The day known as Super Saturday in tennis circles started off with a mild protest from a most unlikely source at the U.S. Open.
Two Swedes registered the protest, which surely sounds like a contradiction in terms. But Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg became Swedish rebels with a cause when they decided they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.
OK, protests are nothing new in a game that has given us John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. In tennis, tantrums are as normal as throwing a ball in the air to serve.
However, the Swedish version of making a statement, registering a complaint, was merely an extension of their personalities. Calm but forceful and to the point.
Wilander adopted the leadership role, and Edberg merely went along as they used delay tactics for ammunition in their small fight with the United States Tennis Assn. Upset over the 10 a.m., EDT, starting time for their semifinal Saturday, they stalled in the locker room and took the Stadium Court 15 minutes late.
And, funny thing is, this role-playing carried onto the court as the No. 3-seeded Wilander took charge in their semifinal and defeated No. 2 Edberg, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, at the National Tennis Center.
In the second semifinal, the matchup made for television, two-time defending champion Ivan Lendl ended all suspense early against the remaining American, Connors, winning, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. The Lendl-Wilander meeting today is a rematch of their French Open final.
Hence, the Swedes provided the only real surprise of the day on the men’s side by acting out of character. Yet, they’ve been doing this all tournament. Edberg, previously known as being a stoic, told Norwegian jokes in the men’s locker room during a rain delay earlier this week and made gentle fun of his own countrymen.
What finally pushed Wilander over the edge, into anger, was a late change in the Super Saturday schedule. Tournament officials wanted to complete both men’s semfinals because they feared it would rain, so the first match was pushed back from 11 a.m. to 10. Thus, Wilander, who didn’t find out about the change until Friday night, and Edberg had to get up around 7 a.m. Saturday to begin their preparations.
“Ten is very early to play the semifinals of the U.S. Open,” Wilander said. “I also think it’s the first time I played a tournament where they changed the schedule before the rains came.
“It was wrong that Stefan played Thursday and Friday (doubles) and he had to play first on Saturday. It just didn’t make sense to me. They had said 11. They informed my mother-in-law of the change, they didn’t speak to me. It wasn’t really a protest. We just wanted to show that they can’t just do any time that want.”
Fittingly, Wilander made these comments to a CBS reporter, and it’s interesting because television is widely regarded as the villain in this whole mess. When Wilander and Edberg made their feelings clear after the match, tournament referee Gayle Bradshaw and men’s supervisor Ken Farrar were brought in to offer their side of the story.
It quickly turned into the Gayle and Ken Show, as the two men fended off questions from a roomful of reporters, sometimes resulting in comical responses. Dodging the issue of fairness, Bradshaw said the popularity of the Lendl-Connors matchup basically dictated the policy decision. When asked why Edberg, who played a five-set doubles final Friday, had to take the court before Connors or Lendl, who hadn’t played since Wednesday, Farrar interrupted.
“He doesn’t have to play doubles,” Farrar said.
This came from a man who is employed by the men’s pro council, a group that encourages the players to compete in doubles events, to give the public more of a chance to see the top players.
And both Bradshaw and Farrar skirted the issue of CBS’ control of the schedule, saying that all possibilites were considered before reaching a conclusion. However, it’s almost a sure bet that CBS was not going to put Lendl and Connors on at 10 a.m. in the East, meaning 7 in the West.
Bradshaw said he hadn’t known Wilander was even protesting, claiming he had only heard rumors that the players were only trying to get a “dig’ in at the officials.
Meanwhile, Edberg didn’t even remember who eventually came to get them to come to the court.
“It was too early,” he said. “It is the same guys who are always around. We said we were coming out a little bit late and we did.”
Seemingly, the early start bothered Edberg more than it distrubed Wilander. The two have drastically different playing styles as Edberg plays a classic serve-and-volley game, while Wilander prefers to stay on the baseline but can attack when necessary.
The tone was set in the first game as Edberg took a 40-0 lead on his service and squandered it, losing five straight points to give Wilander the early break. Edberg, who had five double-faults, served one in the opening game, creating the break-point opportunity for Wilander. Wilander broke when Edberg punched a forehand volley wide.
“I think that was important for him,” Edberg said of the first game. “It is important to have a good start when you begin so early. He played really well from the beginning. I wasn’t really in the match, but then I worked my way into it.”
Edberg, who easily defeated Wilander in their last two meetings, began to find his rhythm and won the second set, 6-3. However, Wilander stopped the momentum by breaking service in the second game of the third set.
“I think that was the most important game of the match,” said Wilander.
Another key to the outcome came in the sixth game of the fourth set with Wilander serving. The game went to 10 deuces and Edberg had four break points. He squandered one chance, on the second break point, by mis-hitting an easy overhead, which bounced on his own side. Later, in the game, it happened again when Edberg smashed another overhead way long.
When reminded of the shots, Edberg smiled.
“He hit so many (lobs), I got tired of trying to hit them,” Edberg said.
Another time, Edberg smacked a serve into the stands, in the second set, and hit a fan.
“I had one of those in Cincinnati,” he said, smiling again. “It was even longer than today. It was a home run.”
If one were to compare the losing semifinalists, Connors and Edberg, the latter was much more gracious in defeat.
Connors viewed his match against Lendl in a strange manner, after just winning a total of eight games in three sets and being unable to break service.
“I had a chance to win the first set,” said the 35-year-old Connors. “I should have won the first set. I don’t think there was any doubt in my mind I should have won the first set. If I had won the first set and gotten off to a quick start . . . he wasn’t on top of his game in the beginning and he was trying to let me in there and have a chance. But I just didn’t take advantage of it.
“If I had won that game (at 5-4 in the first set), it would have been a different story. If I had won the first set . . . the crowd could have been a huge factor.”
Connors, the sixth-seeded player, did have his chances at 5-4, blowing four break points. So after Lendl won the first set, the match was essentially over.
Lendl hasn’t lost a set yet and has dropped only two in the last three years here. Only four other players have completed the tournament without losing a set. The most recent was Neale Fraser in 1960.
Against Wilander, Lendl believes he has to play very well because the Swedish player doesn’t make that many mistakes. Edberg, on the other hand, has more errors in his game. Either way, Lendl viewed his strong showing against Connors as a good sign, although he feels Connors, at 35, is obviously slower than Wilander.
However, Connors wasn’t buying that kind of talk.
“If I lose a little bit of my quickness, 124 other guys here might be a little slower than I am,” he said. “Nobody is perfect, it’s no secret. When you’re 35, you lose some things, you gain some things. Big deal, 35. Thirty-five is a number.”
Brett Connors, Jimmy’s son, decided to voice his opinion.
“I’m only 9,” he said.
Jimmy: You’re lucky to make it to 9.”
And, most likely, the father of Brett Connors is lucky to have made the Open semifinals for one last time.