Chris Evert Lloyd's march to yet another US Open championship here was not the late- summer tennis rerun some thought it was to be. Oh sure, millions had seen her nail down the women's title before, something she'd done on four other occasions. But this was different, and not just because her opponent in the final was a new face, Hana Mandlikova of Czechoslovakia, who was subdued 5-7, 6-1, 6-1.
In this case, it was a plot twist that kept tennis-watchers tuned in until match point. Instead of being cast in her once familiar role as invincible defending champion, Evert Lloyd entered the Open as a rejuvenated challenger.
When she exited, she did so with $46,000 in prize money and a good chance to regain the No. 1 world ranking.
Chris wasn't even No. 1 in the United States in 1979, having lost that position to Martina Navratilova after a long reign atop the American rankings.
Her fall from power may have been blown out of proportion, or at least that's the impression Evert Lloyd left with reporters after her Open triumph.
"The last two years I haven't been No. 1 in the world," she related, "and a lot of the press coverage was very disappointing to me. It was Martina and Tracy [Austin] and 'Chris is no longer on top and probably never will be again.'
"I feel I lost a little bit of faith in myself because I was reading this press. Maybe I wanted to prove something not only to myself, but to everybody -- that when I'm playing well I can be on top."
She spent the better part of the spring and summer undermining the notion that at 25 she's a superstar in decline.
Convincing proof that her skills have not eroded are 42 wins in her last 43 matches. This run has included victories in the French and Italian Opens, the US Clay Court Championship, and now the US Open. The only loss during this time came to Evonne Goolagong in the semifinals at Wimbledon. (Goolagong, the eventual Wimbledon champion, was forced to withdraw with an injury before play began here.)
Though exhausted now and hesitant to predict what might happen this fall, Evert Lloyd does feel she's gained the inside track on the top spot for 1980. "When the rankings finally come out, hopefully the major tournaments will be very important," she said. "If so, up to now I have the best record of all the players."
Her most important match during the Open most certainly was a semifinal engagement against Austin, who defeated Chris is last year's final.
While the two are friendly off the court, there's no doubt that the top-seeded 17-year- old had become Evert Lloyd's nemesis.
Besides having once ended Chris's 125- match clay court winning streak, Tracy defeated her baseline rival three times within 11 days earlier this year. The losses helped persuade Chris to take some time off to recharge her flagging desire and competitive instincts.
Having stepped right into a full-time tennis career after graduating from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., she had become burned out. Some even felt her marriage to British player John Lloyd might prompt her to retire.
Instead, she returned to the circuit with new dedication, but with a need to knock off Tracy to prove the comeback was complete.
She got that chance in the semifinals, where she beat Austin 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 in what she later called "the biggest win of the year for me."
Up to that point, both players had come through the tougher part of the draw without the loss of a set. From the draw's bottom half came Mandlikova, who reached the final the same way she had won a New Jersey tuneup to the Open, with victories over Navratilova (second seeded) and 15-year-old Andrea Jaeger.
Hana, the daughter of an Olympic sprinter, has tried to pattern her aggressive serve-and-volley game after that of her former Czech countrywoman, Navratilova, and Billie Jean King, who only entered the Open doubles.
To most Americans, Mandlikova was still something of a mystery entering her final center court appearance. A pronunciation of her name, for example, was a source of confusion well into the tournament -- its mand-lee- KO-va. Then because she's 18, Hana is only beginning to hone an impressive arsenal of shots.
In taking the first set from Evert Lloyd, Mandlikova delighted the capacity crowd at the National Tennis Center with her shot variety and execution. Chris was impressed, too, yet didn't think her oponent's white-hot play would continue.
It didn't. Eventually hana's game came apart as Evert Lloyd hit her baseline shots with relentless precision, forcing a torrent of errors.
Having defeated Mandlikova in three previous meetings, Chris knew she stood a good chance of becoming the first five-time Open winner since Helen Wills Moody in 1931.
Her victory was further sweetened by having her father, Jimmy, present. "He's been the only coach I've had for 20 years," Chris explained, "and until now he's never seen me win a major title."
So at his daughter's insistence, Papa Evert flew into New York the night before the final with Chris's youngest sister, Clare, a top 12-and-under player. Their presence, she said, made the win "special" -- and that's saying a lot for someone whose tennis career has generated enough thrills for a dozen players.