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.