U.S. Open Preview : Potential Quarterfinal Matchup Draws a Great Deal of Attention
August 25, 1985
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK — Whether it's John McEnroe triumphantly defending his 1984 championship, Jimmy Connors blasting his way through for one last stand or Ivan Lendl removing the sleeper hold from his throat, rest assured that the men's final of this year's U.S. Open tennis championships will be sheer anti-climax.
There's no way around it, not if 17-year-old Boris Becker can complete his appointed rounds and maneuver his way into the quarterfinals. He should get there, thus setting up the showdown that has been on the minds and lips of tennis fans since Becker went to Wimbledon two months ago, saw and conquered it:
Mac vs. the kid.
No doubt about it, this will be the match of this year's U.S. Open, which will start Tuesday. And if it does indeed come to pass, it won't really matter what happens afterward.
Everybody already knows that Connors hates McEnroe and that a possible meeting in the final round will be all blood, guts and bile.
Everybody already knows that Lendl is due at Flushing Meadow after melting down in the final the last three years.
And in the women's bracket, who doesn't know that it will be Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd, again, pounding it out for supremacy? You could bet the house on it. Or Vitas Gerulaitis' house.
That's all old news.
But McEnroe vs. Becker, that's something that stirs the imagination. They have met only once before--McEnroe won in March in Milan, Italy, 6-4, 6-3--but that was well before King Mac took the fall and Becker came on to shatter tennis precedent.
Is Becker West Germany's belated answer to Bjorn Borg, or just a teen-age flash of brilliance destined to become a footnote to history? Will Becker dare risk his bony knees with dives onto the concrete at Flushing Meadow or with pratfalls that became his trademark on the lawns of Wimbledon? How will he cope with the blare and glare of the Big Apple?
And what of McEnroe? After months of sub-level performances and tabloid speculation--"What has Tatum done to him?"--are McEnroe's two recent tournament wins at Stratton Mountain and Montreal a signal of a return to form? How will New York's native, if not necessarily favorite, son react to this red-haired, freckle-faced foreigner trespassing on his home turf?
New Yorkers are dying to find out. They're lining up for tickets.
"It'll fill the stadium, that's for sure," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Arthur Ashe, who has coached McEnroe and plotted strategy against Becker. "Obviously, everybody is waiting for when they square off."
Becker's youth is as much an attraction as his out-of-nowhere success. Men's tennis hasn't had such an intriguing, precocious threat to the throne since, well, since an 18-year-old Stanford freshman named McEnroe reached the 1977 Wimbledon semifinals.
But in Ashe's view, Becker may transcend comparison. He may be one of a kind.
"Becker is different," Ashe said. "He's the first big child prodigy we've ever had. He's well over six feet tall, he's fast, he's quick.
"Look at all the other 17-year-old whiz kids--Rosewall, Borg, McEnroe, Wilander. None of them were nearly as strong as Becker."
For that reason, Ashe sees Becker taking up long-term residence in the top 10 of world tennis. "He's a hell of a player, no flash in the pan," Ashe said. "He's a real wunderkind."
But, in a 1985 pairing against McEnroe, Ashe sees Becker as a real underdog.
"Mac's the definite favorite," Ashe said. "Becker will have to try to get to the net before McEnroe. That's (McEnroe's) relative weakness--foot speed. If McEnroe beats him to the net, he'll kill him."
When he was given the No. 1 seeding last week, McEnroe became the favorite of the entire tournament. Becker, despite his triumph at Wimbledon, was seeded eighth--largely because of his short track record and his mixed results since. Becker lost to Lendl in the Indianapolis semifinals and was upset in the first round of the Austrian Open by someone named Diego Perez.
Thus, Becker wound up in McEnroe's bracket. And thus, the only match that really matters in U.S. Open '85 will be played three days before the championship match is played.
Unless, of course, Becker is ambushed before the quarterfinals. McEnroe has an easy early draw, but trouble could crop up for Becker in the fourth round.
There lurks Joakim Nystrom, who was a ground stroke or two away from ending Becker's Wimbledon fairy tale when the eventual champion was still known as Boris Who? Nystrom took on Becker in the third round at Wimbledon and held match point before losing a 9-7 fifth set.
Nystrom is a nice Swedish kid, but he'll wind up joining Ilie Nastase and Lendl among the Open's collection of villains if he ruins Becker's shot at McEnroe.
Which brings us to another factor that figures to weigh heavily on the outcome of the men's competition this fall.
They're all over the place--French Open champion and third-seeded Mats Wilander, Wimbledon semifinalist Anders Jarryd, Memphis winner Stefan Edberg, extraordinary baseliner Henrik Sundstrom.
United, they win the Davis Cup. Divided, at least one of them is capable of squeezing through the cracks into the U.S. Open final.
Ashe thinks it will be Edberg.
"I'm looking for a McEnroe-Edberg final," he said. "He's beaten Wilander, he won the U.S. Indoors (at Memphis) by beating both Connors and (Yannick) Noah. His game is very sound, his reactions are good and he holds up well under pressure. He should do well with his half of the draw."
At last year's Open, Edberg filled the role now occupied by Becker. He was the bold, new challenger, fresh from winning the junior grand slam and the gold at the Olympic tennis demonstration.
Many believed he could even topple mighty McEnroe in the second round. Some, being tennis reporters, wrote about it.
That infuriated McEnroe and unnerved Edberg. Edberg could scarcely return McEnroe's volleys during warmup drills and fared just about as well in a straight-sets wipeout.
