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U.S. Open Preview : Potential Quarterfinal Matchup Draws a Great Deal of Attention

August 25, 1985|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Whether it's John McEnroe triumphantly defending his 1984 championship, Jimmy Connors blasting his way through for one last stand or Ivan Lendl removing the sleeper hold from his throat, rest assured that the men's final of this year's U.S. Open tennis championships will be sheer anti-climax.

There's no way around it, not if 17-year-old Boris Becker can complete his appointed rounds and maneuver his way into the quarterfinals. He should get there, thus setting up the showdown that has been on the minds and lips of tennis fans since Becker went to Wimbledon two months ago, saw and conquered it:

Mac vs. the kid.

No doubt about it, this will be the match of this year's U.S. Open, which will start Tuesday. And if it does indeed come to pass, it won't really matter what happens afterward.

Everybody already knows that Connors hates McEnroe and that a possible meeting in the final round will be all blood, guts and bile.

Everybody already knows that Lendl is due at Flushing Meadow after melting down in the final the last three years.

And in the women's bracket, who doesn't know that it will be Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd, again, pounding it out for supremacy? You could bet the house on it. Or Vitas Gerulaitis' house.

That's all old news.

But McEnroe vs. Becker, that's something that stirs the imagination. They have met only once before--McEnroe won in March in Milan, Italy, 6-4, 6-3--but that was well before King Mac took the fall and Becker came on to shatter tennis precedent.

Is Becker West Germany's belated answer to Bjorn Borg, or just a teen-age flash of brilliance destined to become a footnote to history? Will Becker dare risk his bony knees with dives onto the concrete at Flushing Meadow or with pratfalls that became his trademark on the lawns of Wimbledon? How will he cope with the blare and glare of the Big Apple?

And what of McEnroe? After months of sub-level performances and tabloid speculation--"What has Tatum done to him?"--are McEnroe's two recent tournament wins at Stratton Mountain and Montreal a signal of a return to form? How will New York's native, if not necessarily favorite, son react to this red-haired, freckle-faced foreigner trespassing on his home turf?

New Yorkers are dying to find out. They're lining up for tickets.

"It'll fill the stadium, that's for sure," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Arthur Ashe, who has coached McEnroe and plotted strategy against Becker. "Obviously, everybody is waiting for when they square off."

Becker's youth is as much an attraction as his out-of-nowhere success. Men's tennis hasn't had such an intriguing, precocious threat to the throne since, well, since an 18-year-old Stanford freshman named McEnroe reached the 1977 Wimbledon semifinals.

But in Ashe's view, Becker may transcend comparison. He may be one of a kind.

"Becker is different," Ashe said. "He's the first big child prodigy we've ever had. He's well over six feet tall, he's fast, he's quick.

"Look at all the other 17-year-old whiz kids--Rosewall, Borg, McEnroe, Wilander. None of them were nearly as strong as Becker."

For that reason, Ashe sees Becker taking up long-term residence in the top 10 of world tennis. "He's a hell of a player, no flash in the pan," Ashe said. "He's a real wunderkind."

But, in a 1985 pairing against McEnroe, Ashe sees Becker as a real underdog.

"Mac's the definite favorite," Ashe said. "Becker will have to try to get to the net before McEnroe. That's (McEnroe's) relative weakness--foot speed. If McEnroe beats him to the net, he'll kill him."

When he was given the No. 1 seeding last week, McEnroe became the favorite of the entire tournament. Becker, despite his triumph at Wimbledon, was seeded eighth--largely because of his short track record and his mixed results since. Becker lost to Lendl in the Indianapolis semifinals and was upset in the first round of the Austrian Open by someone named Diego Perez.

Thus, Becker wound up in McEnroe's bracket. And thus, the only match that really matters in U.S. Open '85 will be played three days before the championship match is played.

Unless, of course, Becker is ambushed before the quarterfinals. McEnroe has an easy early draw, but trouble could crop up for Becker in the fourth round.

There lurks Joakim Nystrom, who was a ground stroke or two away from ending Becker's Wimbledon fairy tale when the eventual champion was still known as Boris Who? Nystrom took on Becker in the third round at Wimbledon and held match point before losing a 9-7 fifth set.

Nystrom is a nice Swedish kid, but he'll wind up joining Ilie Nastase and Lendl among the Open's collection of villains if he ruins Becker's shot at McEnroe.

Which brings us to another factor that figures to weigh heavily on the outcome of the men's competition this fall.

The Swedes.

They're all over the place--French Open champion and third-seeded Mats Wilander, Wimbledon semifinalist Anders Jarryd, Memphis winner Stefan Edberg, extraordinary baseliner Henrik Sundstrom.

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