "I can't really change my tactics against him because if I come in he'll pass me. I've got a chance, though, I think."
He has had chances against Lendl in major finals this year -- the French and U.S. Opens -- and turned both into four hours-plus marathons. Both times, Lendl won in four tough sets.
Today, Wilander faced Edberg for the second time in less than 24 hours because of the weird format adopted by the Men's International Pro Tennis Council for this tournament. Because Edberg had beaten Wilander, he finished No. 1 in their four-man group, Wilander second. Lendl won the other group with Gilbert second.
But instead of having No. 1 in group A play No. 2 in group B. and No. 1 in group B play No. 2 in group A, the council staged a racket spin Saturday after the last round robin matches and Edberg drew Wilander -- again.
"It's very hard to play a guy two days in a row, especially when you've beaten him easily the day before," said Lendl, discussing Edberg's plight. "No matter how hard you try, it's tough to convince yourself the other guy can beat you the next day."
Edberg's problem was apparent from the start. He was as flat as he had been enthusiastic on Saturday. Wilander was just the opposite, chasing down balls, turning Edberg's apparent winners into winners of his own. He blew through the first set, then promptly went flat himself.
"When he won the second set, it was more because I let down than because he got better," Wilander said. "I let him back in in the second, then he gave it right back to me at the start of the third. It certainly wasn't that great a match."
Wilander burst to a 4-0 lead in the last set largely because Edberg twice double-faulted on break points. Then, serving for the match at 5-2, he played a loose game to let Edberg break, then promptly broke him back to end the match when Edberg netted an overhead and then scooped a backhand volley deep after Wilander had chipped a return at his feet on match point.
"He played very loose," Edberg said. "It was like he had nothing to lose. It's very weird to feel like you've put someone out of a tournament and then you have to play him again the next day. I just never got into the match."
Gilbert never gets into matches against Lendl. Earlier this week, after blasting him in the round robin portion of the tournament, Lendl was asked why he always beats Gilbert so easily.
"I hit the ball and he pushes it," Lendl began. "His second serve isn't hard or deep. He's quick, but I'm not the slowest guy on tour, either. And when he plays me I think he has a mental block."
Today was no different. Gilbert's only moment of glory came with Lendl up by 5-2 and serving for the match. He played a textbook game to break at love, then held to trail by 4-5. That awoke the crowd, announced at 13,677 (tickets distributed as opposed to actual crowd), which had barely stirred. But Lendl took a deep breath and ended the match with four straight winners.
"I just got a little lazy," he said. "I was winning the match more easily than I thought I would, and I let down for a couple of games at the end. I'm just glad to be in the final."
This is the tournament that time forgot. Lendl is always in finals. He has been in eight straight here. Only in Australia does he miss.
His dominance is part of this tournament's problem. In fact, nothing seems to change in this tournament. Only Gilbert, playing in place of the struggling Boris Becker, changed this year's semifinal group from last year's.
And, every year there seems to be controvery because of the format. This year, when Lendl and Becker played the last round robin match Saturday, almost no one in the crowd realized that Becker had to win in straight sets to reach the semifinals. Once he lost the first set, he was out of the tournament. But tournament officials did not announce that before the match, although they did announce that Wilander and Edberg, playing earlier in the day, had a lot at stake -- money and seeding for the racket spin -- even though both had already clinched semifinal spots.
Through all this, the tennis season will end with Lendl-Wilander at 8 p.m. Monday. This will be appropriate because their first two meetings in 1987 went on and on, from daylight into darkness. It has been that kind of year in tennis.