"McEnroe was right, that people were expecting too much of Edberg," Ashe said. "And (McEnroe) beat the hell out of him. But now, Edberg's had two years on the tour. He's ready to make a move."
--Lendl: New Yorkers have grown to dislike him because of his gloom-and-doom demeanor of previous years and his annual fold-and-spindle routine in the Open final. But he's currently ranked No. 1 in the world--McEnroe is seeded first because he is 2-0 this month against Lendl--and simply has too many skills not to break through one of these days. Of course, they said the same thing about Borg, who never won here.
--Connors: He's one reason Lendl remains 0 for the Open. Two of Connors' five U.S. Open titles have been scored at the expense of the Czech, although the head-to-head competition has shifted dramatically in Lendl's favor ever since Connors turned 32. Hampered by back and racket problems, Connors has failed to win a tournament in 1985. But this one has always been Connors' favorite--the crowds love him--and he has an easy early draw. One more run for Connors would be poetic, if not probable.
--Wilander: Has replaced Connors as the world's No. 3 player and has begun to emerge from under the dark shadow of Borg. Of the Swedes, Edberg is best on hard courts, but Wilander won the ATP Championships on this surface last year.
--Noah: Still the biggest sheer talent in the game. He now calls New York his home and 1985 victories at the Italian Open and Washington indicate he has recovered from the groin injuries that sidelined him at Flushing Meadow last year.
Injuries, however, have taken their toll on another contender this fall. Australia's Pat Cash, who lost a thrilling five-set semifinal to Lendl at the 1984 Open, will sit this one out with a bad back.
U.S. Davis Cup players Aaron Krickstein and Eliot Teltscher are also on the disabled list. That could open a path to the round of 16--or beyond--for a big server such as Kevin Curren, Tim Mayotte or Scott Davis.
As Curren demonstrated at Wimbledon, where he reached the final, anything is possible on a fast surface in the men's division.
Not so in the women's. Navratilova and Lloyd are both entered in the U.S. Open, which means suspense, once again, will be on a two-week leave.
Oh sure, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch upset Navratilova in Toronto two weeks ago and Gabriela Sabatini is an exciting newcomer and Kathy Rinaldi is hot and Carling Bassett reached the semifinals here last fall. And, yes, still around are Pam Shriver and Hana Mandlikova, the serve-and-volley specialists who can beat everybody else in the world.
But the big two will remain the big two the next two weeks. That's how it has been in five of the last six Grand Slam tournaments--Navratilova vs. Lloyd in the final. The only twist here is that Lloyd is seeded first and Navratilova second.
"It's going to be tough," said Shriver, speaking on behalf of the challengers. "I'm hoping this is the year we can end their stranglehold, and I'd love to be the one to do it. But Martina and Chris are obviously the big favorites. It will be no shock if they're in the final again."
Shriver sees a contingent of eight to 10 people capable of beating them on a given day. "Parity is starting to come about," she said. "But it's experience that counts in the Grand Slams, and nobody can match their experience. Obviously, for one of us to beat them, it will take a wonderful, wonderful match."
Wonders will probably cease as it gets down to money time in the women's draw. Wimbledon champion Navratilova and French Open winner Lloyd are 1-1 in major showdowns this year and are both eager to get the upper hand in Grand Slam stop No. 3.
They should meet, as they did last September, on the stadium court for the title. The match could be another classic. And the victory should belong to Navratilova, who usually wins on a fast court.
That would give Navratilova a 35-32 advantage over Lloyd in their incomparable rivalry.
"For us to be so close after all these matches says something about the competition," Navratilova said. "If (Muhammad) Ali and (Joe) Frazier had gone through this, they'd both be dead by now."
Navratilova and Lloyd are still standing. Their dynastic grip on women's tennis should continue through this U.S. Open.
As for the men, well, there's a new heavyweight contender in the ring. He's called Boom Boom Becker and his serve packs a knockout punch.
He's all set to take on the champion in the quarterfinals. McEnroe has withstood most challenges, but in Becker he'll be facing something altogether different.
"McEnroe should win, but if Becker is serving well, you never know," Ashe said. "At any rate, it will be fun to watch."
The world is waiting.
FACTS & FIGURES
EVENT--The 104th U.S. Open tennis championships, the third of tennis' four grand slam events, to begin on Tuesday and end with the men's singles title on Sept. 8.
SEATING CAPACITY--Center Court has 20,172 seats.
PURSE--$3.73 million, with $187,500 to each of the women's and men's champions.
FIELD--128 players in each of the men's and women's singles competition.
NO. 1-SEEDED PLAYERS--Women: Chris Evert Lloyd; Men: John McEnroe.
DEFENDING CHAMPION--Women: Martina Navratilova; Men: John McEnroe.
FORMER CHAMPIONS IN FIELD--Women: Chris Evert Lloyd, Martina Navratilova; Men: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas.
YOUNGEST CHAMPIONS--Women: Tracy Austin, 1979, 16 years 8 months 28 days; Men: Oliver Campbell, 1890, 19 years 6 months 9 days.
OLDEST CHAMPIONS--Women: Maud Barger-Wallach, 1908, 38 years; Men: Bill Larned, 1911, 38 years 8 months 3 days.
TELEVISION--CBS will have 26 1/2 hours of live coverage, including seven scheduled hours on Sept. 7, the day of the women's final and men's semifinals. CBS will also have eight 30-minute highlight shows at 11:30 p.m. during the early rounds of the tournament. USA cable network will have 21 hours of live coverage through the quarterfinal round.