February 14, 2006
Ivan Lendl: Underappreciated Innovator
Czech Was Father of Morden Power-Baseline Game
Grand Slam Results
End-of-Year Top 10 Rankings
By David McPherson
When tennis historians 50 or 100 years from now look back on the evolution of the sport, it’s very possible that Ostrava, Czechoslovakia-born Ivan Lendl – a man whose robotic game and severe on-court personality won him little affection among aficionados of his day – will be recognized as the sport’s most pivotal figure.
Much like Steffi Graf, who emerged on the scene a half-a-decade after him, Lendl entered a world of tennis dominated by two playing styles – patient, defensive-minded baseliners who excelled on slow red clay and net rushers who relied on big serves, well-placed volleys and constant pressure to make their living on fast courts.
While top players like all-courter Jimmy Connors and the unflappable Bjorn Borg had had success on fast courts with mostly baseline tactics, the consensus among tennis coaches, commentators and other observers was that the “proper” way to play, the true path to greatness and glory – at least anywhere outside of Roland Garros – was to beat your opponent to the net and make him hit one passing shot after another until he succumbs physically and mentally to the relentless pressure.
Just like good pitching beats good hitting every time, great net rushing will forever trump passing shot and defensive prowess, so they said.
But the times they were a changing in tennis in the 1970s and early 1980s. New racquet materials – from aluminum to graphite to boron – were allowing players to generate more and more pace from the back of the court. New techniques were being employed to get the most out of this equipment. And new surfaces were taking the lawn out of what once truly was lawn tennis.
All that was lacking was a player to point the way in this brave, new world, and that was Ivan Lendl.
Born March 7, 1960, in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, to two tennis playing parents, Lendl made a smooth transition from top-flight junior player – winner of both the French Open and Wimbledon junior events – to standout professional.
From the beginning, his game was built around his monster forehand, a shot that began with a deliberate takeback and flying right elbow and ended with a slashing arm and rapid wrist snap. Suffice to say, that every forehand struck on Tour today is somehow a derivation of Ivan’s.
That shot alone was enough to make him a junior champ and a top 100 pro, but under the guidance of Polish former player Wojtek Fibak, Lendl developed a solid one-handed topspin backhand and big serve and quickly climbed the rankings, even reaching his first Grand Slam final – a five-set loss to Borg at the 1981 French Open – at the age of 21.
Between 1980 and 1983, Lendl’s power-baseline style had taken him to almost 40 tournament titles, including two Masters championships, and to the No. 1 ranking on two occasions.
But at the end of the 1983 season, at age 23, he still had no Grand Slam trophies to his name, while his main rivals – Connors, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander – had a combined 15.
As much prize money and as many minor tournament titles as he had won, Lendl was being labeled in tennis circles as a “choker,” a reputation mainly earned by two crushing U.S. Open final losses to an underdog, past-his-prime Connors. Lendl was a terminator, the common wisdom went, when not much was on the line, but he couldn’t win the big one.
Not that is until he hurled that giant gorilla off his back in the 1984 French Open final, a gutsy comeback from two sets down against McEnroe, and was finally able to call himself Grand Slam champion.
The match will be remembered as the day Lendl found the inner fortitude to claw out a victory when all the odds – and a million naysayers – said he couldn’t, and most importantly wasn’t courageous enough, to pull it off.
The match, though, should also be remembered for halting a probable calendar-year Grand Slam by McEnroe, who went on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in dominant fashion later that summer and would have been the prohibitive favorite at the Australian Open on grass in November. (Of course, McEnroe didn’t even play the event with no calendar Grand Slam in play.)
Looking back on 1984, then, Lendl could be pleased at no longer having the “best player never to win a Slam” label attached to him. But, there had to be a lot of self-doubt mixed in with the satisfaction.
Was the all-out attack, the serve-and-volley genius, of McEnroe too much for Lendl to cope with? Would he be driven out of the sport, like Borg before him, by the realization that this was a hill he just couldn’t climb? Was baseline play, no matter how aggressive, simply inferior in the end to well-executed serve-and-volley tactics on a fast court?
