Saturday, April 23, 2011


(thirteenth in a series)

Without question, Ivan Lendl was one of the best players of all time. In fact, he was a truly evolutionary figure in the sport's history, both for his game as well as his training techniques. Too bad for him that he came of age and to prominance in the early-to-mid 1980's... a period which can be viewed now as a tennis "golden age," when the personalities, auras and rivalries of the top men's players were just as crackling as their games.

Lendl wasn't "cool" like Bjorn Borg, nor as hot-tempered as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe (or, later, as dramatic as Boris Becker). On a tennis landscape populated by players whose presence sometimes seemed "bigger" than the game itself, the image of the stiff, "boring" Czech couldn't help but pale in comparison. Additionally, in the early 1980s was still the era of Communism and the Cold War, and Lendl's Czech accent-speckled English (I always liked it, actually) and often unemotional, sometimes "mechanical" (many derisively said "robotic"), style played into quite a few unfortunate stereotypes and left many cold. But, of course, Lendl's worst offense of all was that he quickly garnered a reputation as a player who couldn't win "the big one." He went 0-4 in his first four appearances in slam singles finals, losing to Borg, Connors (twice) and an unseeded Swedish teenager playing in his first slam final. He once appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the provacative headline, "The Champion Nobody Cares About."

Lendl finaly broke through at Roland Garros in 1984, winning his first slam crown after coming back from two sets down to defeat John McEnroe (ranked #1, Mac compiled an 82-3 record that season) in the final, denying the American his best chance at winning the elusive (and never attained, as he STILL so often laments) clay title in Paris that might have garnered him much backing in many "Greatest of All Time" debates. From that moment on, Lendl went about putting together some of the greatest and most consistent numbers in the history of tennis. Lendl's power game of heavy topspin shots from the baseline, a forerunner of the brand of tennis that soon became common in the game as wood rackets became obsolete, and his scientific training practices helped to revolutionize the sport. He was among the first players to use a powerful serve to set up easy inside-out forehand winners.

But even as Lendl rose to the top of the game and surpassed many of his more popular rivals in career achievements, besting Mats Wilander -- that "Swedish teenager" -- when it mattered most proved to be a longer-term project. When the Swede had become the then youngest-ever men's slam champ in' 82 at Roland Garros, the unseeded 17-year old Wilander had climbed over the then-#2 seeded Lendl en route, topping him in the 4th Round. Three years later, Wilander defeated him the '85 RG final, as well. Come 1987, the two met in the third of what would eventually be five meetings in grand slam finals (at the time, the most ever in the Open era). By then, Lendl had claimed four slam crowns, the same number as Wilander.

Here's what a high-school Backspinner-in-waiting said about that meeting:

June 7, 1987 - "Lendl is Supreme Once Again"

Frankly, the French Open men's final started out with a series of interminally long rallies, the "unworthy" result of the consistent topspin backcourt shots from defending champion Ivan Lendl and his opponent, Mats Wilander. Fortunately, Lendl woke up and started to play like the champion he is and forced the Swede to stop lulling the crowd to sleep. In the end, Lendl won the match 7-5/6-2/3-6/7-6 and claimed his third championship in Paris.

Lendl and Wilander, the #1 and #3-ranked ranked players in the world, were both seeking to become the first man other than Bjorn Borg to win three French singles titles in the last fifty-five years. In Czechoslovakia-born Lendl's case, he was trying to become the first to win back-to-back titles since Borg won four straight from 1978-81. Wilander, a consistent ball-striker in the tradition of his countryman Borg, had won seventeen matches in a row going into the final and looked to have a good chance to win on the red clay, most definitely his best surface.

Lendl won the one-hour and twenty minute 1st set 7-5, then the 2nd at 6-3. But at the end of the 2nd set, the usually composed Wilander lost his cool and threw down his racket in frustration. The incident seemed to spark him, and he got the crowd on his side. Of course, such an accomplishment seems to often be quite easy when your opponent is the usually-stoic, somewhat mechanical Lendl.

Near the end of the 3rd, there was a thirty-five minute rain delay. It, too, seemed to help Wilander as he returned to finish off set with a vengeance at 6-3. The delay, along with the long 1st set, made the 4th a contest between two players and a third "participant" -- Mother Nature. As darkness threatened an early ending to the day's play, Lendl and Wilander fought to a tie-break. Lendl took charge, grabbing a 6-3 lead, and when the Swede sailed the first match point beyond the baseline Lendl let out a cheer and leaped high into the air in celebration. It was a rare show of emotion, and the crowd applauded his superb play.

