As US Open gets rolling, some top talent stumbles

By , Sports writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The United States Open Tennis Championships started off slowly, uneventfully, but like a New York taxi meter, they clicked into gear soon enough. In the second round, this centennial tournament produced its first major upset when 16-year-old Andrea Jaeger, the No. 2 seed, fell to Andrea Leand, a 17 -year-old Princeton University freshman who had never been in the main draw of a tournament before. Then over the Labor Day weekend the men took off the gloves to give the National Tennis Center's sellout crowds a sample of the knock-down, drag-out action they'd paid to see.

Jimmy Connors "dodged the bullet" by beating Ecuador's unseeded Andres Gomez in a fifth-set tiebreaker, but two other players were not quite so elusive. Third seed Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia and fifth seed Jose-Luis Clerc of Argentina were eliminated in back-to-back matches by a pair of Americans, Vitas Gerulaitis and Bruce Manson.

As exciting as these matches were, the players given the best chances of winning were making a mockery of the field. Two-time champion John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg skipped merrily along at opposite ends of the 128-player men's draw, losing but one set in their first three matches.

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Chris Evert-Lloyd, seeking her sixth title in seven years, advanced even more effortlessly on the women's side. In fact, the embarrassing ease with which she reached the quarter-finals had her slightly concerned.

"I'd rather have had a tougher match," she said after losing just nine games in four matches. "The tougher my opponent plays, the more the level of my game goes up."

Much of the credit, she added, goes to her practice partner, husband John Lloyd. A first-round loser to Chris's former fiance, Jimmy Connors, John has obviously been devoting more time to his wife's game than his own. "He's totally unselfish about helping me work on my weaknesses in practice," Chris explained. "It's not always that way when you hit with other people."

The first part of her title defense may have been a breeze, but now the plot thickens, and Chris knows it. If she beats Hana Mandlikova in the quarter finals, she could wind up playing Martina Navratilova in the semifinals and Tracy Austin in the finals.

Though considered a model tennis citizen, Chris said before the tournament that the seedings and draw, which put so much quality in her half of the field, were "wrong."

It was her opinion that the computer rankings should have been disregarded, as they were at Wimbledon, and Mandlikova seeded second instead of fifth.

Mandlikova, noted as something of a chameleon on the court, often seems to save her best efforts for major events. No one knows this better than Evert-Lloyd, who defeated Hana in the finals of last year's US Open and this year's Wimbledon, but was beaten by the Czech in the French Open semifinals.

Since her tense first-round matche here (a 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 victory over Mary Lou Piateck), Mandlikova has gradually gathered momentum, her latest win coming in a sadly lopsided match against Korean Duk Hee Lee.

Just how Lee made it through to the fourth round remains a mystery, but certainly the identity of a newly crowned media darling, Andrea Leand, doesn't. The press quickly dug up all the pertinent details on her, once the Brooklandville, Md., native crashed the Open party and advanced to the fourth round, where she was finally beaten by Barbara Potter. That left 17-year-old Californian Barbara Gerken, a player with no world ranking, to carry on in the Cinderella role.

Though the men couldn't find any boy wonders in their midst, they did serve up a hardier stew of matches.

The titanic Connors-Gomez battle, a 4 1/4-hour marathon, was one highlight.Jimmy was at his theatrical best for this one, usng his special body language to exult over great shots en route to a 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 victory. The match was reminiscent of a drawn-out duel Connors had with Adriano Panatta at the '78 Open. Connors won that one, too, and Gomez was a spectator. "It was the only time in my life I sat through five sets -- it was that good," he remembers.

Gomez, incidentally, was mistakenly introduced as a Mexican. Clerc's presence on the court elicited another kind of blooper, one from a fan who yelled, "Let's go, Guillermo" in his match with Manson. The spectator obviously was confusing Clerc with fellow Argentine Guillermo Vilas, whom Jose-Luis has overtaken in the rankings. But on this day, he could not handle Manson, a relative unknown who had beaten him on two earlier occasions and this time won in straight sets.

By contrast, 15th-seeded Gerulaitis is much better known in New York than the Czech he canceled out of the tournament. A resident of Kings Point, N.Y., and a man about town in Manhattan, Vitas met McEnroe in the final two years ago, but has let his game slip since then.

By beating Lendl 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, he may have done a favor for fellow New Yorker McEnroe, who is 0-2 in matches against Ivan.

He also added a note of humor when he skirted the obligatory postmatch interview. A reluctant interviewee, Gerulaitis assured a press steward he would cooperate -- then at the last minute slipped behind the wheel of his yellow Rolls-Royce; said, "I've got to get some groceries"; and drove off.

Skipping out cost him $500, a fine tacked on to one for $750 incurred for hitting a ball into the stands.

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