The ATP Tour has a heavy head nowadays. The five or six players at the head of the rankings are separated from the rest by a huge margin, and not just in terms of points. They simply seem untouchable on paper.
This is the first time that all of these players are fit and in top form, hence making this AO probably the most competitive slam to predict in a decade, promising dare-devil matches.
While that is the case, it is rather a difficult task to find classics from the Australian Open from the older generations, since it took some time for the opening slam to be considered worthy of participation. The Borgs and the McEnroes rarely bothered (Johny did not play AO in his "unbelievable season").
Thanks to Marianne and Rajat for suggesting the match and helping me find the resources for the Australian Open final between Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl.
Watching Becker and Lendl was a bit like watching Pete Sampras split into two. Something close to his talent was playing on one side and his perseverance was on the other. Again, his net game was on one side and his baseline game on the other.
Boris Becker was once touted to be the next GOAT. He had a very complete game, and could be said to be the predecessor of the present-day all-courter. True to his nick-name, he had a booming serve, and also could deal out some kickers. With a sound baseline game and being very good at the net, Becker could surely win on the medium-paced hard court.
Ivan Lendl, more famous for his comments on cows and grass, was the epitome of hard work. He was an offensive base-liner using big forehands loaded with top-spin. If Sampras has the best running forehand of all time, Lendl was the inventor of it. He used his serve speed to get into the points and finish them quickly with big strokes. With a big ground game loaded with top-spin the surface played to Lendl's strengths.
Going into the match, like Lendl too might have geared himself up for it, I was all ready for some great points on the "Rebound Ace," but the first four games passed by in a zip.
Lendl's serve was on, and today it was his backhand firing on all cylinders with a lot of great winners coming from that flank, though it was his forehand that was the more lethal weapon.
Becker meanwhile was clutching his right hip. His movement seemed to be affected by stiffness on his right side; he did not seem to be able to lean well enough into a forehand, and some of his serves went for return winners.
By game four, Lendl was alone on the scoreboard and Becker seemed to be in complete frustration, hitting his right hip hard and shouting in German. The stretches were being done more often and more violently, but this situation was not going to be dealt with lightly.
Boris would fight.
It was on in the fifth game. Lendl opened with an inside-out backhand winner, but Becker replied with a backhand down the line. Lendl was having trouble giving out first serves. On the next point, the players moved each other across the court and one could glimpse the first sightings of a running forehand from Lendl forcing the error from Becker.
The next point was similar with lot of hard hitting. After marooning Lendl on his backhand side, Becker showed great hands and unleashed a vicious slice down the line biting the paint. Though Lendl reached it, his running forehand trying to spin the ball into the court did not work.
30-30. They were sure on equal footing in this game.
An error from Lendl allowed Becker his first break point of the match. Lendl was simply losing his service rhythm as he netted another first delivery. On the rally that ensued next, Lendl stepped into the court to deal out an inside in forehand. Becker couldn't reach it on time and miss-hit it.
Becker, aghast at himself, started stretching and hitting his hips again.
He lost another point to let Lendl ahead. On the next, he got right the forehand that he missed on break point. The rally continued until another Becker slice made it to the baseline and landed right on it. The ball skidded off the paint disrupting Lendl's timing. Deuce.
Moving Lendl from side to side, Becker followed this with an amazing forehand behind him who was trying to reach the other side in time. Second break point.
He would get a third as both players commit errors. But Lendl would find his way out of trouble with a couple of aces and service winners.
At 5-0 it was sure that Becker was connecting well. He would earn his first service hold to put his name up on the board at 5-1. Lendl would hold serve to wrap up the first set 6-1.
The match had only started.
The second set began better than the first with both players equal, but Lendl was "more equal" than Becker. Lendl had easier service holds and Becker was struggling in the initial games first going down 0-30 then coming up with good serves to hold the games.
Up till 2-2 this was the story. Lendl finding range on his ground strokes, unleashing a few great running forehands and a lot of stunning passes. Becker was not getting the better of Lendl from the baseline, but was somehow bent upon trying that.
At 2-2 was the first time Becker held a game convincingly to 15, to go up 3-2.
Lendl was still unshakable and was holding his own serve pretty comfortably to love or to 15. 3-3.
Becker changed things up a bit, serving and volleying to go up 4-3. This was the first time he was on top of Lendl and trying to beat him from the net. Getting passed only once, Becker made sure that Lendl was stranded on each occasion on the other half of the world when he volleyed.