So, the man who has been called "the champion that nobody cares about" won another title to solidify his #1 status in men's tennis. Maybe someday people will learn to appreciate Lendl for what he IS instead of what he isn't. Maybe, someday, they'll realize that he's, quite simply, the best player in the world.

...Lendl's third straight RG title in '87 turned out to be the Czech's final crown in Paris. A few months later, Lendl and Wilander met in their fourth slam final at the U.S. Open. Lendl won that one, too. In 1988, Wilander won another championship rematch at Flushing Meadows. Twenty-three years later, the two's five match-ups in slam finals is still tied for second on the all-time list with that of Andre Agassi & Pete Sampras, behind only the (so far) seven meetings between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Essentially, Lendl was born into the sport. The child of two tennis players (his mother was a Top 10 player in Czechoslovakia, climbing as high a rank as #2, while his father was #15 and later served as president of the Czech Tennis Federation), his talent shone through early. In 1978, he finished as the junior #1 and won Boys titles at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Three years later, Lendl reached his first career slam final in Paris, losing to Borg. It would be Borg's final slam championship. In 1982, Lendl won fifteen of the twenty-three events he entered, and at one point won forty-four straight matches, the second-longest streak in ATP history. In February 1983, he became the #1-ranked player in the world, ending the nine-year three-headed hegemony of Borg, Connors and McEnroe in the top spot. While he was never able to surpass any of his formerly top-ranked predecessors in the court of public opinion, his career numbers surely have and will continue to make time Lendl's ultimate friend.

In all, Lendl won eight slam titles -- two AO, three RG and three US -- and reached a record nineteen finals, including eight consecutive at the U.S. Open from 1982-89. Federer surpassed Lendl's slam final total, while Sampras tied his mark of reaching at least one slam final for eleven consecutive seasons. His ninety-four tour singles titles ranks behind only Connors, as does his match win total (1,279) over the course of his seventeen-year career. He held the #1 ranking for 156 consecutive weeks, was year-end #1 four times in the late 1980's, and his total of 270 weeks in the top spot has only been topped by Sampras (286) and Federer (285). In August '90, he dropped out of the #1 ranking for the final time, and when he retired with back problems in '94 he was the all-time prize money leader. A while back, Tennis magazine dubbed Lendl the sport's "greatest overachiever." The honor almost sounds like a backhanded compliment for a player with some of the greatest career numbers in tennis history, but I'm sure it was meant as an appreciative nod to his work ethic.

Lendl's "If I don't practice the way I should then I won't play the way I know I can" quote is just one of many that serves to hint at the tireless mindset on the practice court that came to define his career. A creature of habit and hard work, he even hired the same company who'd put down the courts at the U.S. Open to install an indentical court at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut during his nearly decade-long string of final appearances in New York. Even his practice of reaching into his pocket to grab a handful of sawdust, then rubbing it on his racket's handle to give him a better grip, became something of a habitual/psychological crutch (the mess often had to be swept up on the court, and his famous SI cover shot captured a handful of that sawdust before it hit the court), sort of like Nadal's famous pre-point "tug" and precise lining up of water bottles today.

His attention to detail and attempt at perfection through repetition carried over to his game, as the consistency of his groundstrokes from the baseline was astounding. So much so that it likely played into the "robotic" description of Lendl in an era in which he lined up against such crowd-pleasing, but fabulously "flawed," champions as McEnroe and Connors. Such a game made Lendl the world's most dominant player on clay and hard courts, but on the less true-bouncing grass courts at Wimbledon his greatest asset helped to turn a title run at the All-England Club into his career-long "great white whale." With the choppy baseline surface that developed on the lawns back then (far different from the harder, less-worn surface we see in London today), players HAD to move forward and take balls out of the air at the net. Thing is, Lendl wasn't a great volleyer. And he knew it, too. He tried to avoid the tournament early on, saying that grass was "for cows" and even skipping the event once while saying he was allergic to the green blades. Of course, soon after a photo was snapped of him playing golf and the jig was up. Whoops.

