Ivan Lendl vs Jimmy Connors Head to Head and Rivalry

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Ivan Lendl v Jimmy Connors Head to Head: 22-13

The rivalry between Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors during the 1980’s, albeit an intense one for both players, lacked the heightened intensity of other rivalries of the era. Lendl/McEnroe, for example, was marked by the sheer level of antagonism between polar opposites. Connors/McEnroe had the same degree of personal animosity, but between two not dissimilar temperaments. Borg/McEnroe was notable for the mutual respect and relative amity between the two. Lendl/Connors was not quite of the same calibre for a number of reasons.

The chief factor was the simple one of age. Connors had won his first Grand Slam in 1974, defeating Ken Rosewall in the final of that year’s Wimbledon, while Lendl was only making his presence felt at the top of the game in the very late 1970’s. Lendl’s first Grand Slam was the French Open of 1984, almost a decade after Connors’ first. Although Connors was to play at the top of the pro game well into the 1990’s, his era was really the 1970’s and early 1980’s, while for  Lendl his stage was firmly the 1980’s. Lendl encountered Connors when Connors’ star was in the descendant – their head-to-head career record of 22-13 reflects the decisive advantage to the younger man.  Lendl v McEnroe, by contrast, was a contest between two players of roughly similar vintage. Connors/McEnroe had the added spice of determining who was to be the official crowned king of US tennis, at that time the dominant power in the game. In this sense, even though Lendl and Connors played one another 35 times over their respective careers, their rivalry could not have been said to have been a defining feature of that era. Lendl also held a clear, decisive lead (in career matches) over Connors, indicating a lack of the kind of ‘closeness’ which is the stuff of truly great rivalries.

Of their seven encounters in Grand Slam events, Lendl won four and Connors three. Reflecting the different arcs of their respective careers, Connors won the first three and Lendl the final four. None of those matches went to 5 sets. Despite this, Connors won both of their two encounters in Grand Slam finals, on both occasions at the US Open. Between 1984 and 1992, Connors failed to win any of his matches against Lendl, whereas Connors won the first eight of their encounters (between 1979-81) against a relatively inexperienced Lendl.

In their one and only encounter in the Davis Cup (an event which Lendl loyally and competitively was committed to on behalf of Czechoslovakia), Connors actually beat Lendl. Connors, often taunted by opponents for an apparent lack of commitment to the US team during his career, particularly relished that victory in 1981.

Lendl definitely dominated on hard and carpet surfaces, while not surprisingly (given Lendl’s well-known antipathy to grass), Connors dominated on that surface. The main fault line in their rivalry, however, was not the type of court surface. It was that of age – Connors’ experience prevailed in the early years of the rivalry while Lendl dominated as he gained in experience and Connors grew older.

Given the nature of the two players’ respective temperaments, a definite spikiness was evident in their playing relationship, not unlike the dynamic that existed between Lendl and McEnroe. Both were highly competitive, from different traditions and cultures, with one representing ‘youth’ and the other ‘age’, just to add another factor to their rivalry. As in the Lendl/McEnroe tussle, the Cold War conflict also helped to drive forward the rivalry (as much in the public’s and the media’s mind as in their own). The early and mid-1980s were the years of the Cold War, of Ronald Reagan’s hostile policies towards Communism, a period before the big opening up of Communist societies from the later part of that decade onwards. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that rivalries such as that between Connors and Lendl took on a titanic quality.

Right-handers regularly say that coming across left-handers is a particular challenge. Lendl not only had to confront this ‘sinister’ threat from John McEnroe, but also from Connors. Left-handers, being in such a minority, have to adapt their game to the reality of regular play against right-handers. They get used to playing ‘righties’. Right-handers, on the other hand, have to adjust to do everything in reverse: what are shots to the backhand now become shots to the forehand. This often gives the left-hander a decided psychological advantage. Although there have been relatively few to reach the top of the game, those that did were truly outstanding players: Laver, Roche, Connors, McEnroe, Navratilova and Nadal being cases in point.  As well as all the other challenges facing Lendl in his tussles with Connors, the fact that the latter was a southpaw simply added to the mix.

Both tended to favour the baseline and both had prodigious groundstrokes on either side. Connors was famous for grinding out flat or sliced groundstroke returns from the baseline (particularly vicious on grass) and for his searing service returns. Lendl will always be remembered for his epic returns and winners while on the run. Not for them the serve/volley game. Lendl and Connors both revelled in the game of titanic struggles from the baseline which gave the fans much to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ about.

Interestingly, Connors still holds the record for the number of ATP Tour wins with 109, 15 more than the next in line, Lendl and well ahead of Roger Federer. Connors’ record is testament to both his longevity in the game and the sheer competitive spirit which never left him. Connors still competes in Seniors events with his ‘never say die’ attitude undimmed. Lendl tends to prefer the golf fairways these days, but in recent times has found a new mission in the shape of coach and mentor to Andy Murray.

The interlocking rivalries at the top of the men’s game in the 1970’s and 1980’s helped hone the talents of Borg, Lendl, Connors and McEnroe and in the process, redounded to the benefit of the game itself. The Lendl/Connors rivalry with all its intensity and animosity played a part in that process. Many say that the game nowadays lacks some of the passion and intensity of earlier decades and this is probably true. Current rivalries at the top of the men’s game are intense but seem to lack that ‘personal’ element (for good or ill) – a little robotic and formulaic. The public likes real ‘flesh and blood’ individuals pitted in rivalry: they certainly had that with Lendl and Connors.

Paul McElhinney

December 2012

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