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Mecir Makes Final Unpredictable

Times Staff Writer

It’s the Australian Open final. It’s Ivan Lendl against Miloslav Mecir. It’s the Machine against the Oddball.

The what?

Tennis’ first Grand Slam men’s title of the year will be won today as the summer sun beats down through the open roof of center court to illuminate two of the sport’s more interesting players.

The matchup is a rematch. It will probably be decided at the baseline, maybe something like the 1986 U.S. Open final in which Lendl beat Mecir in straight sets.

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Straight is not the key word here. There are a lot of angles to this final.

Lendl, for instance, can leapfrog past Mats Wilander on the computer and become No. 1 in the world rankings again after an absence of almost 5 months.

And Mecir can at last join the ranks of the game’s top players, where many believe he already belongs, by winning his first Grand Slam title.

It is a match that many will be watching, and watching with particularly keen interest will be Jan Gunnarsson, the Swedish baseliner who made a surprise visit to the semifinals before Mecir took him out in straight sets.

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Gunnarsson isn’t sure who to favor.

“I don’t know who is winning,” he said.

“Lendl is a machine,” Gunnarsson said. “After the U.S. Open and he lost to Wilander, he just changed oil and kept on going.”

And Mecir?

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“He has an unbelievable touch,” Gunnarsson said. “He can put the ball where he wants it on the court when he is playing good.

“He can hit it cross court or down the line, and he can change very late. It’s impossible to read where he’s hitting the balls.”

Sometimes, however, Mecir is exasperatingly inconsistent. In 1988, he lost to Shuzo Matsuoka in the third round at Tokyo. He lost to Fernando Luna in the quarterfinals at Prague. He lost to Joey Rive in the first round at Cincinnati.

As John McEnroe said of Mecir this week, how Mecir plays depends on what side of the bed he gets up on in the morning.

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Lendl and Mecir have played 5 times, including the U.S. Open, and Lendl has won 4 of those matches. Mecir’s only victory was on the hard court at the Lipton in 1987.

A Lendl-Mecir final, although it may not be as gripping as a Becker-Lendl final or a Wilander-Lendl final, or any final with McEnroe in it, is the best the Australian Open could hope for after Wilander and Becker went out early.

Lendl, seeded second, and Mecir, seeded ninth, were the only two of the top nine seeded players to reach the semifinals.

Lendl struggled slightly in his semifinal with Thomas Muster, before winning, 6-2, 6-4, 5-7, 7-5. Mecir fell behind, 0-3, to Gunnarsson before scoring a 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 victory.

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Mecir said the early defeats of so many of the top players are an aberration.

“It’s not usual. It doesn’t happen all the time. But I think the other players, when they lost they always fought and played a tough match,” Mecir said. “It happens from time to time. It just happened all at once.”

Mecir, who won a gold medal a the Seoul Olympics, has been ranked in the top 10 since 1985. But he remains quiet, aloof, unassuming and very much out of the spotlight.

Playing tennis, Mecir is much the same way, Gunnarsson said.

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“Well, he is moving very softly on the court,” he said.

Mecir lost to Lendl at the U.S. Open the day after Mecir beat Becker in a difficult 5-set match that ended at 10 p.m.

But Mecir, who has lost just one set in this tournament, has had an easier road to the final than Lendl. Mecir thinks that may make a difference.

“Lendl is looking very tough these days, but I just think I can prevail and have a good match.”

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Pressed to elaborate, Mecir typically revealed little.

Question: Are you better prepared to play him than at the U.S. Open 2 years ago?

Answer: I don’t know.

Q: But are you a more experienced player now?

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A: Yes, I can say so.

Q: So what would it mean for you to win your first Grand Slam?

A: I don’t know. I have never won one.

Lendl has won 6 Grand Slam titles, but never the Australian Open, although he got to the final in 1983 before losing to Wilander in straight sets.

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Last year was the first since 1984 in which Lendl did not win a Grand Slam event. After winning more than $13 million in prize money alone in his career, Lendl has spent the last 2 weeks here talking about winning Grand Slams, not becoming No. 1 again.

If he wins Grand Slams, he will become No. 1 soon enough, Lendl reasoned.

Lendl gets a chance to win an elusive one today.

“I’m not going to give it away,” he said. “If somebody is going to beat me, he’s going to have to take it.”

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