Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and John McEnroe were due on court in consecutive matches in the European Champions’ Championship here yesterday. The ECC is that kind of tournament. The field of 24 does offer a chance to more modest players but essentially this is a showcase for the celebrities. With a first prize of about pounds 140,000 and the biggest crowds for any week-long tournament, it could hardly be anything else.
Of the 10 most successful players in the last four grand slam championships, only Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg and Heinz Gunthardt did not come here. In order to qualify they had to win a European grand prix tournament. They failed to do that: and Connors and Gunthardt did not ask for one of the two wild cards reserved for distinguished players. The Wimbledon runner-up, Kevin Curren, did not qualify either. He was granted a wild card but was beaten 6-1, 6-3, on Wednesday by Henri Leconte. Curren has been playing on a bad ankle instead of resting it, like his doctors recommend.
Leconte’s next opponent will be Lendl, whom he beat at Wimbledon. But Lendl defeated Leconte at Sydney a fortnight ago on a surface similar to that in use here (a surface, be it noted, that provides a true bounce and gives Lendl the confidence to take the ball early when hitting fierce backhands down the line, which has recently become a habit).
Lendl has lost only two of the last 56 sets he has played. One went adrift yesterday before he beat Sergio Casal, from Barcelona, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1. This was Lendl’s first match of the week and, for much of the time, his assurance and increasing versatility were more evident than his customary tactical discipline.
But for muffing a volley, Casal would have led 2-0 in the third set, a wasted chance that was on his mind for the rest of the match. Casal, aged 23, is not Spanish in appearance (his hair and complexion are fair) and is equally not Spanish in his liking for hard-hitting aggression as distinct from patterned subtlety.
Should Lendl win the tournament he would also secure a remarkable trophy, a model racket made of gold encrusted with 1,421 diamonds and valued at almost pounds 500,000. This is on offer for 10 years to any man who wins the EEC three times in a period of five years. Mind you, how would Lendl safeguard such a glittering prize? One begins to understand why he has acquired and trained seven Alsatian dogs.
Since Lendl won the United States title he has had the aura of a natural champion about him, both on and off the court. His former mentor, Wojtek Fibak, said yesterday that Lendl had given everything to his tennis this year and was probably better prepared, mentally and physically, than his leading rivals.
‘He is going to the net to finish the points’, Fibak said. ‘He is coming up with the right answers. That is what we call confidence. Believing is part of winning.’
Fibak suggested that, by contrast, McEnroe had lost the knack of playing shots without thinking: ‘Now he is thinking before he plays his shots.’
Fibak, beaten 6-3, 6-4, by Wilander, did not play the way Fibak expected him to. ‘He is not at his best’, Fibak said, ‘But he is serving very well, using a heavily sliced backhand, and coming in. I never had the feeling that I was playing a Swede motivated by Borg’s tennis.’ Fibak, aged 33, is one of the smartest men in the game and has a deft touch but he is a little slower these days, except when talking.
Becker beat Vitas Gerulaitis 6-3, 6-4 and McEnroe, who made tennis look an easy and rather boring way of getting rich, had a 6-2, 6-1 win over Pavel Slozil. So the last eight will be Lendl v Leconte, Wilander v Anders Jarryd, Tim Wilkison v Becker and Mark Dickson v McEnroe.
Gerulaitis said later how healthy it was to have a youngster like Becker among the top men. Everybody liked him, Gerulaitis said. Becker was polite – and although he knew he was good he was also a hard worker who was aware that he had a long way to go. Becker said he wanted to be No 1 but needed faster footwork. He also has something to learn about the shot sequences appropriate to different surfaces. In this respect Wimbledon’s challenges are comparatively straightforward because much depends on the quality of services and service returns.