We all know what players do to prepare. What I do is to watch at least one great U.S. Open final from years ago, and today, I watched one of my all-time favorite finals of any tournament--the 1985 U.S. Open final, featuring Hana Mandlikova and Martina Navratilova. Navratilova was the defending champion, and the final was twisty and thrilling and unforgettable.
When Navratiolva and Mandlikova faced one another, it must have been like looking in a mirror, so similar were their games. They were not only the best volleyers of their generation, but two of the best volleyers in the history of women's tennis. They could also serve well and construct points well. Mandlikova was the artist of her generation, in that she played with the type of grace that comes along only now and then (Bueno, Goolagong, Sabatini, Mauresmo).
It was blazing hot that day, 25 years ago; the on-court temperature reached 100 degrees. Neither player wore a hat or a headband. Mandlikova blazed into the first set with such breathtaking, attacking accuracy, there was nothing the defending champion could do. It was only when she served at 5-0 that Mandlikova experienced the force that was Navratilova. The defending champion broke her, held, broke her again, and eventually brought the set to a tiebreak.
The Mandlikova of only a few years before would have been done in by her failure to close the set at 5-0. But this was the calmer, more mature Mandlikova, who--despite frustration--fought her way through the tiebreak to take the first set. It must have taken something out of her, though, because her often-formidable serve collapsed in the next set, which Navratilova won 6-1.
Mandlikova broke early in the third set, but Navratilova would have none of it. The pair continued their volley-to-volley pattern, displaying hands so fast, spectators were in an almost constant state of excitement. Both players hit winning passing shots, and some stunning baseline returns came off of Mandlikova's racquet. But to the end, much of the match was about the volleys, with each woman sometimes just shaking her head over what her opponent had just accomplished at the net. Mandlikova lost some aggression in the last set, but managed to compete her way to a 5-3 lead. She had match points, too, but Navratilova saved them, which led to a second tiebreak.
And just as she did in the first five games, Mandlikova used her considerable aggression to quickly go up 6-0. Navratilova saved a couple of championship points, but the tiebreak was all about Mandlikova, and she soon won her only U.S. Open title. The graceful Czech fell supine onto the hot court, having just become one of the few women to win major titles on all three surfaces.
During the match, one of the commentators mentioned that Mandlikova was often considered the most gifted player of her generation. She had it all--the serve, the volley, the tactics, incredible shot-making, and superb athleticism. It was her impatience with herself that got in her way, and her mental game caused her to be inconsistent. She won four majors, but that always feels like such a small number in proportion to her unforgettable talent.
It was great seeing this match again. Unfortunately, I cannot imagine any 2010 final that can deliver the artistry that pervaded the 1985 championship match.