The DVDs of the epic Wimbledon 1989 semi-final arrived by mail. As I eagerly tore the wrappers off, was engulfed in a flood of Wimbledon memories...
June 4 1984: The Sports Page of the Hindu hails Lendl for his first Grand Slam title, a come-from-behind 5 set win over McEnroe in a blood-and-thunder final. Lendl becomes my first tennis hero.
June 1985: Same paper, same page. Henri Leconte beats Lendl in Round Four of Wimbledon. "My wife has helped me a lot, I am mentally tougher now," Leconte gleams as I sink in despair.(Leander's blitzkrieg win over the Frenchman in the gladiatorial amphitheater was doubly sweet 8 years later. But that is another story).
July 6 1986: The death of ex-PM Jagjivan forces cancellation of the live telecast of the Wimbledon final. We are forced to watch some motta-thalais nodding away while tinkering with the shehnai. The 930 PM news brings the shocking news of Lendl's defeat to Becker.
July 5 1987: Pat Cash with his blistering serves wins the first game of the Wimbledon final in 2 minutes. Lendl's first service game lasts 14 minutes after several breakpoints. Some time later with the Aussie 2 sets up, I hit the sack. [Aside: Earlier in the day, a few miles away, Imran Khan nabs his 300th Test wicket at Leeds and bowls Pakistan to a historic victory]
July 1 1988: The Lendl-Becker semifinal kicks off at 11PM IST as I struggle to stay awake. Becker finishes off a limping Lendl in 4 sets the next day.
July 6 1989: As I carry the class handwriting notebooks to the staff room, I keep telling myself that Lendl should beat his nemesis in the semis. Later in the evening, Chris Evert's final game at Wimbledon ends in a straight set loss to Steffi.
July 7 1989: D-Day! I can hardly believe my eyes and struggle to hide my delight, Lendl storms through the 3rd set and has broken Becker in the fourth. ("The great man served rocks," Nirmal Shekar wrote in the Sportstar a week later) "After all these years, the moment of reckoning is here," I tell myself. Rain stops play for a while. But invisible to all, the fury of fate has marched in with sinister designs.
Play resumes and a couple of bad line calls go against Lendl. Becker breaks back twice in a jiffy and it's 2 sets all.
I am still hopeful that Lendl can pull his act together in the final set. At 1-1, the telecast breaks for the 930 PM news and we take our dinner that was carefully planned to coincide with the intermission.
9:50 PM: DD flips back to Center Court. The scene is the interval after a break. The players have their heads buried in their towels. The commentators are quiet. Above the murmur of the crowd, "Time!" calls out the umpire, the applause of the crowd rises to a crescendo as the players rise to their feet. The sound of ballboys bouncing the balls across the court can be heard. The camera now pans to the Rolex scoreboard. Becker leads 5-2 and much like epic King Belshazzar(?) of old, I stare in horror at the writing on the wall. In a few minutes, it's all over, Becker continues his romance with Center Court as he speeds to yet another triumph.
The turning point was the rain interruption and the series of line calls that went against Lendl. That was enough to turn the match around. Another crucial call in the final set sealed his fate.
Though he was every much a true champion, I have always felt Lendl to be very sensitive on court. He was often affected by the on court tantrums of McEnroe and Connors in the early 80s and that explains why he could never conquer them in their prime.
Watching the DVD 16 years later, I realised how futile my hope had been. Becker looked very fluid, young, fit and strong. Though the first 2 sets were close, he always looked at ease and in control. After all in their 2 previous Wimbledon clashes, Boris won 6 games to Ivan's 1, that too a tie-break. Besides, Lendl was playing a guy with a match record of 28-2 in his favorite tournament.
Some stills from the heart-breaking final set and after:
Appealing to the Almighty: "That was the third call in the last 3 games...I'm having a hard time on my own, you are making things even more difficult for me..it's unbelievable".
Next point: An easy volley netted, Becker has 3 breakpoints
No trouble at all, the crowd gasps in anguish as Lendl double faults. That's the winning break!
9:36 PM IST : Chilling reminder of the fatal game
Lendl walking off the court: Struggling to shoulder the burden of Destiny
The victor and the vanquished: The game's most hallowed turf smiles benignly on one's of its most loved sons
Now that I've crumpled sufficient quantities of Kleenex, it's time to switch back to the mode of a dispassionate statistician. Becker on that day didn't deserve to lose either. The Boom Boom Boris that we had known added an entirely new dimension to his game - his backhand worked like a magic wand and he pulled off astounding winners all through the fourth and fifth sets. I recollect the BBC commentator rapturously replaying his flowing backhand service returns that came back like artillery fire. He played every much like a mid-90s guy, powerful, quick but still displayed tremendous grace and ease of movement. Boris was a true champion who genuinely enriched Center Court all through his playing days. I had never enjoyed Sampras' mechanical and ruthless sway over the Championships though I deeply admire him now. But when Boris ruled over Center Court, there was always a gentleness and a certain fluidity about his game which made for easy and enriching viewing. A wondeful player and a lovely human being all through. I still treasure the 4 page interview in the Sportstar, February 19 1994, where he spoke not a word of tennis but all about life in general. There could hardly have been a better sportsman to showcase his gifted talents on Center Court. Life turned full circle as a still young Boris found an younger and stronger Sampras too hot to handle in the semifinal of 1993 and final of 1995. But I still rooted for the man who had dashed my idol's dreams few years earlier. Such was his talent and persona.
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