WIMBLEDON, England — The match had been going on forever. Back and forth. Ivan Lendl wins a game. Tim Mayotte wins a game. People shifted nervously in their seats. How long already? Two hours? Three hours? Back and forth.
“It goes to a tie-breaker, right?” someone whispered when the score went to 5-5 in the fifth set.
“They don’t play those at Wimbledon,” someone answered.
They don’t play those at Wimbledon? How would it end then? Lendl had won the first set and Mayotte had won the second set and Lendl the third and Mayotte the fourth and now, here they were, 49 games later, exhausted, out on the grass of Court One, dead even.
“So what happens?” someone asked.
“Win by two,” someone answered.
Win by two. The twilight zone. It could end in two games. It could end in 100. It could never end. Win by two? Isn’t that something you do in pickup basketball or ping-pong?
“Win by two?” someone repeated.
“Win by two,” someone repeated.
The players dug in. The fans dug in. What a tennis match this had been! It had started Wednesday with the sun still high, dropping long shadows over the bodies of Lendl and Mayotte. And now the sky had changed color, to a deep blue, and it was cool and it was Lendl’s turn to serve. He wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“What are you thinking during that moment?” someone would ask him afterward.
“I’m thinking, don’t lose your serve,” he would say, “and you won’t lose.” Mayotte finally blunders
Here was tennis at its grittiest. The quarterfinals of the world’s most prestigious tournament. The No. 1 seed, Lendl, who hasn’t won enough Grand Slam events for his critics, versus the No. 10 seed, Mayotte, who hasn’t won any.
Mayotte served hard and Lendl smacked it into the net. Lendl served hard and Mayotte stroked it long. Back and forth. On and on. Lendl won the 11th game. Mayotte won the 12th. Lendl won the 13th. Fans got up for the bathroom then sat back down. The two men had broken each other’s service only once per set.
“Who has the pressure?” someone would ask.
“It swings,” Mayotte would answer, “him to me, me to him, him to me. . . . “
On and on. Lendl fired a winner past Mayotte’s outstretched racket. Mayotte shot a cannon serve beyond Lendl’s reach. Both men were washed out with fatigue. “Your legs are tired, your arms are tired, your eyes are tired,” Lendl would say.
They were still tied after the 14th game.
By now, all activity around the Wimbledon park had been drawn to this one match. Journalists inside the press room stopped writing and watched the monitors. Guards in the halls stopped checking passes and craned their necks.
They watched with patient fascination. Would Lendl choke — as critics had suggested? Would Mayotte — the last American left — be up to winning? This was a staring contest. Who’d blink?
The 16th game. Mayotte’s serve. He lost the first point. He hit the next ball deep and Lendl launched a lob that went halfway to heaven — “a meteor from outer space” Mayotte would call it — and landed barely inside the line and danced away.
Now Mayotte was down, 0-30. And he trailed by a game. Now was the moment. Would he blink?
Yes, he would.
Mayotte blew two serves. Double fault. One point later, he rushed Lendl’s return and found himself suddenly in an attic. Too crunched. Not enough room.
“I panicked,” he would admit.
He tried the ultimate finesse shot — a drop volley — but the ball went lazily into the net.
The lights had been turned on. We were back from the twilight zone. Back from forever. There was an ending to this. It belonged to Ivan Lendl. Lendl is too smart to worry
People left buzzing about “the greatest match in years.” In front of a packed press room, the loser consoled himself. “That was big-time pressure,” he said. “It’s the longest I ever played. Hey, I lost to the No. 1 player in the world.”
Then Lendl came in. He answered questions in a monotone. He said this room full of reporters did not expect him to win, but here he was with a smile on his face.
“What would you have read in the papers had you lost?” he was asked.
“I wouldn’t have been reading,” said the man who was criticized for being too cold and calculating. “I’ve been chopped up here for everything: for not smiling, for beating opponents too easily, not having enough sting in my volleys, for moving crummy. So I just look at my Herald Tribune for my baseball results and don’t worry about it.”
All the points. All the games. And how does it end? A Czech, looking only at baseball scores, the morning after his greatest Wimbledon victory. It makes no sense. It makes all the sense in the world.
Back and forth it goes.