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Lendl Takes Home the Diamonds

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Ivan Lendl, who beat John McEnroe in the final of the United States championship two months ago, took two hours and 55 minutes to beat him again, by 1-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-2, in the final of the European Champions’ Championship (ECC) here yesterday. Then they doused the house lights while Lendl (after fingering the strings out of habit) held aloft a model racket that glistened in the darkness because of the 1,421 diamonds encrusted on pure gold. Lendl found it ‘very heavy’.

That racket was on offer for 10 years to anyone who could win the ECC three times in a period of five years. Lendl was successful in 1982 and 1984, so this unique trophy is now his. It will be on public exhibition in Europe for a while and will then be transported to his Connecticut home under appropriate security arrangements. Goodness knows what Lendl will do with it. Strain spaghetti? Perhaps his seven German shepherd dogs will start earning their keep. He has already started breeding them.

The racket is valued at almost pounds 500,000 and Lendl’s prize money is more than pounds 140,000. In four years of competition in the EEC his total winnings, racket included, have amounted to almost pounds 1 million. It was also announced yesterday that the week’s attendance was 140,616, a world record for any indoor tournament and a figure surpassed only by the United States, Wimbledon and French championships, all of which are multi-court events lasting a fortnight.

As the scores suggest, the final was a match of three phases. The first set was all McEnroe, whose tennis revived memories of the best of his yesterdays. The crucial phase was probably that covering the tie-break and the third set, in which Lendl instantly broke service but had three break points against him before a further break to 5-2 put him on the home straight.

For one set McEnroe’s tennis, like that famous racket, was all gold and diamonds. His anticipation, footwork and reactions were so fast, his touch so sure, his gift for improvised splendor so startling, that there was nothing much Lendl could do. Lendl was playing well but no matter what he tried, he could not put the ball away. McEnroe was everywhere. It was as if there was a sign up, on McEnroe’s side of the net, reading ‘No vacancies’.

For most of the year, though, there have been recurrent hints that McEnroe relies too much on talent, that he does not work hard enough on his physical preparation, and consequently tends to weaken – not least in terms of confidence – when confronted by opponents who are in the same class and can hold their best form longer than he can. Thus it was yesterday. McEnroe could not maintain his early form. By contrast, every aspect of Lendl’s tennis improved. The assurance ebbing out of McEnroe seemed to flow into Lendl.

The second set was a beauty. Lendl had three break points in the second game but neither had another chance to take charge until the tie-break, in which Lendl gained and lost an advantage before striking a decisive blow with a blazing backhand down the line – a stroke that served him well on many other important points, too. That tie-break affected each man’s morale, though McEnroe stayed in the fight, always hoping that he might strike gold again.

It was not to be. Lendl was too strong, too resolute, too good. After the match McEnroe paid tribute to Lendl’s improvement and confirmed the evidence of the match: ‘I let down mentally – and he’s in better shape than I am’.

A day earlier McEnroe had given a lesson to his successor as Wimbledon champion, Boris Becker, who has won only seven games in every one of his three matches with McEnroe. The match was a technical and tactical education for all of us, not least Becker. The German was too dependent on his first service – and it let him down.

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