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Pernfors, Lendl Survive Rain, Cold on Their Way to the Final

June 07, 1986|ELLIOTT ALMOND | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Living in Athens, Ga., is not like living in Athens, Greece. The only ruins you will find are those left by the Bulldog football and basketball teams, hardly a lesson in Greek mythology and antiquity.

So, Swedish tennis player Mikael Pernfors, late of the University of Georgia, was looking for something to do in the New World Athens three weeks before the start of the French Open tennis tournament.

Resting an injured wrist, he decided to run three miles a day. "You've got to do something in Athens," he said. How he accounted for the rest of the day he would not say.

What he did--the physical training--turned out to be more than just a means of passing time. Pernfors, a two-time NCAA champion who turned professional 10 months ago, showed the tennis world another side of Swedish play Friday, one that has power, finesse and poise.

Pernfors, who will turn 23 on July 16, ended France's last hope in its most prestigious tournament by upsetting Henri Leconte, 2-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-3, in a five-hour, rain-delayed semifinal at Roland Garros Stadium.

Pernfors, loose, eager, unseeded and practically unknown, will on Sunday face the world's top-ranked player, Ivan Lendl, who swept past Johan Kriek, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0, in the other semifinal.

Pernfors, who lives in Holldiksnas, Sweden, when not training in Georgia, was NCAA singles champion in 1984 and 1985. Back then, he had little interest in the likes of center court at Roland Garros and the status of his next opponent, Lendl. Back then, Pernfors had hostile Clemson crowds to contend with. He knew only of Lendl's reputation, not of his game.

But that was then. This is now. And Mikael Pernfors has won six straight matches, defeating Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Leconte along the way.

This 5-8, 150-pound Pernfors has added some topping to a vanilla ice cream-like tournament. There's Lendl, of course, but without John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, there has been little else. The semifinals were as dull as Merv Griffin reruns until Pernfors got going against Leconte Friday.

He used his quickness to quell Leconte and the partisan crowd.

"I feel like I can't miss a shot," Pernfors said. "Whatever the opponent does, I feel like a counter. I don't think I ever hit it that good as today. I've always felt good about my tennis, but I've never felt this good."

Leconte, who had never faced Pernfors before, easily won the first set, moving his opponent around like a yo-yo. He built a 4-1 lead in the second set when Pernfors began warming up in spite of threatening clouds on a dreary day better suited for the grass of Wimbledon than the ruddy clay of Roland Garros.

Pernfors broke serve just before a heavy downpour delayed the match for almost two hours. When play resumed, Leconte seemed to have lost his concentration, and eventually dropped the set.

"The first time, I was disturbed by the rain delay," Leconte said. Pernfors wasn't. He said he went looking for a card game but ended up taking a hot shower and waiting out the storm when he couldn't find anybody to play against.

When play resumed, Pernfors held all the aces. Leconte tried to put the ball deep and then attack the net. Voila! What he saw when he made his move was a whizzing, yellow blur blasting by him time and again.

What the rain-drenched audience saw earlier Friday was a semifinal match of the worst kind, and Lendl eased to the final by beating Kriek quickly. Only the rain delayed Lendl's inevitable victory.

Only after the match ended was Kriek ready for perhaps the stiffest challenge of the tournament. He was ready to face the piercing volleys and slick serves; he was ready to face a public lynching by the international media after facing a most dreaded enemy on center court--himself.

Kriek admitted that he had given up after the first few points, when he was playing well but not scoring points.

He admitted that he had tanked it. He volunteered the information. And for sudden sincerity, let's credit him with half a point.

As for his play? Well . . .

"I shouldn't have woken up this morning," Kriek said. "It was bad out there. I have never been so cold on the court. I have never played so badly in my life in this stadium.

"I beat myself. Ivan didn't have an opponent out there. It was a total disaster."

The cracks in Kriek's play started early when Lendl, still in his sweats, broke serve in the match's first game. Kriek was using his serve-and-volley attack that had proved successful through five matches, including a victory over Guillermo Vilas and a default by Yannick Noah. But the 28-year-old Kriek, a native of South Africa living in Florida, couldn't handle the wet clay, which hampered his game. "It was a disastrous day for tennis," he said. "The balls were heavy. You couldn't play decent tennis out there."

Said Lendl: "It was very difficult. It was windy and the wind was twisting. It was very cold. The court was very slippery. Before practice this morning, they were throwing on more clay, and underneath it was mud."

Play might have been difficult for Kriek, or at least that's the way it seemed. But the same could not be said of Mikael Pernfors.

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