Ivan Lendl vs John McEnroe Head to Head: 21-15
Of the three key tennis rivalries of the 1980’s men’s game, that between Lendl and McEnroe was probably the most intense and enduring. McEnroe’s rivalry with Borg on court was intense but involved no personal animosity – indeed, they were and remain good friends. The McEnroe/Connors rivalry was strong, personal and fuelled by similarities in temperament. With Lendl, however, the rivalry was of a different order. In all three rivalries was the common denominator of McEnroe, a fact which said as much about McEnroe’s enduring talent and success as his natural propensity always to find himself in the middle of a scrap!
The Lendl/McEnroe rivalry had many interesting components. It started to gather pace after McEnroe’s rivalry with Borg ended following the latter’s retirement and after Connors went off the boil from around the middle of the 1980’s. With the demise of Borg and the waning of Connors, Lendl/McEnroe was the new show in town in the mid-80’s.
In terms of style and temperament, Lendl and McEnroe were like chalk and cheese. Lendl was impassive, robotic and well-disciplined. McEnroe was emotional, explosive and flamboyant. Smartass Mouthy New York Kid meets Mr. Serious Buttoned-down Son of Communism and sparks were bound to fly – and they did. Of all of McEnroe’s three key career rivalries, the fact that he was bested by Lendl in terms of head-to-head victories would have rankled with him more than anything.
McEnroe was part of a long and illustrious tradition of American tennis players going back to Bill Tilden in the 1920’s who dominated the game for most of its history. For young players like McEnroe, that tradition came with expectations, if not also a little bit of ‘hubris’. Lendl, on the other hand, you felt had more to prove as the ‘outsider’. While the Czechs had already produced players of the quality of Jaroslav Drobny, Jan Kodes, Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova, the Czechs had never been in the same league as either the Americans or the Australians. McEnroe himself also enjoyed ‘outsider’ status vis-à-vis the tennis establishment, but he held the advantage over Lendl of being part of the wider US tennis ‘family’, so dominant for so long in world tennis. This ‘favourite son’ status of McEnroe was never more evident than at Flushing Meadow with its vocal and partisan crowds.
Lendl was a solid baseliner with an especially strong forehand. While having a strong (if erratic) serve, he was no exponent of the serve/volley game. His suspicions about net play may have had a lot to do with his hard court training and background in which a premium was placed on honing one’s baseline skills. He was once famously quoted to have said that ‘grass was for cows’ in relation to his aversion to the grass of Wimbledon (and his evident lack of success on the surface). This was another factor that divided him from McEnroe whose game was very much geared to grass, a surface that witnessed some of McEnroe’s best career performances.
Added to the mix were their different national origins. On the principle that sport can be seen as ‘war by other means’, their rivalry took place against the backdrop of the final years of the Cold War, a conflict that added spice to the sporting rivalry between the two. It was not simply about Lendl and McEnroe, but for many, it was also America vs. Czechoslovakia, Capitalism vs. Communism, Freedom vs. Tyranny and Brash Americana vs. Traditional European Values. Quoting Rudyard Kipling: ‘East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet ’, it was clear the rivalry between Lendl and McEnroe opened a huge gulf between them. It is fair to say, however, that this East/West rivalry was not something that Lendl actively encouraged whatever about the strong ‘red, white and blue’ proclivities of McEnroe. Lendl fell foul of the authorities in his home country fairly early on in his career, not least following his participation in an event in apartheid-era South Africa in 1982. This and his tennis globetrotting did not exactly make him a poster boy for solid Communist values and in time, he applied and won residence and eventually citizenship in the US. With the zeal of the convert, Lendl soon adopted with gusto traditional American values, firmly leaving behind his communist past. Now living in Greenwich, Connecticut, he is very much part of the ‘American Dream’.
Lendl, along with Borg, Wilander, Edberg, Becker and a few other influential players of the era, could be said to have led the way in the resurgence of European tennis to its current dominance in the international game. The strength of men’s tennis particularly in Eastern and Central Europe can be said to owe a debt to players like Lendl. Interestingly, examining the game of current star, Novak Djokovic reveals several legacies of the Lendl game. From a temperament perspective, Djokovic is also robotic, disciplined and intensely focussed. Like Lendl, he also hails from the former Communist bloc. Their respective physiques and emphases on training and fitness are further similarities. They are also robust exponents of the baseline game. In Djokovic’s recent tight encounters with Andy Murray, you would almost imagine that Lendl was working in Djokovic’s corner and not Murray’s such were the similarities in the style of play of the Czech and the Serb.
McEnroe, by contrast with Lendl, could combine solid and explosive baseline skills with a serve/volley game that was the envy of the tour at the time. One of his best weapons, his left-handed heavily top-spun serve wide to the ad court against right-handers (the vast majority of players), was extremely difficult to return. Even if you could scratch a return, McEnroe was always quick to the net to dispatch the return to oblivion. Such a style of play would have been alien to Lendl, although he devised a harrying strategy to confront it which ultimately proved successful.
Of their 36 career encounters with one another, Lendl comes out on top by 21-15. In terms of career stats, Lendl holds another key benchmark lead (together with Connors). Borg and McEnroe each won only two of the four Grand Slam singles titles , while Lendl managed to win three of the four (the Australian, the French and the US Opens). This was a substantial achievement, if only slightly diminished by the fact he failed to win Wimbledon, the world’s premier event, while each of his three main rivals did manage to win there.
In Grand Slam finals, Lendl led McEnroe by 2-1 and in all Grand Slam matches by 7-3. In WCT Finals, he led by 2 victories to 1. The arc and longevity of their respective careers indicate that McEnroe won most of their earlier encounters, while Lendl clearly dominated the encounters of the five final years of their rivalry (1987-92). Interestingly, despite Lendl’s relative weakness on grass, in their two encounters on that surface, the score was 1-1 (McEnroe winning in the Wimbledon semis in 1983 and Lendl the victor in London’s Queen’s Club in 1990). On hard and clay courts, Lendl came out on top 7-4 and 6-2 respectively. Probably due to McEnroe’s game being suited better to faster surfaces, he came out winner by 8-5 over Lendl on carpet.
The defining encounter between the two was probably the 1984 French Open Final. In that match, McEnroe threw away a two set lead to give Lendl his first Grand Slam title –a point from which Lendl never looked back. Despite beating Lendl in the US Open final and in the Volvo Masters later that year, McEnroe could not ultimately stop the Lendl juggernaut of the mid to late 1980’s.
It is always difficult to compare two players who meet at different times of their playing cycle. Making comparisons, for example, between Bill Tilden, Donald Budge, Rod Laver and Roger Federer are always hazardous. With Lendl and McEnroe, the former was on the rise as the latter was in the descendant of his career, although the careers of both overlapped sufficiently to allow for reasonably accurate comparisons. The statistical record stands fairly clearly in Lendl’s favour, although McEnroe had a doubles record that Lendl (and few others in the history of the game) could barely come close to emulating.
Both found one another intensely irritating and frustrating on a personal level – something neither player sought to hide. Their rivalry divided the tennis public at the time into two partisan camps, their respective styles of play and demeanours being almost polar opposites. The game was strengthened by their rivalry in which neither party gave the other the slightest quarter. Current rivalries at the top of the men’s game don’t lack in intensity or will to win. Very few, however, have the ‘personal’ animosity that marked the Lendl/McEnroe rivalry.