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Big serve, consistency carry Lendl to 3rd straight US Open title

This year's US Open tennis championships didn't so much end as they faded away. The tournament's finale flew into a Bermuda Triangle of sorts, with rains prompting a postponement of Sunday's final session to Monday afternoon, which has never been known as prime time for either spectators or TV viewers.

As a result, the men's championship match was played on a gorgeous, late-summer afternoon in a 20,000-seat stadium that began half empty and only gradually reached three-quarters capacity. With school in session, tennis came close to having its first adults-only audience, a gathering consisting of many high-powered, Manhattan business people who had skipped out of work with briefcases in tow and ties in place.

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What they got was a workmanlike matchup that promised little of the Connors-like machismo or McEnroe-style controversy that New Yorkers love so much. What they witnessed was an often plodding four-set victory by top-seeded Ivan Lendl over third-seeded Mats Wilander, 6-7, 6-0, 7-6, 6-4 that only occasionally crackled with excitement.

From the set scores it's obvious that there were suspenseful moments leading up to Lendl's third straight coronation. Unfortunately, they were slow to materialize.

The first set alone lasted one hour, 29 minutes, a reflection on the long rallies and the deliberate pace of play, and the match itself was the longest final in US Open history at 4 hours, 47 minutes.

Both players seemed content to stay on the court all day, often at the baseline, and draw out the time between points, rejigging their racket strings and wiping their brows, in Lendl's case with wristbands the size of Turkish towels.

Though neither player is American (Lendl is an expatriated Czech, Wilander a Swede), the match had a parochial context and might have more conveniently been played in Lendl's backyard, where it could have been called the Greater Greenwich Open.

Lendl, as is duly noted this time of year, lives in Greenwich, Conn., only 35 minutes away from the National Tennis Center by his driving estimates, and has a private court surfaced to match the playing properties of the Open's hardcourts. Wilander, meanwhile, is in the process of building a home nearby. ``It's seven minutes by car, three minutes walking,'' Lendl says in a witty suburban commentary.

Wilander has had a good year, winning five tournaments, and was obviously intent on winning this match, as much for his inner satisfaction as anything. He showed more fist-pumping emotion than normal, especially after winning the first tiebreaker, since Lendl hadn't lost a set until then.

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Using just a phone, one Swedish radio broadcaster took to relaying the blow-by-blow drama to his listeners in rounded,rapid-fire Scandanavian tones. Ultimately, however, the report came to a bittersweet conclusion, with the current master of hardcourt tennis utilizing a powerful serve and great consistency to suppress Wilander for the second time in one of this year's Grand Slam finals. Lendl also beat Wilander for the French Open title in an identical 42 games, only with different set scores, 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6.

Despite being disheartened, Wilander was encouraged by his reception. ``I was happy that the people were for me,'' he said. Americans, of course, always love the underdog, and many still haven't taken to embracing Lendl, even with all his American ways, which include a passion for golf, baseball box scores, and supposedly even Bloomingdale's. He wants to become an American citizen, but his image as a tennis machine with a East European accent is yielding slowly.

Asked what he needed to win over US fans, he replied, ``Maybe win 15 [titles] in a row.'' Then in jest, he adds, ``I only have 12 to go, that's not bad.''

By pocketing $250,000 for his victory, Lendl became the first player in men's tennis to surpass $11 million career earnings. His persistence in the game has obviously paid off, especially here at the Open, where he lost three straight finals (two to Jimmy Connors and one to John McEnroe), before equaling McEnroe's three-title run from 1979 to 1981. Lendl swept aside both Connors and McEnroe in straight sets this time, and lists McEnroe and Miloslav Mecir among the opponents he's vanquished in the final.

Among his other accomplishments this time was playing such a long final that CBS had to push back its evening news for the second time in several days. That was notable only because of the furor created by anchorman Dan Rather's short walkout on Friday's newscast, when he was incensed to have the concluding shots of a women's semifinal push back the news. The men's final delayed Rather and company again on Monday, but this time he didn't leave any blank air time.

If Rather was disturbed be telecasting priorities, women's champion Martina Navratilova was upset by the Open's match scheduling. ``Everything is scheduled around men's singles. It's like nothing else exists,'' she said after being assigned to play two doubles finals on Monday, one at an early-bird hour and the other on a deserted grandstand court opposite the men's final.

As if to underline her point, Martina made history by winning both matches, teaming with Pam Shriver in the women's doubles, and Emilio Sanchez in the mixed, to become the first triple winner at a Grand Slam event in 14 years. The Navratilova-Shriver duo defeated Kathy Jordan and Liz Smylie 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, and the Navratilova-Sanchez alliance knocked off Betsy Nagelsen and Paul Annacone, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6.

Earlier in the tournament, Stefan Edberg and Anders Jarryd won the men's doubles, beating Ken Flach and Robert Seguso 7-6, 6-2, 4-6, 5-7, 7-6 to become the first Swedes to ever win a US Open title.

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