PHILADELPHIA -- The machine. It was always the unflattering term used to denigrate the tennis talents of Ivan Lendl.
He was the robot brought to life on a tennis court, a bloodless, programmed performer who mastered the serve and the groundstroke and won through sheer repetition. If it rained, a joke went, Lendl would rust.
Only in recent years, when age and a new generation of power hitters made him vulnerable, has Lendl's greatness been appreciated. The machine became human, his qualities of steadiness and control were celebrated, his indestructibleness was the measure of his resolve.
Yesterday at the Spectrum, Lendl showed again why he is the dominant player of his generation, outslugging 19-year-old Pete Sampras, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, in the final of the U.S. Pro Indoor. It was the 89th singles title of Lendl's 13-year professional career. The first-place check of $135,000 pushed his earnings past the $17 million mark.
"It's always nice to win a tournament," he said.
Lendl turns 31 next month, but talks of playing into the next century. He has won eight Grand Slam singles titles, but continues to chase the elusive crown of Wimbledon. He is ranked No. 3 in the world, positioned perfectly to make a late-summer assault against No. 1 Stefan Edberg and No. 2 Boris Becker.
"This is the first year of the second half of my career," Lendl said.
If anything, Lendl is in better shape now than he was even five years ago. He admires durability and admits that the only athletes he holds in awe are cyclists.
"Cyclists are the best athletes in the world," he said. "Greg LeMond is my hero. I think he is the greatest athlete in the world."
Who is the greatest tennis player? Lendl won't say. His goal is to accumulate titles and money and let others compile the rankings.
Lendl may be the only player to count Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Andre Agassi and Sampras as long-term rivals. His career is becoming a bridge between generations.
"It's hard to have a long rivalry against a Sampras, unless I hang around many, many more years," Lendl said.
Lendl is striving to remain a force in a young man's game. He has hired a traveling coach, Chris Lewis, and jokes that he'll run him into the ground. More important, Lendl continues to make subtle improvements in his game. He'll never be a stylist at the net, but he studiously works to perfect his volleys.
"I'm starting to feel that I'm understanding the game," he said. "I'm starting to understand what is going on, on the court. I just enjoy what I'm doing."
In his own way, Lendl displayed that enjoyment during the
3-hour, 20-minute final. The last time he faced Sampras was in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. Sampras won that match in five sets and used it as his launching pad to the title. But Lendl, who spent 1990 working toward Wimbledon, was clearly not at his peak in New York.
"I said many, many times that I was suffering seriously from not playing enough matches," Lendl said. "My groundstrokes were not what they should have been."
Yesterday, Lendl assaulted Sampras with groundstrokes, and 23 service aces. Sampras responded with 14 aces and matched the ground game with attacks at the net. This was the tennis equivalent to a pitcher's duel, two players unloading 100 mile-an-hour serves, separated by only two break points.
"Ivan plays one speed all the time, whether it's five sets or 10," Sampras said. "His groundstrokes are so heavy."
Sampras, the defending champion, was up a set and a break at 4-1 in the second. He was in control. But not for long. Lendl snapped off five straight games and the audience settled in for a long matinee.
"My game and my intensity went up and down," Sampras said.
Lendl never wavered. Cracked skin between the thumb and index finger of his serving hand didn't deter him. Sampras' fastballs didn't shake him. He broke Sampras' serve in the fourth game of the fifth set, and finished off the match with a pair of aces.
"I really enjoy what I'm doing," he said. "I enjoy the exercise and the competition. It's just almost like a hobby to me."