NEW YORK, DEC. 7 -- When we last left Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, they were turning the final of the U.S. Open into a six-day bike race, playing through daylight, dusk, darkness and the evening news.
When they met at Madison Square Garden tonight in the Masters final, a reprise seemed inevitable. In June they played almost five hours in Paris; in September a record 4:47 in New York. They were like Georgetown's defense, playing base line to base line.
Tonight, the style didn't change. Neither did the name of the winner. But this time, Lendl made short work of it -- that term being relative -- winning his third straight Masters and fifth in eight years with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 wipeout of Wilander. Because the match was so one-sided, Lendl ended it in a mere 2 hours 23 minutes.
As has been the case for three straight years, Lendl used this year-end tournament as a showcase for his dominance of the men's game. He did lose a set here this year -- last year he had his serve broken only once in five matches -- but he never once was in trouble, blowing away Wilander -- ranked third in the world -- from the start with his huge serve and wicked forehand.
Wilander summed the match up succinctly and accurately: "He just played too good for me. After a while you don't know what do. It was very frustrating."
Not for Lendl. Amazingly, his hunger to win and improve never seems sated. "I can still get better," he said.
How? "A million ways," he answered, launching into a description of shots and body improvement that ended with a dissertation on the weakness of his hamstrings. If Lendl gets much better, men's tennis will become like tonight: a series of glorified walkovers.
For the week, Lendl earned $1.01 million: $800,000 for winning the year-long bonus pool; $150,000 as the champion and $60,000 for winning three round robin matches. Add that to the $583,200 he won eight days ago in a Florida exhibition and Lendl's take for less than two weeks totaled $1,593,200. His friends should be receiving wonderful Christmas presents this year.
"It's nice to end the year by playing your best match," Lendl said. "The only sad thing is if I was playing like this in the middle of the year, I would have a great streak going. I just felt like I could do anything tonight. I was in control of everything that was happening."
Wilander realized that early. After the two men traded breaks early, Lendl broke to lead, 3-2, when Wilander made two errors. Lendl rolled through the rest of that set, broke in the first game of the second set and, except for a lost argument with a linesman on a double fault and some yammering at a few in the announced crowd of 14,107 who were using flashbulbs to take pictures, had few worries.
Once, Wilander was a serious threat to Lendl, especially in major championships. He beat him in the French final in 1985 and had a 6-7 match record against him. Now, though, Lendl has beaten him six straight times and, even though the matches sometimes have been long, they rarely are close.
"To beat him, you have to get ahead of him or at least stay even early in the match," Wilander said. "Once he gets ahead, he's just too good a player. Tonight, I tried to think about other matches where I'd come from way behind to win, but after a while, he was just playing too good."
In the French and U.S. opens this year, Wilander was able to keep Lendl from overpowering him, mixing up his shots enough that Lendl had to use patience instead of sheer strength. Tonight, Lendl's forehand was so wicked that it set up opportunities time and again to come in and put away easy volleys. There were a few interminable rallies as in their previous finals this year, but for the most part, Lendl kept Wilander off balance and in trouble.
"I've played him so much that sometimes I can tell by the look on his face how frustrated he is," Lendl said. "Tonight, I noticed it at 6-2, 5-2."
It didn't change after that. Lendl broke to start the third set and was up, 3-2, when Wilander had his one burst of the evening. Three straight times, Wilander charged in behind Lendl's second serve and, with three different shots -- punched forehand volley, overhead, sliced backhand volley -- won points to break Lendl.
For the first -- and last -- time all evening, the crowd stirred, trying to shout Wilander into the match.
But as soon as he had broken, Lendl broke back, crushing two forehands to get to break point, then watching Wilander's backhand float wide. That was his eighth break of the match and Wilander was through. Lendl held easily for 5-3, then broke one last time when Wilander, again trying desperation tactics, slapped a forehand volley deep on Lendl's first match point.
The victory was so easy and routine that Lend barely managed a smile and a weak shake of his fist as he walked to the net to shake hands.
Lendl has won five Masters, three French Opens and three U.S. Opens. The goals he admits to are winning an Australian Open -- more than reasonable now that the tournament will be played on a hard court -- and, of course, Wimbledon. The goal Lendl won't talk about after a year in which he was 74-7 is going undefeated for a year and winning a Grand Slam.
"If you can't win a Grand Slam in one year, you want to win all the titles in your career at least," he said. "I've worked very hard to get to where I am. I've paid my dues. This is a great feeling to play this well and I want to hold on to it for as long as I can."
Since Lendl will be 28 on his next birthday (March 7) there is little reason to believe he will soon relinquish his death grip on this game.
"The only thing that's good is that he can't get much better," Wilander said. "The rest of us can."
They will have to. Otherwise, there will be many more nights -- and years -- like this in the future.