''No one played with more consistency than John in 1983'' commented Ivan Lendl before meeting John McEnroe in the finals of the Volvo Masters Tournament. ''He should be No. 1.''
If there had been any doubts prior to that head-to-head confrontation Sunday, McEnroe removed them. His total mastery of defending champion Lendl silenced his critics and left McEnroe firmly entrenched as the world's No. 1 tennis player for 1983.
The Masters, though played in January, is modeled as a sort of Super Bowl for the top 12 Volvo Grand Prix players of the previous year.
During 1983, McEnroe won 7 of the 17 tour events he entered, including Wimbledon, which is why Lendl agreed with him before their match that John was already No. 1 for the year. Even so, the 24-year-old New Yorker certainly didn't mind making it official - especially since that also meant pocketing the here.
''To me this is the first event of 1984'' explained McEnroe. ''(But) I was worried over letting down because people regarded this for No. 1.''
For Lendl, the loss was a great disappointment. The Masters has been the Czech star's stronghold over the past couple of years - and the biggest tournament he has ever won. Generally regarded as the world's top indoor player, Lendl just could not take advantage of the slower carpeted court and heavier balls against McEnroe.
''He was serving very, very well, and was putting the ball into position and changing the serve around'' said Lendl after the match. ''I was getting to the balls late and they were hit very deep. John had me on the run''.
McEnroe never lost his service in his 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory. He attacked the net on his service, as well as on Lendl's. The relentless pressure was too much for the defending champion, whose powerful forehand drives never had a chance to materialize.
''It's common knowledge that he goes down the line on his passing shots'' explained McEnroe, ''so I wasn't going to give him that shot. I dared him to go cross-court, but he wouldn't do it.''
As a result, Lendl found himself giving away points as John waited at the net for his chance to put a shot away. ''I fooled him a few times coming into the net,'' McEnroe said. ''That's the idea - to keep him guessing.''
McEnroe's road to the finals took him past Johan Kriek and then Mats Wilander , the 19-year-old Swede whose nine Grand Prix tournament victories in 1983 earned him a $600,000 bonus and the right to be top seeded in the tournament. Wilander was unable to get on track against McEnroe, who ran him all over the court and beat him in straight sets in the semifinals. ''My backhand didn't work'' explained Wilander, who also suffered from an inconsistent first serve and a weak second one that John jumped all over.
''I can't beat him everytime'' he said of McEnroe, who had previously lost three times to Wilander while beating him but once.
Lendl's journey to the finals was even easier than McEnroe's. In the quarterfinals Ivan played Ecuadorian Andres Gomez, who lasted only one set before bowing out with a shoulder ailment. Lendl then faced crowd pleaser Jimmy Connors. Lendl jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first set, only to see Connors storm back to win three straight games. As the crowd yelled ''Choke!'' at Lendl , Connors could do no more and folded to lose the first set 6-3. Lendl had little trouble in the second set and sent Connors packing with a 6-3, 6-4 effort.
''I was thinking to myself that I was a stupid idiot,'' remarked Lendl regarding Connors's flurry late in the first set. ''If I didn't win the set from 5-0, I didn't deserve to win.''
Lendl admitted he may have been helped in his efforts by the tennis balls used throughout the tournament. As other players (especially Connors, who was very displeased) complained about their heavy weight, Lendl said he had an easier time running down Jimmy's shots because the balls moved so slowly.
Whether it was the tennis balls or Lendl's shots, Connors made ''too many errors'' according to Lendl, especially when he moved in to the net. Connors did, however, give the capacity Madison Square Garden crowd a lesson in service returns, as Jimmy made some incredible shots off Lendl's powerful drives.
For Lendl, however, the powerful serves and sweeping forehands could do nothing to McEnroe, who attacked the net at will and dominated the 23-year-old Czech throughout their final match.
In 1984 the plot on the men's circuit will be as thick as ever. McEnroe has found a way to channel his temper into playing superb tennis, Wilander is no longer just a supreme clay court player, and Connors is, well, still a tough scrapper who gets so emotionally involved he can at times beat anyone. Players such as Jimmy Arias and Yannick Noah should also have their share of victories.
Several experts, however, still feel that 1984 could be Lendl's year, despite growing frustration over his failure to win a title at a Grand Slam event (the US, French, and Australian Opens, plus Wimbledon).He has been beaten by Connors in the last two US Open finals, and has a tendency to let opponents knock the wind out of his sails. But no one doubts he has the physical tools, and if defeats truly strengthen a person's mental game, Lendl may yet enter a Masters shootout with a major title or two under his belt and the top ranking all but assured.