WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND, JULY 6 -- Ivan Lendl's loss was too quick and incisive for him to feel much of anything; unseeded Goran Ivanisevic had an upset laying on his racket and pushed it into the net. The aging player was beaten, the rising young one was too, and so it will be the same old final at Wimbledon, Boris Becker to meet Stefan Edberg for the third straight year.
Lendl, 30, now must confront the possibility that Wimbledon always will elude him. After months of devotion to winning the one Grand Slam title he lacks, he ended with nothing, losing in straight sets to third-seeded Edberg, 6-1, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3, in the semifinals.
"You lose, you don't play well," Lendl said. "It cannot be encouraging."
But what boundless encouragement there was for 18-year-old Ivanisevic, a pure athlete of 6 feet 4 who may well be the next great player. He served for a two-set lead over Becker at 6-5 in the second when immaturity suddenly bent his wrists. He slapped two horrible volleys into the net, and the West German forced a tiebreaker, going on to a 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0, 7-6 (7-5) victory.
Ivanisevic's spearlike serve and long strokes, his flying tumbles across the grass and his open expressiveness utterly charmed Centre Court, and gave defending champion Becker pause. After two massive serves caromed off the frame of Ivanisevic's racket for match point and the Yugoslavian carved a last poor backhand volley into the net, Becker grasped his foe's hand with a combination of relief and eagerness as if in greeting a new rival.
"I told him he played a damn well match," Becker said.
Just five weeks ago Ivanisevic upset Becker in the first round of the French Open to announce his presence. His freshness gave an air of lost youth to 22-year-old Becker, who admitted Ivanisevic's play in the opening two sets caused him some disturbing remembrances of his first Wimbledon title in 1985.
"I thought of somebody who was 17 and played like that," Becker said.
In his first semifinal, but surely not his last, Ivanisevic seems headed inevitably upward. He has the hardest serve in tennis, with 105 aces for the tournament. In 1987 he was No. 954, a year later No. 371 and a surprise quarterfinalist in the Australian Open. Now at No. 38 and with two quarterfinals and a semifinal in major championships to his credit, it is not foolish to suggest he is top five material.
"I think for sure," Ivanisevic said frankly. "I learned. It's nice to play on Centre Court. It's nice to play in a semifinal. It's just a little bad luck and maybe inexperience."
Only Becker's experience and slightly more effective serving, with 14 aces to Ivanisevic's 13, and 54 service winners to the teenager's 53, allowed him to escape in four sets. Two fluttering shots probably cost Ivanisevic the match, and so did overconfidence.
He shocked Becker by breaking his serve at love for the 6-5 lead in the second set, stroking a series of smooth winners and passing shots. But he celebrated too early, clenching his fists as an unfurled backhand drew Becker's jabbed volley into the net, forgetting he still had to hold serve.
The two hideous volleys came as he served at deuce. As a high ball floated toward him, Ivanisevic paused and considered how to handle it. He made a ludicrous full swing with his forehand, topping it into the net.
"A topspin volley," he said. "It was bad."
With all of the left side of the court open to him on break point, he blocked the ball into the net with a backhand. That sent them to the tiebreaker. Becker got set point with a gorgeous forehand lob that spun for a winner. He took it with another winner, a launched forehand return that Ivanisevic chose to let go. It struck the back line, kicking up chalk.
"I started thinking about going two sets to love up," Ivanisevic said. "I started thinking too much, you know, and then I lost this game. . . . You never know, two sets up, maybe I win the third set."
Ivanisevic was so demoralized, and Becker so ruthless, that the third set was a wipeout. But the fourth was just as absorbing as the first two. There was not a break point in the set. The tiebreaker seesawed to 4-4. Ivanisevic got to 5-4 on a serve and volley. But that's when Becker took the last three points, with two impossible serves and Ivanisevic's last awkward volley.
"It was one of the best grass-court matches I have ever played," Becker said extravagantly. ". . . The fourth set I was just two or three balls better."
Edberg inflicted Lendl's second-worst defeat at Wimbledon. In his first appearance at the All England Club, in 1979, Lendl was routed by Peter McNamara, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, in the first round.
Moreover, Edberg ruined a 13-week odyssey of hard labor by Lendl, who traveled to three continents in search of grass courts in an effort to finally win Wimbledon. With his seasons dwindling, Lendl is experiencing something similar to what Bjorn Borg did, unable to win the U.S. Open.
"I don't feel too bad about it," Edberg said. "I've got to do my job as well. I wanted this one too."
In the wake of such a one-sided loss, Lendl's methods must be questioned. Perhaps he was too single-minded. Perhaps he neglected some facet of his game while preparing on grass. Perhaps nobody should want anything so badly. But Lendl maintained he probably would do it all again next year for the one major title he lacks.
"I always knew there was a possibility I could spend a long time preparing well, but that I may not win," he said. "I still feel I played my best grass-court tennis. Is it worth it? Yes."
Edberg, the 1988 champion and silken serve-and-volleyer, illustrated the difference between smooth grass-court ability and the lingering stiffness Lendl feels. Lendl could gain only one break point all match, while constantly vulnerable on his serve. Edberg sent him lunging and reeling with launched returns at waist, wrists and feet.
"I felt a half-step slow," Lendl said.
The second set was the pivotal one, and the sixth game summed up the match. It lasted 20 points and 12 minutes, Lendl enduring seven deuces and five break points before holding serve. Then came his one chance. Edberg double-faulted for deuce and mindlessly netted a forehand volley for break point. But a forehand volley and two service winners later, Edberg had the game.
"It was really the only chance he had to get ahead of me," Edberg said.
"Obviously, things were not going my way," Lendl said. "You just have to keep trying, trying, trying. You hope some kind of opportunity comes around and you grab it."
But Edberg never permitted it. With all of the discussion about Lendl's driven effort to win Wimbledon, Edberg was all but ignored. The Swede is a sometime thing, one day untouchable and the next flat and uninspired. But he has won two Australian Opens, one Wimbledon, and has been a French finalist.
"He can have a shocking match or he can play a great one," Lendl said.
Despite the overwhelming nature of the loss, Lendl called it less painful than the one he experienced in the semifinals last year, a tense, rain-interrupted five-setter to Becker. In seven semifinal appearances he has won just twice. But he does not concede that Wimbledon is beyond him at 30.
"I still feel I have a few good years left," he said. "I just have to decide how I want to go about it. I do the best I can and that's all you can ask for."