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February 19, 2001
It was not a question of admitting it loudly, or in public. You simply did not mention it all.
Sure his forehand was faster than light, but that was all. He was cold, remote, owner of two facial expressions --- small grimace and large grimace --- an ugly duckling who'd never make a sporting swan. Sportsmen were supposed to be poetic, inspired, flexible, flamboyant: he fit not a single adjective.
Quite simply it was not fashionable to admire Ivan Lendl; but for a while I worshipped him. But very quietly.
Not always. I was in my early 20s, a disciple of Jim Morrison, and thus by extension an apologist for another rebel, John McEnroe. Some artists cut off their ears, he was sawing off umpires' with his razor-blade tongue. Simply delicious, all understandable. .
But the problem with McEnroe was this; he defied impersonation.
His service stance was absurd, he hit backhands from in front of his chest, c'est impossible. Then there were the drop volleys: "Collapsed like a punctured balloon," wrote Rex Bellamy once (a line happily used by every tennis writer including me thereafter). My drop volley settled too, halfway to the baseline, alas.
Connors was worse. No topspin, a girl's flat game --- nun's have more vicious serves --- and a brashness that did not sit well with us Indians. My club secretary would have had a minor coronary had I grabbed my crotch after one of his mis-hit aces.
That left Lendl, and a host of possibilities. McEnroe was rumoured to have said, "Lendl has as much talent in his body as I have in my little finger."
Finally, here was a guy like us. A dope. If he could do it, why not me.
So I bought two large wristbands, six inches or more across the forearm, and wiped the sweat off my face brusquely as he did. I even priced his adidas racket, but left it at that. While we were sending Thank You cards to racket manufacturers who gave us huge heads with an unlimited sweetspot, Lendl's racket had a small face, demanding an exactness us club players only dreamed of. And another thing: I couldn't lift it.
I would practice too, if not hour after hour then certainly minute after minute, but alas my forehand screeched while his screamed. It did not end there. Before serving, I would bounce the ball methodically like he did, then hurl it towards low flying aircraft (how European players manage to connect with three storey high ball tosses it is a tennis mystery), cock my racket and then nearly decapitate my doubles partner. Oh well.
It was no good; but boy was he.
He was the essential self-made man, a product of sweat not genes, of method not inspiration. That he ended with eight Grand Slam titles ( 3 US, 3 French, 2 Australian) to McEnroe’s seven proves not much but has a delicious irony to it.
Lendl arrived in tennis like a man at a Hollywood agents meeting with the wrong script. I once discovered that Ostrava, his birthplace, was known for its steel factories. Somehow it fit, he seemed this inhuman, unbending man, a product off some conveyor belt.
Western writers seemed conditioned to dislike him, as if he fit the East European stereotype: humourless, grim, unable to embrace the reality that sport was entertainment not a public funeral. There was McEnroe playing like an inventive jazz musician, Connors like a rock star high on some street drug, and there was Lendl, like some stilted, classical musician playing from dull sheet music.
But best of all, for them at least, he lost: in the finals of the 1981 French, 1982 US, 1983 Australian and US, 84 US, 85 French. The man was choking himself to defeat (He had won the 1984 French, down at one point two sets and 2-5 to McEnroe, but it was viewed more as an irritable McEnroe’s failure than his victory, though it remains a startlingly incorrect assumption).
Time magazine called him, "A chilly, self-centred, condescending, mean-spirited, arrogant man with a nice forehand." Sports Illustrated deemed him, "The champion everyone loves to hate" or something to that effect. In 1981, his first question at a post-match interview was a belligerent, "When are you going to defect?"
Oddly enough he was a funny man, hardly hysterical, but with a sly, intelligent humour. An interviewer, valiantly prodding him about his notorious, rivalry with McEnroe/Connors, found out the hard way:
Q: What about Connors?
Lendl: He has a nice backhand
Q: Connors accused you of trying to hit him with the ball when he's at the net...
Lendl: (smiling) I usually do that with McEnroe.
Lendl's inability to win Wimbledon became eventually tragic; initially, at least, it was ammunition to poke fun. That McEnroe and Connors had not won the French, somehow was less criminal than Lendl at Wimbledon (and Borg at the US). For sure Lendl's personality, his practical nature, hurt him on a surface that demanded imagination. His footwork never adapted, his tactics (serve and volley even on second serves?) were arguable, but you had to figure God was too preoccupied to care as well.
In Wimbledon 1989, I watched as he led Becker 5-7, 7-6, 6-2 in the semi finals and as my heartbeat went up, the rain came down. He was impeccable, but a rhythm that he had searched for all his life, that appeared one afternoon-evening, vanished with the rain-break.
Lendl's defiance made him further infuriating. When he said, "If you want tantrums and comedy don't come and see me", people groaned; when he said, "My mission is to win," people despaired. His genius was obscured, and make no mistake, he had genius.
It lay in detail, in his understanding of his own limitations, in his clear perception that to compete he must combat natural talent with a miner's work ethic. The result was a creation of tennis' first true professional, and a building of the prototype of the modern power player.
Speed, power, back up systems, are the mantras of today's tennis, and Lendl was its genesis. After losing three successive US Open finals he had a similar court laid in his backyard. He practiced six hours a day. He worked with a psychologist Alexis Castori. He had his diet specially prepared by a nutritionist, Robert Haas (to which McEnroe responded, "I'm on a diet too, a Haagen Daaz one.") He hired Warren Bosworth, racket guru, to customise his equipment. He changed his racket, pulling it out of its long plastic, after every ball change. He constructed a practical Beau Geste cap, with a flap over the neck, to combat the Australian Open heat.
He was going to do it his way; and he did.
In 1985, 2-5 down in the first set to McEnroe in the US Open finals, nothing seemed to have changed. Except he won that match 7-6, 6-3, 6-4. He didn’t stop. He would win (discounting his two Wimbledon finals) 6 of his next 9 Grand Slam finals. He was No.1 for 157 weeks straight, finished with 94 titles.
He was a great player. And worthy of worship.
I just wish I had said it loudly then.
At least, the Hall of Fame, in which this week Ivan Lendl has been enshrined, will glow brighter by his presence.
Mail Rohit Brijnath
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