As was his wont, hardly eager to accept defeat, Lendl dove head-first into the Wimbledon challenge. He labored to make himself a decent volleyer, and it worked. Almost. While his game could get him deep into the fortnight, he couldn't find a way around the very BEST grass court players. Five times in eight years he lost to the eventual winner of the Gentlemen's title. He even twice skipped Roland Garros in order to properly prepare for the grass court season. He was the SW19 runner-up on two occasions, losing in the final in '86 and '87 to Becker and Pat Cash, respectively, but wasn't able to take a set off his opponent in either match. While Roger Federer was able to solidify his standing in the "Greatest of All Time" discussion by finally winning in Paris in '09, Lendl (much like Sampras at Roland Garros, though he got far closer than the American ever did) wasn't able to complete HIS career Grand Slam in London. He'll forever remain one of (if not THE) best to never win there.

Like fellow Czech-born star Martina Navratilova, Lendl eventually ran afoul of the Czech Tennis Federation. Both world #1's had news of all their on-court exploits banned in their home country by the Communist-led government. The two ultimately defected to the U.S., but following the form of their respective careers, while Navratilova drew great attention by publicly declaring her independence in New York during the U.S. Open, Lendl chose to "announce" his move by settling in Connecticut in '84 and refusing to play Davis Cup for Czechoslovakia (he'd led the nation to the title in '80). As a permanent resident of the U.S., he got his green card in '87 and tried, but ultimately failed, to have his citizenship fast-tracked so that he could play DC for Team USA and represent his new country in the Olympics in '88. Finally, he became a U.S. citizen in 1992.

While Lendl is probably one of the most overlooked great players in the sport's history, Wilander's career numbers put him in select company that even Lendl was never able to crack. Only five men have won slam titles on hard court, clay and grass. The names of Connors, Federer, Nadal and Andre Agassi are easy to recall, but it's Wilander (who won in Australia in' 83 and '84 when the tournament was still played on grass) who is the fifth on that list. Additionally, only Wilander and Nadal have managed to win two or more slam titles on all three surfaces.

A Boys champ at Roland Garros in '81, Wilander returned one year later (with six-time RG champ and fellow Swede Borg gone after his shocking retirement from the sport at age 25) to become the Men's champion and -- at 17 years, 9 months -- the youngest-ever men's slam champ (he still ranks third on the list). By age 20, he'd already won his fourth slam crown, making him the youngest ever to achieve so much at such as early age.

Over a seven-year stretch from 1982-88, Wilander won seven slam titles (in eleven finals) employing his steady baseline game. In 1987, he worked to greatly improve his serve and developed a one-handed slice backhand. One season later, the additions made the '88 campaign the most successful of his career. He won three of the four slams, missing only at Wimbledon (he reached the QF, tying his best result there). After defeating Lendl in the U.S. Open final that September, he replaced him at #1. But after having reached such a career high point, Wilander seemed to lose focus and interest. His career began to fizzle out in '89, and he often wasn't motivated to enter events even when he was healthy. From '89 until he finally retired in '96, he reached just one more slam semifinal.

Lendl was a member of the Hall of Fame class of 2001, and Wilander followed behind him in 2002. While Lendl has decidedly loosened up over the years, playing celebrity golf (including hosting his own tournament) and recently making appearances in Tennis Channel segments and on the senior tennis circuit. While Lendl's two daughters haven't followed him into tennis, they do share his love of golf. One is a golfer at the University of Florida, while another is set to play on the golf team at Alabama in the fall of this year. Wilander, after being viewed as a polite "good guy" for his entire career, stepped into some controversy with his criticism of Federer and Kim Clijsters' (lack of a) competitive edge to beat their toughest rivals at Roland Garros in '06, saying of Federer after his loss to Nadal, "(He) unfortunately came out with no balls... you don't find too many champions in any sport in the world without heart or balls. He might have them, but against Nadal they shrink to a very small size and it's not once, it's every time."

In 2010, Lendl and Wilander met on the court once again in an exhibition in Atlantic City. It was Lendl's first public match since his '94 retirement. Earlier this year, Lendl faced off against John McEnroe at Madison Square Garden at the annual exhibition bonanza held at the fabled arena. There, as had happened in Paris back in '84 in the match that changed his career forever, Lendl outlasted Johnny Mac when the American was forced to retire with an injury.

And, thus, time and fitness continue to prove to be Lendl's very important friends.