Tradition, history, common wisdom and the tennis establishment said yes, but Lendl said no.
Like a true champion, he kept searching for an answer – an answer that really was there all the time. Sure, McEnroe was a tennis genius, a wizard with a Dunlop, a Picasso in a Nike outfit.
But the 6’2″, 175 lb. Lendl had three inches and 10 pounds on him and could serve – and most certainly hit ground strokes – much harder. He needed to bring the full weight of his power game to bear on his smaller rival, and the way to do that – he determined – was through fitness.
Following the lead of his countrywoman, Martina Navratilova, Lendl began working with a nutritionist, cut out the Big Macs and red meat and started eating pasta, fruit and vegetables. He took up weights and bike riding and chiseled his upper and lower body into a lean machine ready to reak havoc on the men’s Tour.
He split with Fibak, a player who didn’t share Lendl’s newfound fitness obsession, and took on Tony Roche. In addition to putting him through grueling workouts, the Aussie worked on his dink-chip backhand, giving him an invaluable tool against the net-rushing McEnroe, and his volleys, meant to help him win Wimbledon.
But more than Roche, Ivan himself was responsible for his turnabout from perennial No. 2 to the greatest player of his era. Mentally, he simply refused to allow the talent and feel and flair of McEnroe to beat him anymore. No longer a 20-year-old boy fresh on Tour, the Lendl of 1985 figured out what made himself tick and what it took to take his game to new heights.
He accepted that he wasn’t a natural, but knew that it didn’t matter. If he could ride up mountains and eat perfectly and put himself through side-to-side drills for two hours and never take a vacation and improve his mind and focus by working with a sports psychologist and start intimidating McEnroe by blasting “passing shots” right at his gut or his head, he knew he would be the number one player in the world.
And that’s exactly what happened. From the fall of 1985 to the fall of 1988, Lendl was as dominant as any player ever has been in the Open Era, winning five Slams and holding the No. 1 ranking for 157 consecutive weeks.
He would eventually go on to win two more Australian Opens in 1989 and 1990 and hold the number one ranking another 80 weeks, putting him in second place all time in that category behind Pete Sampras. Lendl would finish second in all-time tournament titles – behind only Connors – with 94. He held an all-time winning record against Wilander and Connors and McEnroe, including taking 10 of the last 11 matches against Mac and the last 17 matches he played against Jimmy.
But from a fan’s perspective, it seemed the more success he had the more distanced he became from the tennis public, who could never relate to the unsmiling, merciless way he destroyed his opponents. The man who fully embraced U.S. capitalism and his Greenwich, Connecticut lifestyle and disdained the then-communist system of his homeland would never be appreciated by his new countrymen, who packed the stands to cheer on Jimmy and Mac but had to begrudgingly accept Lendl’s dominance.
Except, that is, at Wimbledon.
Grass was the one surface that took away Lendl’s fitness edge and put doubt in his mind. Anywhere else, Lendl’s fearsome inside-out forehand ruled the day; but on the lawns of Wimbledon, he was uncomfortable with the bounces and unsure of his ability to defend against net-rushing forays.
The player who revolutionized the sport with his power-baseline play on hard courts was a fish out of water at the All England Club. Convinced he needed to serve-and-volley on first and second serves, Lendl tried to beat the Edbergs and Beckers and McEnroes and Cashes at their own game and came up just short.
Still, those few Lendl loyalists who want to make a case for their man as the greatest of the Open Era will point to the fact that his play at Wimbledon was far superior to Sampras’ at the French Open. A two-time finalist and four-time semifinalist, Lendl was more than respectable on his worst surface.
But to be realistic, there’s no way a guy without the natural tennis flair and genius of a McEnroe or Sampras or Roger Federer is ever going to be accepted as the all-time great.
But a special place for the Czech great should be reserved in tennis’s history books. Like the Renshaw brothers, Big Bill Tilden and other great innovators of the sport’s past, the game would never be the same after Lendl showed what power ground strokes and fitness could do.
Sampras may go down as the greater champion but my vote for most innovative and influential goes to Lendl.
Just tune in to any match to see an imitator.