Ivan Lendl fathers new ambition

The large picture on the front page of the Roanoke Times is that of a slim young girl at the end of an elegant swing. Marika Lendl, the caption says, is competing in the Scott Robertson Junior tournament at the Roanoke Country Club. No mention of father. 

Later that morning, I stand at the 18th green and watch a drive land a metre from the hole.
Still looking remarkably fresh for a 14-year-old who has lugged her golf bag round 18 holes on a hot, muggy day, Miss Lendl strides up the fairway, blonde pigtail bobbing out the back of her cap, measures her putt, misses it and, without a trace of annoyance, walks briskly past the hole and pops it in for par. 

A tall, thickly set man detaches himself from a small knot of spectators under a tree and shakes my hand.

‘She played well,” he says by way of greeting. ‘Two under par. A couple of mistakes but not bad.” 

This is Ivan Lendl in the second phase of his life. And, in the role of father and coach, don’t bet against it being any less successful than the first, when he set the standard by which everyone else in professional tennis in the 1980s had to be judged.

For eight consecutive years, he reached the final of the United States Open. A tally of all grand slams left him with eight titles and 11 other finals. In all he won 94 titles and reached 54 finals — a workload stretching over 14 years that would have crippled all but the most powerful and focused of athletes.

In as far as being able to play tennis is concerned, it did just about cripple Lendl. A chronic back problem forced him to give up the sport.

‘Yeah, I can still play a game of tennis but I won’t be able to move the next day,” he says. Which is the reason a fighting fit athlete of 84kg now weighs 100kg. ‘But I am still fit,” says the man who is in the gym at his home in Connecticut at 5.30am. ‘I have only about 5% fat.” 

And you believe him. Lendl was always one to be believed. Blunt with no frills. Tell it straight; tell it like it is. People called him dour and on court, he was. Colleagues in the locker room will tell a different story. Ivan the

Terrible, away from the competitive arena, dissolved into a serial teller of macho jokes, a man’s man to the core.

He always used to kid Wojtek Fibak, the Polish player, and his long-time coach, Tony Roche, about the fact that they produced two daughters. Then Ivan and his American wife Samantha produced five. 

So how does he survive living in a household of women?

‘I go play with the dogs,” he laughs, shaking his head. ‘You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that goes on. But I deserved it.”

Saying what he thinks has never been one of Lendl’s problems, one of the few characteristics he shares with his bête noir, John McEnroe. Seldom have two contemporaries and rivals looked at each other with such total incomprehension.

‘How can he be like that?” They have both said it about each other. In a saying that has rather gone out of fashion now, we used to call people square. Oblivious to the fact that he would fit the bill, Lendl volunteers the thought himself.

‘I see things in straight lines and squares. I like triangles. Marika’s like that, too. She likes squares. Isabelle is different. She likes curves. She sees a way round something from a position I would never think of.”

McEnroe is not a square. Not in any sense. His left-handed serve to the ad court produced the biggest curve ever seen on a tennis court. It was doing a good job of demolishing Lendl when the pair met in the final of the French Open in 1984. 

McEnroe, ignoring the fact that it was clay beneath his feet, served and volleyed himself into a two-set lead. The Parisian crowd was in raptures.

Then the American discovered a way to implode. McEnroe, hearing voices from a cameraman’s earpiece discarded at courtside, handed an amazed Lendl the match as his concentration disintegrated and he became unable even to build on a break in the fourth. Later, McEnroe gave Lendl grudging credit ‘for being who he was and for being fit enough to get better as the match progressed”.

‘Being fit enough” was the key to Lendl’s success. That, and his hatred of losing. These two factors were the foundation on which his extraordinary longevity was built.

Looking back, Lendl does not come up with the expected answers when assessing his career. He says that the most satisfying moment occurred in the Davis Cup, not, however, when he led the old nation of Czechoslovakia to their lone Davis Cup triumph over Italy in Prague in 1980, as one might expect, but in the previous round in Argentina.

‘It was probably the proudest moment of my career to go down there and beat Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc, two guys I had never beaten before, and then partner Tomas Smid to win the doubles as well. There was a big crowd of 10 000 people and they were all against us, but the whole tie was great because Guillermo and Jose-Luis were two of the best guys in the game.”

So, one presumes, Wimbledon was not what it was all about for Lendl? It was the one great crown that eluded this perfectionist who won everything else the game had to offer. Frustration was a word that came to mind.

‘No, not at all,” he says. ‘Obviously I would love to have won but my memories of Wimbledon are a feeling of achievement. Two finals and five times in the semis, playing with the weakest part of my game against guys like McEnroe, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg who were playing with the strongest part of theirs. Just being so consistent in those conditions is, for me, a greater achievement than reaching eight US Open finals where everything was in my favour.”

No matter how generous Lendl is about the modern generation’s fitness and stroke repertoire, there is only one player who lights his fire.

‘Roger Federer is the only guy I watch for his strokes. He is just beautiful. He can hit every single shot you could ever think of. John and Ilie [Nastase] were very talented but you always knew there were some shots they couldn’t hit. Not with Federer. I would go and watch him practise, he’s so good.” 

Lendl also admires Andre Agassi and his ability to keep going into his mid-30s, while he thought Pete Sampras had come to the end of the road by the time he won his final Grand Slam title at the US Open in 2002.

‘Pete’s win came as a total shock to me,” he says. ‘It was fun to see him win because it just shows that a champion so often has one last shot in him. Boris did it at the Australian Open and Pete came through when I didn’t think he had a chance. But the fact is that the champions know how to win and that’s what matters.”

We talked of other things; of how, only now, is he able to think of replacing his beloved German Shepherd, Todd, who died of cancer five years ago; of how he enjoys meeting old tennis players like Cliff Richey and Sherwood Stewart on the celebrity golf tour, but in the end it comes back to golf and his daughters.

With a big, hearty smile he heads off to the car park to take a practice club out of the boot for a final session with Marika, happy that he could move around this venerable old country club without hindrance. 

But two days later, this is not the case. The Lendl family has acquired another winner. Marika not only wins the 21st Scott Robertson Memorial tournament in a play-off but becomes, at 14 years and 11 days, the youngest player ever to do so.

‘Marika said she wanted a dog real bad,” Lendl told reporters who suddenly realised the magnitude of the story that had hit sleepy West Virginia. ‘I told her she could have one if she practised really hard for six months. So she did and she got her dog. And now this. So we are all happy.”

Smiling almost as broadly as her father, Marika says: ‘This is my first title and it definitely won’t be my last.” Now doesn’t that sound just like a Lendl? —

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