SEOUL — Men on the professional tennis tour say that playing Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia is one of the most difficult things they do. To most of them, the Big Cat is a strange cat.
But there wasn't much strange about what he did to American Tim Mayotte here Friday, in the men's singles final of the first Olympic tennis tournament since 1924. Mecir won the gold medal. He beat Mayotte solidly, efficiently. He looked a little like a guy pushing a hand mower, and Mayotte was the grass.
The scores, much like everything else Mecir does, were a quiet 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. Not spectacular, not even flashy. Just Mecir.
And he was much the same afterward in the winner's press conference.
"I don't know how I feel now," he said. "Mostly, I feel I am sitting here answering questions from journalists. My emotions are difficult to say. I have to spend some time with friends, to go out and celebrate, and then maybe I feel more.
"Right now, I feel it was a great day, good sport, good sportsmanship. And I am happy I won."
In the spirit of the Olympics, Mayotte expressed more than the normal degree of happiness for somebody who had just lost a gold medal.
"This is a refreshing change here," he said. "It's a different feeling, even different than the Davis Cup. There's a bit more consolation in losing here than there is in the normal tournament. Here, you can still go away with a medal."
It was likely that Stefan Edberg of Sweden and Brad Gilbert of the United States felt the same way. They got bronze medals after losing in the semifinals and shared in the joy of the medal ceremony after the Mecir-Mayotte match, which included an emotional parade around the stadium and a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd that nearly filled the 9,773-seat stadium.
Mecir, a 24-year-old from Prague, has frequently been called "the quiet star" of tennis. He went from No. 60 in the rankings in 1984 to No. 9 in '85. And he has been a threat to get into the top 5 and stay there for the last 2 years.
In fact, it was a fluke of timing in the rankings that had him seeded third in this tournament, behind Edberg and Mayotte. Because of some recent inactivity on his part and a good surge by Mayotte, Mecir came here ranked No. 10, one above Mayotte.
But the true comparison of these two players came on the court here Friday.
Mayotte, appearing to still be running on a full tank of adrenaline from the superb match he played in the semifinals against Gilbert, served and volleyed his way to the nice start. But he is a veteran on the tour, and he, like the other players, know that a one-set start on Mecir is usually meaningless.
"He starts slowly, always has," Mayotte said. "I knew I still had my work cut out for me."
The seemingly inevitable turn in the match began almost the minute Mayotte won the first set. He served to start the second set, lost the game at 15-40 when Mecir slapped a return at his feet, and lost another service game at 2-4 that allowed Mecir to easily serve out the set.
Then the match really got away from Mayotte when Mecir hit another forehand at his feet at the net to break at 2-2. From then, it was all downhill for Mayotte, although Mecir's style tends to make that an easy ride.
Edberg, the No. 3 player in the world but a frequent victim to Mecir, said Thursday of the casual Czech, "He lulls you to sleep, and before you know it, you are in trouble."
Mayotte, the strong and long serve-and-volleyer from Stanford University and Boston, was in such trouble in the third set that he won a total of only three points against Mecir's serve. And Mecir's serve is the weakest part of his game. The first one has a little zip, but nothing like most of those on the men's tour. And the second one looks a lot like one of Ray Guy's punts.
But that mattered little Friday against Mayotte, who tried to outmuscle Mecir from the baseline, then serve and volley him to death, then return and charge. All of it worked equally well.
"He kept me off the net," Mayotte said. "And I can't stay with him from the backcourt."
So, that being the case, Mayotte went quietly in the end. He bettered his performance against Mecir's serve from three points to seven in the last set. And like any proud serve-and-volleyer, he went down swinging and grunting, charging on almost every point right until the end and defying Mecir to pass him. Which he did, almost every time, with nary a sound nor a change in expression.
At match point, when Mayotte dumped the last of his lunging volleys into the net, Mecir flung his racket skyward, went and shook Mayotte's hand and then kind of crawled back into his shell, smiling during the medal ceremony and the parade but showing no more uncharacteristic bursts of enthusiasm.
He had his gold medal, and he had some fun, he said.
"It was nice to just forget about the money for one week and be like sportsmen," he said, summing up better than anybody here all week what this was all about.