Lendl mask cracks, but not game

February 18, 1991|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,Knight-Ridder

PHILADELPHIA -- Ivan Lendl gathers his emotions, holds them closely inside and guards them like a fierce lion protects his cubs.

And so it was a surprise yesterday that Lendl, after he'd struck a forehand against Pete Sampras that practically left smoke trails behind it, a forehand that might have left skid marks on the blue carpet, pumped his right fist and exploded with a resounding "Yes!"

Lendl finally let himself get excited. The three shots that followed were aces -- his 21st, 22nd and 23rd. They capped a three-hour, 20-minute match that ended in a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory for the No. 1 seed over the second-seeded Sampras in the final of the $1 million U.S. Pro Indoor Tennis Championships before 15,724 at the Spectrum.

The immediate rewards were a check for $135,000 and his 89th career championship. But more important was the emphatic statement Lendl made with his racket. He proved that, though he is just three weeks shy of his 31st birthday, he is still in shape.

Yes, Lendl said later, his primary goal is still winning Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam title to elude him. But he also said that Wimbledon isn't his only reason for playing.

"This is the first year of the second half of my career," he said in a deadpan voice that made it impossible to determine whether he was joking.

Just possibly, though, he wasn't kidding. This man with legs that look strong enough to be tree trunks said that regaining the No. 1 ranking he lost in August "would be nice, don't you think? I wouldn't mind."

Six months ago, Sampras had taken Lendl out of the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. That was the first time since 1981 that Lendl didn't make the Open final, and it seemed to signal that his time was done.

Yesterday, though, time was pushed back. Lendl's first ace whizzed by Sampras at 101 mph in the fourth game of the first set, and his last, on the final point of the game, ripped past Sampras' right ear at 110 mph.

Sampras, the defending champion, reminded us on the court that he is still a teen-ager, only 19, and prone to the casual kind of confidence that makes teen-agers think they are invincible.

"I thought I would win the tournament," Sampras said later, still clutching his runner-up check for $72,600. "I was playing pretty good tennis.

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