NEW YORK -- Michael Stich laid his head on a bed of flowers. He wandered aimlessly to a chair, plopped down, pulled a banana out of a bag and peeled it as if it were some object from space. He sipped water, slowly, almost too slowly.
Louis Armstrong Stadium was a giant hot plate yesterday, and Stich was on boil. The king of wet, windy Wimbledon was melting in humid, hazy New York. He was struggling with the 120-degree heat on a hard court, and he was battling a pugnacious American named MaliVai Washington.
"I was tired, and everything was hurting," Stich said.
But Stich wasn't too hurt to win. He crept through the third round of the U.S. Open with a 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Washington.
The Stich victory capped another day at the Open when the sizzling weather overshadowed the tepid tennis. The top seeds put on their sun block and swatted away the underdogs.
No. 2 Stefan Edberg finished with a rush to defeat Jim Grabb, 7-6 (10-8), 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. No. 5 Ivan Lendl appeared disconcerted ,, on the grandstand court but rallied to defeat Todd Woodbridge, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
Moving into the round of 16 almost unnoticed was No. 12 Goran Ivanisevic. He continued his serving exhibition with 18 aces in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Luiz Mattar.
Derrick Rostagno, an unheralded player who routinely puts on a show at a Grand Slam tournament, went toe-to-toe for four tie-breakers against Jakob Hlasek and won, 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-4).
"I just waited for the tie-breakers," Rostagno said. "I didn't mind. I am proud of myself to have played under pressure."
Stich had to perform in the glare of a midafternoon sun. He remains a relatively unknown champion, a 22-year-old German who emerged from Boris Becker's shadow to win Wimbledon. Suddenly, Stich is No. 3 in the world, warding off the deal-makers in the lounge and the autograph-hunters in the stands.
"Here, not too many people know me," he said. "They know the name because I won Wimbledon. But not too many people recognize me. And that's fine."
Stich's game is an assembly of clanging parts. His serve registers 120 mph on a radar gun. His return is preposterously quick. And his volleys, although far from refined, always seem to get the job done.
His preparation for the Open was bizarre. He played clay-court tournaments in Europe. He fulfilled a commitment to his team in the German Bundesleague. He went to Schenectady, N.Y., for a final tuneup.
"I think I prepared myself well enough for the U.S. Open," Stich said. "I'm in the round of 16. It's tough now. You look back now and realize you can play every kind of match against every kind of player."
Against Washington, Stich was facing a player in search of a breakthrough. Washington, ranked No. 57, is beginning to make a habit of losing five-set matches to Grand Slam champions. He lost to Stich at the Australian Open and to Lendl at Wimbledon.
"What is needed to get the breakthrough? Having the guy break his ankle when I am playing in the fifth," Washington said. "It is not discouraging. I mean, it is definitely encouraging. I'm not worried about my time coming. It will come at some point in time. There are going to be times when I am going to get kind of lucky and the other guy is going to dump a few volleys."
What will he do if he loses some more five-setters?
"I'll probably say, go ask my psychiatrist," Washington said.
But it wasn't luck that enabled Stich to beat Washington. It was heart. Stich was miserable but he still played the big points like a guy who wasn't afraid to hang around in the sun. He unloaded two huge forehands to get the service break in the fifth game of the final set. Then he waxed Washington's serve in the final game, smashing one last backhand passing shot to end the match.
"In the end, maybe he was getting mentally tired," Stich said. "I figured whoever made the first break in the fifth set would win the match."
He was right. It was a difficult day for Stich, but he survived.
"The other guys have nothing to lose," Stich said. "MaliVai can try his best to win. For us, the top players, always, you have to win, and you want to win."