Sunday, June 28, 2009

In Praise of Ivan Lendl - Mac Millings

Some people just get no respect. There’s always someone better looking, cleverer, a brighter natural spark and no matter how much harder than them you work, or how much better a career you have, when it comes time to reminisce, the beautiful will always inspire the fondest memories, the functional ending up an afterthought. Geography and history conspired to make Ivan Lendl the plain, industrious afterthought of 80s tennis.

Had Mr Gorbachev torn down that wall 10 years earlier, Lendl might have been an exotic European, with a name – one part Slavic, one part Germanic – entirely appropriate for a man born in what is now the Czech Republic, where Eastern Europe meets the West. Instead, as the Cold War raged, he was considered dour, dull and unemotional and was treated by the Wimbledon crowd (among others) with indifference, if not with the kind of disdain that, until the latter part of her career, greeted his compatriot, Martina Navratilova.

In an era when ‘characters’ - which, in the 80s, consisted of: a) players who ranted at the umpire and b) those who, after losing a point, handed their racquet to a ball boy - ruled at the All England Club, the likes of Connors, McEnroe and Becker reigned supreme. (British players, of course, were, and are, an exception – all that’s required of them is to have neat hair and an unthreatening accent, be undemonstrative and, preferably, English. Considered a bonus is the ability to raise hopes of bringing home that elusive Championship, only to pull out, limp, just at the moment of National Orgasm).

Of course, had the 1985 Wimbledon Champion, the 17-year-old Boris Becker, been born in East Germany rather than West, he would not have been considered a glamourous, exciting, Teuton-handsome freak of nature, but instead, a State-sponsored tennis machine, fuelled by repetitive drills and performance-enhancing drugs (although if he had been East German, they’d probably have pumped him full of oestrogen and entered him into the Ladies’ Singles).

At Wimbledon, titles can excuse a lack of personality – hence Bjorn Borg’s popularity – but Lendl never secured the former and was widely perceived to be missing the latter, too. He was the kind of player of whom commentators would repeatedly say: “He’s a funny guy if you get to know him.” On court, however, he was metronomic, mechanical, unloveable – and, crucially, a loser. Seven SW19 semifinals translated to two finals and no tournament victories.

Yet the truth is, Lendl was a pioneer. Considered by most at the time to be among the strongest players in the game, he was perhaps the first to make a rigorous fitness and nutritional regime an integral part of his preparation – something which is taken for granted now, with Rafael Nadal the poster boy for strength and endurance.

On the court, Dan Maskell used to say of Lendl: “He just plants his big feet and whacks it.” Rather than surmising what the Czech was doing while watching the pay-per-view bongo channel in the privacy of his hotel room, Maskell was trying to tell us why Lendl hadn’t (and would never) win Wimbledon. Of course, the comment both overlooked the fact that Lendl was using his devastating inside-out forehand to an unprecedented extent and effect and also failed to foresee that his then-unique modus operandi would go on to become the norm. These days, that forehand is a standard weapon in any good player’s armoury – most notably, that of a certain Swiss.

Perhaps some might blame Lendl for the subsequent paucity of characters in the men’s game and the rise of the machines. But that would be like blaming Hendrix for Hair Metal, or Jack Walker for Roman Abramovich. Besides, why not emulate him? He was, without question, the leading player of his day. His total of eight Grand Slam wins matches Connors’s tally and eclipses that of McEnroe and all his other contemporaries.

On these shores, Lendl’s failure to win Wimbledon counts heavily against him. However Connors, significantly, never won the French (or even reached the final there – and while he did win the US Open when it was a clay court tournament, it was the harder, faster green clay, which bears little relation, as a playing surface, to the European red). McEnroe came up short not only at Roland Garros (where he managed just one final), but also at the Australian, where he only progressed as far as the semis on one occasion, even though it was held on grass until 1987.

Of the other 80s greats, Becker (no French Open title) and Edberg (one final in Paris) won 6 Slams each. Since the early 60s, in men’s tennis only Agassi and Federer have achieved the career Grand Slam. Of his contemporaries, no one got closer to it than Ivan Lendl.

Not only was his Grand Slam record impressive, but his career winning percentage in singles (82%), is the highest in history among those who have played over 1,000 matches and, head-to-head, he boasts a winning record over every significant player of his era, other than Borg (whom he played at the beginning of his own career and at the peak of the Swede’s), Sampras (whom he mostly played well after his peak) and Edberg (for which there is no excuse).

