NEW YORK — This place had always treated him like garbage, and there he was in the gutter again. A zero. A big fat zero. Thirteen stinking minutes into the U.S. Open final, in front of millions of people, and he hadn’t even won a game from John McEnroe — not a single game, and only one lousy point — while McEnroe had cruised to three straight wins without breaking a sweat. People already were whispering “slaughter.”
He could feel it. The collar. Tightening.
“There he goes,” said a reporter in the press box, “the choking dog.”
And don’t think that same thing didn’t occur to Ivan Lendl. For in the school of U.S. Open collapses, Lendl has always had a front-row seat.
Despite a magnificent tennis career elsewhere, Lendl, a 25- year-old Czech, has come into the Big Apple six years in a row and has been whipped by an American in the end. Every time.
He was the out-of-towner.
And everyone here treated him like it. Jimmy Connors. McEnroe. They set him up and picked him apart. Three straight finals. Three straight losses.
And there he was again Sunday, center court, eye of the storm, down 3-0 and looking like a wet rag. McEnroe was crisp, his volleys pinpoint. The hometown crowd was behind him.
Tighter. The collar. Lendl could feel it. Nice guys end up in sewer
But you get spit on enough, you have enough cabs splash you with filthy water, you get shoved and pushed and cursed at and mugged, and sooner or later you bite New York back. And somewhere in that first set, when Lendl was down 5-2, and staring his ugly history in the face, well, it happened.
His fangs came out.
He sliced some passing shots that left McEnroe groping. He aced his serves. He won game eight . . . nine . . . 10, and it was tied. Then he went to a tiebreaker and blew McEnroe up.
“Lendl wins the set, 7-6 . . . “
Set Two. Smack! He won three straight games. He was now controlling McEnroe like a puppeteer, reeling him in, letting him out, always putting the ball where he wasn’t.
Oh, McEnroe pouted and screamed and tried everything in his bag of tricks. He even tried being a nice guy, deliberately conceding a Lendl serve the umpire had called out.
Forget it. Nice guys wind up in the sewer in this town.
Lendl pocketed the set, 6-3.
And suddenly, barely perceptible at first, there was the strangest sound. Applause. Enthusiastic applause. On Lendl’s points. Strange, because like fellow native Czech Martina Navratilova, Lendl has never been embraced by this country, no matter how good he got. He was always too distant, too scary- looking — his crooked teeth, his stringy hair, the cheekbones that threaten to leap though his skin — and besides, he speaks with an accent and he’s not a citizen, and blah, blah, blah.
Few people know of his analytical acumen — he once solved the Rubik’s Cube in three minutes — or his homes in Connecticut and Florida or his American girlfriend, and few want to. They seem to prefer him as the out-of-towner.
But now . . . applause. Loosening. The collar. He could feel it. Please forgive him, grandma
In tennis when you beat a guy on his serve, they say you broke him. Well, in the third set at 4-4, Lendl broke McEnroe, all right. Broke his serve, broke his return, broke his jaw, broke his arms, his legs, his rib cage, his spirit. Broke his heart.
If the gods of the U.S. Open found it too violent to watch, they have only themselves to blame. For this is what they taught Lendl to do.
His shots kissed the lines like a doting aunt. A slam, a backhand slice, a loft. They all stayed in bounds. And in the last game, he left no doubt; 15-0, 30-0, 40-0. Remember, this was the consensus No. 1 player in the world he was thrashing.
“Big deal” Lendl seemed to say. “Outta muh way.”
Out-of-towner no more. He belonged here.
“Game set match, Lendl. The new U.S. Open champion . . . “
He leaped into the air. The Big One was his. The wait was over.
“I wanted this so badly,” he would say, “I would have taken it over my grandmother.”
Forgive him, grandma. That just slipped out. It happens when a choking dog breaks free.
The sun set. The crowd cleared. And Ivan Lendl left with a check, a silver trophy, and a suddenly airy feeling around his neck.
Three guesses which meant the most.