The point of the set happened at 4-4. Becker's serve was returned wide and angled to his forehand side. Becker hit a lunging cross-court forehand that was aimed very close to the ball boy at the net. Lendl reached it with amazing speed and sent back a running forehand of great pace to Becker's backhand side. Becker too reached it and unleashed a vicious cross court slice. But Lendl was standing there at the net this time and finished off the point.
But it was no matter, as Becker held serve again.
One could see Becker's game was slowly coming together and he was figuring out where each piece fit. He had done so at exactly the right time. At 4-5 when Lendl was under pressure serving to stay in the set, Becker was in his elements.
He lasered a volley at Lend's feet and approached the net, read where Lendl would pass him and hit another volley to finish off the point on one occasion. On another, he hit a full-blooded forehand cross-court winner off a Lendl serve. On the third, again he approached the net and created an unassailable angle with yet another great volley. This along with a Lendl double fault at the beginning of the game earned him the set.
Becker took it up from where he left in the second, breaking Ivan's nerve and serve in the beginning of the third set itself for a 2-0 lead.
It was enough that Becker was staying with him in rallies, and even winning some. Lendl was surely a bit unsettled losing the second set and now losing ground from the baseline too. He started shouting at the linesman when his serve was called out for a double fault in this game, and made a few more errors to lose the game.
But shaking off the bad-temper, Ivan was fired up for the next two games. He held a couple of break points on the Becker serve, but was fought off. On his own serve he showed more intent, even coming to the net a couple of times, holding the game to 15.
Lendl continued persevering throughout the set, from this point on, troubling Becker on his serve. Finally, when Becker was serving for the set at 5-3, he broke, saving five set-points on the way. The game would get as dramatic as any. With great ground-strokes, volleys, shots missing the line by millimeters, outright miss-hits, and the score emphasizing the significance of each one, the stadium came alive.
Becker missed the line twice after reaching his fifth set point. On the next point, Becker was attacking Lendl's backhand relentlessly, and just when he seemed to be reaching the breaking point, Lendl ran around a forehand and smacked one down the line for a winner breaking Becker.
But it was destined to be a wasted effort. Becker broke right back to take the set with some splendid baseline play, hitting behind Lendl on the run and forcing errors from him.
At set point, Lendl pulled one hard on Becker's forehand when he was on the other side of the court, and closed down all exits at the net. But Becker went high and around Lendl for a running forehand pass that was as good as any that Lendl himself had pulled off that match.
Becker was ahead. Two sets to one.
By the time the fourth set began, his game was in place. With the serve clicking and getting him out of any semblance of trouble, though it was still Lendl better from the baseline, Becker could stand close. He started finding more success at the net too. Becker was truly settled now.
Both players held their serves till 2-2 quite comfortably.
At that point, on the Becker serve, Lendl held two break points courtesy of a couple of errors.
But Becker raised his game. A service winner erased the first of these two break points. On the second, a rally ensued. After trading shots with Lendl's backhand, Becker decided to challenge his running forehand. To his dismay, it was still in top condition as Lendl fired one cross court. Becker stretched every bit of muscle in his body to reach that one and pulled it over the net low and short. Lendl had to approach now something with which he was not really comfortable. He managed to give a good slice at the Becker backhand which spun away almost at right angle. Becker pulled a passing shot out of the hat from outside the tramlines that he himself could not believe. Deuce!
Another passing shot and ace later, Becker held. Heroic hold!
From then on both were playing their customary games. Becker serving well, finding winners from the baseline and when that was found to be inadequate against Lendl's power, moving up the net. Lendl, absolute rock from the baseline with machine-like consistency on passes.
That was till 5-4, when Lendl had to serve to stay in the match. For the third time, he was under pressure on his serve.
Maybe the pressure got to him. He committed a couple of forehand errors. A return winner by Becker later, he was down by three championship points.
But Lendl would not give up. He erased one with a brave pass, but it was all over when Becker fired yet another return winner.
Boris started with a stiff back and leg in the match, and found his game at the end of the first set. Finally the fact that he had more weapons helped him edge ahead of Lendl.
One should not forget the kind of equipment they were using at that time. Even without an aero-drive, some of the feats these men pulled out would put the current crop to shame.
A match way tighter than the scoreline. Classic!
Becker - Lendl : 1-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4
Please read the previous instalment of the Australian Open rewind series here
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