Back in the 80s, Maskell was proven correct. Lendl didn’t have enough at the net to win Wimbledon. But as long ago as 1992 Andre Agassi, a baseliner (albeit a quicker one and a better service returner), won it and within a few short years, as the surface became slower and truer, the hallowed lawns had changed from a beast unlike anything else on the circuit, to the place where hard court and clay court meet – quick enough for Federer, slow enough for Nadal. And perfect for Lendl – it’s just a shame he was a little too far ahead of his time.

27 comments:

Mouth of the Mersey said...

A well conceived piece, beautifully executed.

I felt Lendl's looks went against him. His face settled into a hangdog expression that was everything Beaming Bonking Boris' face wasn't. In interview, I found him funny and honest. It's the dazzling Martina who was treated really badly because she didn't look like Chrissie and was a million times more talented as a player.

My dad was a huge fan of Lendl and Edberg for their grace in movement and shot-making. I remember him lamenting that Lendl wouldn't ever win Wimbledon because he couldn't (or, as bad, didn't) volley. I liked McEnroe for his unorthodoxy and supreme balance, but my dad said it was like watching someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I can see that now.

You can't be all bad if the Wimbledon crowd don't warm to you.

Who's his nearest contemporary? Murray has a similar demeanour and the crowd don't warm to him. Like Lendl, he's a shot-maker who seems not to enjoy volleying, but as you point out, volleying is an eccentric foible these days, more's the pity.

MotM said...

I write my next comment in English - sorry it's so garbled above.

Mac Millings said...

Mouth,

Thank you for the kind words.

I agree that his looks didn't help with acceptance. As for your 'garbled English', it seemed fine to me - but that may just be my own brainproblems.

offsideintahiti said...

Lendl looked like a statue from Stalin's time. That probably accounted for a lot. I wonder if I never liked him because of that, or because of the bad tempered games against Yannick Noah in underage tournaments when I still followed tennis. Either way, I thouroughly enjoyed each and every one of his failings at Wimbledon. Totally unfait, but hey.

Speaking of bad tempers, I'm afraid you missed a trick*, Mac, in this otherwise excellent piece, by mentioning McEnroe losing his one and only final in Roland Garros, and not expanding on it. That was probably the most mean-spirited game I've ever seen. McEnroe contrived to make Lendl look and sound gracious. And a winner, of course.

* Actually, I bet you did it on purpose, so that your French correspondents could sparkle in the comments thread. Well, fear not for the sparkle, Guitou will be here any minute.

offsideintahiti said...

Unfait accompli, but "unfair" is what I meant to write.

guitou said...

Thanks Mac,very clever and fair to remind us of one of the best of the forgotten champs.Ivan Lendl deserves a spécial praise, I fully agree.His records are very impressive, also,as offside mentioned, the 84 Roland Garros Finale come-back against big Mac will stay for ever in the annals of historical performances-Still he never had to carry his Américan Express card when he left home.No paparazzi staking out his Greenwhich house or commercial movies like the "image is everything" TV spots à la André Agassi.
Tennis needs stars, heroes, individuals who sell tickets and smile when they sign autographs. Ivan could have been the best player ever , still he wouldn't change the public perception of him which was one of an honnest journeyman, a skilled and consistent blue collar with no personality-But as far as Lendl, the only part of his persona he was concerned with was his racket and I don't think he cared much about the public perception either-
In this regard Davydenko reminds me a little bit of Lendl because nobody in the press boxes noticed yet how good he is since he has no charisma hence no sponsors and no media coverage.
Just look how much British tennis is overjoyed, at last a guy on a white horse,tall, handsome, as scottish as a bottle of Bladnoch who can play agressive tennis , deliver a cannonball serve and still hit on target. Something baseline player like Lendl will never get, it's a guarantee for immortality
because steady contribution doesn't inspire the superlatives anymore.

andrewm said...

I've always found the Wimbledon love affair with Becker bizarre, because as a player he seemed to me to be everything Lendl was accused of being. Was anyone ever so mechanical on court as Becker? The memory of that inhuman service action still upsets me. I suppose winning it at 17 was enough to make him the national darling.

He's also a bloody awful pundit and co-commentator. Rather than give us a pro's insight into the game, he chooses to only describe the things we can clearly see for ourselves.

Stich is a far better analyst of the sport, and one of my happiest Wimbledon memories was him trouncing Boris in 1991.

