At Wimbledon, all eyes are on McEnroe-Lendl semifinal duel

As this Wimbledon rose to its crescendo there was one tremendous clash. Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe were to face each other in one men's semifinal. Lendl, the Czech, stern, unyielding, strong - McEnroe, the American, powerful, artistic , volatile, explosive.

There would, as the cliche has it, be no love lost there. The two have been feuding for years, and it broke out into the open at a New York tournament in May when they engaged in several heated exchanges via the media.

On the court, they have also staged some memorable duels. Lendl holds a 7-4 edge overall, but McEnroe has won their last two meetings.

John was the 1981 champion here and has been in the final the last three years. Ivan, meanwhile, has dominated the indoor circuit but has never done that well on grass, and even skipped this most prestigious of all tournaments last year. He seems to have adjusted to the surface now, though, and this match is seen by many observers as the semifinal that really ought to have been the final.

In the other semi, South Africa's Kevin Curren faces New Zealand's Chris Lewis, two outsiders, one unseeded and both natural ''nice guys.''

To reach the semifinal, the 12th-seeded Curren put out American Tim Mayotte, a great friend of his, in a struggle of fast serves and whipped returns. This match was a delight to watch. Curren clinched it with an unplayable ace. Mayotte applauded him all the way to the net. And they marched off the court with arms round each other's shoulders.

Curren had already achieved a Wimbledon record. Over eight days he did not lose one solitary service game, either in singles or doubles. When he put out defending champion Jimmy Connors he served 33 aces.

The question was: could he keep it up? If he could, it would be virtually impossible to beat him. Connors, with the best return of serve in the business, had found this out in a way so hard for him he decamped from the All England Club in a tearing hurry and a black Mercedes without a word to the press.

But Kevin proved human after all and lost his second service game against Mayotte. Those still in the tournament breathed a sigh of relief, no doubt, when they heard about it.

Mayotte went on to take that first set, too, then carried the second set into a tiebreaker, but Curren took charge from there to prevail 4-6, 7-6, 6-2, 7-6.

The unseeded Lewis, first New Zealander to reach the semifinals since Anthony Wilding won four straight championships from 1910 through 1913, has had a relatively easy path so far. After upsetting ninth-seeded Steve Denton in the first round, Lewis has met a succession of unseeded opponents, but has looked impressive in ousting such foes as Nigeria's Nduka Odizor and American Mel Purcell, the latter in a 6-7, 6-0, 6-4, 7-6 quarterfinal conquest.

McEnroe defeated Sandy Mayer easily (6-3, 7-5, 6-0) but noisily in his quarterfinal test. John was warned for ''abuse of the racket,'' and Sandy wanted him warned for slashing a ball fiercely in his direction.

Lendl, meanwhile, overcame a rejuvenated Roscoe Tanner, who, until this match had looked again a possible semifinalist, maybe even a finalist. Owing to some strange scheduling, however, Roscoe had to play without a day's rest after his fourth-round match. He just wasn't quite fast enough for Ivan, who won in straight sets, 7-5, 7-6, 6-3.

The women's draw provided a few surprises, such as the early departure of Chris Evert Lloyd (upset by Kathy Jordan in the third round), and the strong play of Billie Jean King, who at age 39 advanced to the semifinals with a series of stirring victories.

In the semis, though, she was no match for 18-year-old Andrea Jaeger, who justified her third seeding by ending King's run 6-1, 6-1.

Defending champion Martina Navratilova cruised through the early rounds, mostly in sunshine, without a single alarm. She appeared to be playing in a different competition all the way through the semis, where she crushed unseeded Yvonne Vermaak of South Africa 6-1, 6-1 in just 36 minutes to set up a Saturday showdown with Jaeger.

In the boys' singles championship some famous names have been advancing - McEnroe and Nastase. Patrick McEnroe is John's younger brother, and although unseeded, has impressed with the maturity of his game and his approach to it.

Minhea Nastase is the 16-year-old nephew of Ilie (who refused to appear at Wimbledon this year because officialdom would not give him a ''wild card'' entry - as indeed most people think they should have done).

Minhea does not know uncle Ilie very well, having met him only once, and is coached by his father. He is not certain yet whether he will become a professional tennis player or a scientist of some kind. ''My ideal,'' he says, ''would be to become Wimbledon champion and also a successful scientist.''

Well, it's possible. But this is a demanding game. Just look at what has happened so far in this exciting and sometimes beautiful tournament.

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