NEW YORK -- It had become a ritual, as automatic as anything in tennis. Whom is Ivan Lendl playing in the final of the U.S. Open? Every year from 1982 through '89, Lendl reached the final, winning in '85, '86 and '87. You know how many men have played in more finals than Lendl? Connors? Nope, only seven. McEnroe? No sir, just five. You've got to go back to the 1920s, when only 12 people in the country owned rackets. In the modern era, nobody.
Lendl has virtually run the table for the past seven years at the U.S. Open. Big Bill Tilden is the only man besides Lendl to play in eight consecutive U.S. Open finals. Which all goes to say, 19-year-old Pete Sampras pulled off the upset of the tournament Wednesday when he beat Lendl in five sets and spoiled a semifinal to kill for: Lendl vs. McEnroe.
Lendl was beaten by somebody who looks like Robby Benson but delivers like Roger Clemens. He literally was served off the court. McEnroe, who already has lost to Sampras this summer, has enough respect for his semifinal opponent to say of him, "It's nice to be able to play a guy who may become one of the next great players while I'm playing well."
Mac played better than well in his quarterfinal against David Wheaton; sometimes he touched greatness. The big crowd at Louis Armstrong Stadium never got the chance to work itself into a frenzy because Mac was too good. The crowd was quiet at times, as if seeing his ghost on Stadium Court. Angle volleys with touch, droppers, passing shots that spin onto the court just in time to land inside the corner. Wheaton said McEnroe showed "flashes of what he was like in the mid-'80s."
Sampras, born in Potomac, Md., and raised in Southern California, showed what he may be like consistently through the '90s. He has a lot of flash but does one thing especially well: serve. He hit 24 aces. In the most critical game of the match, leading by 4-2 in the final set, Sampras trailed by love-30 but crawled back from breakland with a 120 mph ace. The next point Sampras hit a 116 mph ace that Lendl appeared to foul tip. There would be another clean ace to set up a 5-2 lead.
Lendl, the No. 3 player in the world, was reduced to blocking balls back into the court -- when he saw them at all. "His serve, that's his best shot," Lendl said. "His game is going to stand or fall with his serve."
What an ingrate, this Sampras kid. Just two years ago Lendl needed a practice partner to prepare for the Masters. Sampras, a young big hitter, was available and Lendl likes to tutor youngsters when possible. They hit together for about 10 days at Lendl's home in Connecticut. "He had me training, biking 15 to 20 miles a day," Sampras recalled. "He talked about how hard you have to work to become a champion, about doing everything properly like eating the right food and getting enough rest. . . . Being in the fifth set with him was so ironic."
Especially so because the word on Sampras is that he hasn't reached the heights his peers Andre Agassi and Michael Chang have because he isn't the most dedicated kid in the world. The talent has been apparent for a while; certainly it was last year when he beat Mats Wilander in five sets in a second-round match. Asked to compare the two, Sampras said: "This is a whole different league. Wilander was going through some personal problems and not on the top of his game."
The big question, then: Does this victory over Lendl mean that Sampras has arrived, or was it a one-time fluke over a player whose ground strokes were shaky and who wasn't tournament tough because he took such an inordinate amount of time during his obsessive preparation for Wimbledon? "I would caution against making that judgment right now," Lendl said, measuring his words carefully. "It may have been just one day; we don't know. If he does it for half a year, then we'll know."
McEnroe was more impressed, saying Sampras is "extremely dangerous" on this surface and that his victories over Thomas Muster and now Lendl at the Open show that "Pete's primed to be in the top 10 now. . . . He has probably, along with Agassi, got the most talent of any of the young guys."
That was sometimes evident Wednesday. He won the first two sets, taking just about all the big points in the first and accepting Lendl's unforced errors in the second. Lendl smacked the kid around pretty good in the third set and early in the fourth. But trailing by 0-4, Sampras made it respectable before losing, 4-6. "If I had lost 6-1 or something he could have just steamrolled me in the fifth," he said.
Though Sampras played well, Lendl blamed himself and his obsession with Wimbledon for the loss. For 3 1/2 months in the spring, which included skipping the French Open, Lendl served and volleyed, mostly on grass, to prepare himself for Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam he hasn't won. He opted to work on his volleying rather than his ground strokes and practice rather than play matches. "Lack of play was my downfall," he said. "I haven't played enough matches. I payed here for my preparation for Wimbledon. . . . But that's the way we chose to go and I'm going to stick by it. I had to try it."
Strangely, neither McEnroe nor the fans cared much for what might have been a compelling semifinal between old rivals. The fact that fans got behind Sampras, instead of an eight-time champion who lives 45 minutes away, shows they still aren't completely comfortable with Lendl.
Sampras recalled being 11 years old when Lendl lost a final to Connors. "For some reason I always pulled for Lendl. The crowd was always against him. I felt kinda sorry for him."
Lendl says Sampras will win his semifinal match with McEnroe, "if he plays him as another player. . . . If he plays him as McEnroe, he will lose."
Said Sampras: "If I handled Lendl I can handle McEnroe so far as the notoriety is concerned."