16...Roger Federer (active)
14...Pete Sampras
12...Roy Emerson
11...Bjorn Borg
11...Rod Laver
10...Bill Tilden
9...Rafael Nadal (active)
8...Andre Agassi
8...Jimmy Connors
8...Fred Perry
8...Ken Rosewall

1983 lost to Mats Wilander
1989 def. Miloslav Mecir
1990 def. Stefan Edberg
1991 lost to Boris Becker
1981 lost to Bjorn Borg
1984 def. John McEnroe
1985 lost to Mats Wilander
1986 def. Mikael Pernfors
1987 def. Mats Wilander
1986 lost to Boris Becker
1987 lost to Pat Cash
1982 lost to Jimmy Connors
1983 lost to Jimmy Connors
1984 lost to John McEnroe
1985 def. John McEnroe
1986 def. Miloslav Mecir
1987 def. Mats Wilander
1988 lost to Mats Wilander
1989 lost to Boris Becker

1983 def. Ivan Lendl
1984 def. Kevin Curren
1985 lost to Stefan Edberg
1988 def. Pat Cash
1982 def. Guillermo Vilas
1983 lost to Yannick Noah
1985 def. Ivan Lendl
1987 lost to Ivan Lendl
1988 def. Henri Leconte
1987 lost to Ivan Lendl
1988 def. Ivan Lendl

109...Jimmy Connors
77...John McEnroe
67...Roger Federer (active)
64...Pete Sampras

23...Roger Federer
10...Rod Laver

27...Roger Federer (active)
27...Jimmy Connors

232...Jimmy Connors
224...Andre Agassi
213...Roger Federer (active)
203...Pete Sampras

[all events]
20...IVAN LENDL vs. John McEnroe
18...Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal (active)
16...Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras
16...Boris Becker vs. Stefan Edberg
15...Jimmy Connors vs. IVAN LENDL
13...Boris Becker vs. IVAN LENDL
7...Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal (active)
5...Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras

46...Guillermo Vilas, 1977
44...IVAN LENDL, 1981-82
42...John McEnroe, 1984
41...Roger Federer, 2006-07
41...Bjorn Borg, 1979-80

70...Fabrice Santoro
61...Andre Agassi
58...Jonas Bjorkman
57...Andre Agassi
57...Jimmy Connors
57...Wayne Ferreira
57...John McEnroe

286...Pete Sampras
285...Roger Federer (active)
268...Jimmy Connors
170...John McEnroe
109...Bjorn Borg
101...Andre Agassi
92...Rafael Nadal (active, weeks at #1 as of April 24, 2011)

17 years, 3 months...Michael Chang (1989 Roland Garros)
17 years, 7 months...Boris Becker (1985 Wimbledon)
17 years, 9 months...MATS WILANDER (1982 Roland Garros)

[at least one title on hard, grass & clay]
Andre Agassi, USA
Jimmy Connors, USA
Roger Federer, SUI
Rafael Nadal, ESP
[two or more titles on all three]
Rafael Nadal, ESP

All for now.

1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1987 Wimbledon (Navratilova/Cash), 1989 Roland Garros (Sanchez/Chang), 1990 Roland Garros (Seles/Gomez), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles & Courier), 1993 Wimbledon (Graf/Novotna), 2003 & '05 U.S. Open (Henin/Clijsters), 2006 U.S. Open (Day-by-Day/Sharapova), 2001-09 Australian Open (Dokic Down Under)

NEXT UP: 1991 Roland Garros - Monica Seles


Blogger Diane said...

It's really nice to see so much space devoted to Lendl. He frustrated so many players with his serve and his control of the baseline. And if he was "robotic," well--I much preferred that to ill-mannered and disruptive. (And he certainly wasn't more compulsive than Borg.)

I liked his time on Tennis Channel; I wonder how many viewers really did "email Ivan"? For several years, Lendl was the spokesman for Topricin, one of my favorite products. I kind of missed him when the contract was over.

Sun Apr 24, 09:51:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, when I did a Capsule on the Cash/Lendl '87 Wimbledon last year it made me want to use this '87 RG that I'd never done anything with just so that I could focus on Lendl (it's the only old write-up I have from one of his titles).

Also, that SI cover is such a window into the view of Lendl at the time, and how different things are now when it comes to magazine covers... or, at least SI covers. Tennis stories made the cover a good deal back then. Flashforward... and Pete Sampras couldn't even get on the cover after he'd broken the all-time slam title record (he was on the back page in a "Got Milk?" ad, though, I remember).

Probably the women's equivalent to that Lendl cover was the one with Serena last summer after she'd won Wimbledon under the "Love Her, Hate Her" headline. A bit needlessly provocative, I thought at the time... but just seeing a tennis player on the cover again was something to rejoice about.

Sun Apr 24, 11:31:00 PM EDT  

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