William said...

Never minded Lendl and a good piece. That said, the Australian Open isn't that fair a criterion for anything -- when it was played at Kooyong not many of the top players went.

offsideintahiti said...

Hi Andy, how's it going?

Who's Stitch?

bluedaddy said...

Nice piece mac. I was never keen on Lendl. He took the Sun City dollar which was annoying then, and on reflection seems even more annoying now considering how good he was, and how much he earned through tennis. I went off tennis through the power hitting years, and so Lendl being an early and successful proponent of said style doesnt make me warm to him.

Helluva set of cheekbones though. You could slice salami on those babies.

mimi said...

Offie: all you need to know about Michael Stich is here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Stich

he's brilliant on R5Live - who said German's have no sense of humour?

Mac: I really enjoyed reading this - hadn't thought about Lendl for ages - and this reminds me that there was one time (can't remember exactly when) when he almost cried during an interview at Wimbledon, and I began to warm to him.

andrewm said...

offside, it's going very well - and how are you?

Stich is the one who makes Sepp Blatter style comments about the ladies, which is unfortunate, because he really does know a lot about tennis.

mimi said...

andrewm: I thought it was Pat Cash who made the remarks about the ladies? Though I did read some quotes from Wimbledon officials saying that being "easy on the eye" did help with getting certain not top tennis playing ladies on to centre court this year.

How's the kitten these days? Obviously not a kitten but did he grow so big that he's been sent to Kincraig along with the tigers?

Jorrocks said...

Lendl also reached eight consecutive finals at the US Open, didn't he? I remember one semi-final in particular, against Pat Cash. Down match point in the fifth set, he hit a brilliant top-spin lob to stay alive.

I must say I never cared for Lendl's brand of tennis, though. There was a little too much of the Efficient Baxter in it. But he was a genuinely great player and his neglect by tennis writers is inexcusable.

His brilliant Slovak contemporary, Miloslav Mecir, would have won a few Slams if he'd only had a serve - anyone here remember Mecir serving under-handed at a professional tournament? And if he'd had Lendl's drive. I think Mecir's real passion was fishing.

Shot-makers, Mouth? Rios, Arazi, Mecir,Leconte,Santoro,: not one Grand Slam winner among them. Sad.

andrewm said...

mimi, you may be right about it being Cash - who I also think is a very good analyst.

The cat has gone to America, which is a terrible blow, as you can imagine.

mimi said...

andrew: that's so sad. You could be a sort of adoptive uncle to my Small Black Fierce if you like. You just have to send her pictures of fish.

offsideintahiti said...

Andy,

never been better. Sorry to hear about your furry friend. Does he write, at least?

How's Murraymania going in Scotland?

mimi said...

Jorrocks: you name check Henri Leconte. How timely. He and the shotmeister extraodinaire, Bahrami, have just won a senior doubles match.

Bliss to watch - not just for the joshing, but wonderful, silky, skillful tennis.

Offie - SBF still looks for your name on the screen, waiting for fish....

gg said...

Mac,
tennis just doesn't do anything for me; your article did.

In addition, it gave me the chance to read some ex-usual suspects: Owen to Old Trafford, eh, Andy?

Hic Greengrass said...

mimi,
fear not: the Orkneys gets about as dark as the part of Sweden wot I resides in, and folk sup like buggery here.

gg said...

Sod it - crossed threads!

andrewm said...

offside, I wouldn't say it's caught the nation just yet. You don't hear people talking about it around Edinburgh, anyway.

gg, what do you make of it? He's going to have to do a bit to win over the fans, isn't he?

Wrigley Greengrass said...

Andy,
great seeing you around!

If he only scores the winners against Pool and gets about 25 goals in all competitions, I promise not to refer to him as a "Liverpool reject".

Rooto said...

Excellent article, and a terrific post by Jorrocks. Mecir! The cat! A childhood favourite.

No-one has mentioned that Lendl has now carved out a second career playing seniors in the USA. But not tennis - golf. A polymath, no less.

Rooto said...

I also wanted to praise MotM for the following sentence which is one of the best I've read for weeks:
You can't be all bad if the Wimbledon crowd don't warm to you.

Jorrocks said...

I expect the likes of offside and rooto know this already: Fabrice Santoro's autobiography, A Deux Mains, is due to be published later this year. Tennis books tend to be badly written and dull, but I'm looking forward to this one.

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