WIMBLEDON, England -- The technician never wins Wimbledon.
Seven times he has made it to the semifinals, and twice he has gone to the final, but he never has held the winner's cup above his head and heard a roar of noise rush down from the stands. He needs the touch of a sculptor and the soul of a poet, and all he can give this place are mechanical shots that come out of a training manual.
"I've always felt and still feel that, if you come close enough times, some day has to be your day," Ivan Lendl said.
But yesterday Wimbledon returned to normal. The rich and the royal reclaimed their Centre Court seats. The masses were shoved to the tennis outback to savor the pleasures of mixed doubles. And Lendl lost.
This time, he was taken out in the third round by a 22-year-old American, David Wheaton, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-3. It was Lendl's earliest Wimbledon exit since 1981, when he was sacked in the first round by Charlie Fancutt of Australia.
"I'm always disappointed when I lose," Lendl said. "I'm not angry unless I throw it away. I was beaten fair and square."
He was beaten on a bright, pleasant afternoon when men's tennis was introduced to a collection of unknown sweet 16s in the bottom half of the draw. Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, Guy Forget and a rejuvenated Tim Mayotte passed into the fourth round, but so did two Swedes named Jan Gunnarsson and Christian Bergstrom and a Dutchman named Jacco Eltingh.
The top half of the draw has the glamour of a Stefan Edberg-John McEnroe fourth-round matchup. The bottom half is stuck after a listless third round, with Becker smashing around a Soviet named Andrei Olhovskiy, 6-1, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, and Agassi showing up wearing rimless sunglasses for three games and beating Richard Krajicek, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 7-6 (7-2).
Just when half of Wimbledon is getting interesting, Lendl is going home to his mansion in Connecticut, going home to his year-old daughter, Marika, and wife, Samantha, 8 months pregnant with twins.
It's not a surprise. Scar tissue on his right hand became infected in February and required surgery in May. He skipped the French Open and worked out on grass, trying to refashion his awkward volleys, seeking the touch that would lead to greatness on grass.
"I just had a terrible trip this time to Europe," Lendl said. "I spent nine weeks here but didn't play much because of my hand. The last four weeks, I was only so-so."
But this is Wimbledon, and Lendl wouldn't quit. They like him now at the All England Club. They send him their letters, and they give him their applause. If only they could give him a volley.
"I've been getting tons of mail here for years," Lendl said. "I don't think you can get caught up in that, though. It is nice. But you have to do it yourself."
Sunday, when Wimbledon broke with its day-off tradition and opened its gates to the masses, Lendl was extended to five sets by MaliVai Washington. It showed that he was vulnerable, ready to be taken by a hard server and accurate passer who could leave him dangling at the net. Wheaton fit the description.
Although he may not be well-known outside his hometown of Lake Minnetonka, Minn., Wheaton is one of the bright lights of the pro tour, a Nick Bollettieri-trained baseliner who has refined his game for grass. He reached the quarterfinals of the 1990 U.S. Open, where he was blitzed by his boyhood idol, McEnroe. After four straight first-round losses in 1991, Wheaton rebounded at the Lipton by beating Edberg in the semifinals before losing to Jim Courier in the final.
"Against Lendl, I expected to play four hours," Wheaton said.
He needed only 2 hours, 49 minutes to cashier the technician. It was torpid tennis, really, an exhibition of what happens when too much power is unleashed on grass. The points were brief and artless. The tension was non-existent. But Wheaton was steadier in the clutch and kept bashing two-fisted backhand passers by Lendl, sending the last one flying by on match point.
"It's not like a boxing match where you knock a guy out and it's over," said Wheaton who next will face Gunnarsson, a 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 winner over Todd Woodbridge of Australia. "The main thing is not to get too up after you win. You have to go on."
So does Lendl. He has won 90 titles in his career, but he craves one special victory on grass. The obsession continues. So does the agony.