Of the four top players of the late 1970s/early 1980s (Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl), Ivan Lendl was the youngest and the last to make an impact on the Tour.Not only was he part of that earlier illustrious group, but his career also straddled the succeeding generation which included Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pat Cash.From 1978 to the early 1990s, Lendl competed on the Tour at the very highest levels.
After a successful career as a youth during which he was Wimbledon and French junior champion, Lendl turned pro in 1978.The first real highlight of his career was as part of the Czechoslovakian Davis Cup-winning side of 1980 – its very first Davis Cup win – which helped gain wide international respect both for Lendl and his country.
Although considered one of the best in the game in the early 1980s, it was not until 1984 that he won his first Grand Slam title by beating John McEnroe in the final of the French Open in five tight sets.This victory unlocked a career which was to include 8 Grand Slam titles (2 Australian, 3 French and 3 US Opens) and a number of WCT Finals and Masters Grand Prix titles.
This ‘gateway’ victory against McEnroe was also significant in another way in defining a rivalry at the top of the game among two polar opposites.McEnroe was volatile and colourful, while Lendl was disciplined and robotic and the two gave one another very little quarter both on and off the court.For McEnroe, Lendl was his great ‘nemesis’, the player he most wanted to beat.At a time when the Cold War was at its height, there may have been the further spice of international ‘Realpolitik’ added to the mix, but at heart, it was a deep-seated personal and professional rivalry.On the head-to-heads, Lendl came out decisively on top with a 21-15 record, owing perhaps to his greater discipline and consistency.
On other head-to-heads, Lendl’s record is also impressive.Against Connors, he was 21-13, while Borg won 5 to his 2. The latter stat reflects in part, Borg’s premature retirement in 1982, as well as the fact that Lendl played Borg when Borg was at his peak and Lendl was only a new player on tour.His record against Becker was 11-10 in Lendl’s favour; that against Edberg was 14-13 in Edberg’s favour; against Wilander, he was 15-7 and against Cash he was 5-3 ahead. Of that elite group, he bested everyone, except the two Swedes, Borg and Edberg.
Lendl was renowned for his consistent and disciplined baseline play. He was particularly dangerous while on the run as his many crosscourt forehand winners will attest.Never quite able to master the net game, he was at a disadvantage on grass.This goes some way to explaining his never managing to win Wimbledon, although he reached two finals there.He was once quoted as saying that ‘grass was for cows’, something that did not enamour him to the authorities at Wimbledon.In fairness, not many players from Continental Europe in those days had a natural affinity to grass or a tradition of grass-play (unless you had the game tailor-made for it, like Boris Becker), so he was not rare in that regard.Despite not winning Wimbledon, he did mange to win all three of the other Grand Slams at least once (the Triple Crown), which put him above both Borg and McEnroe who respectively, only managed to win at two of the four Grand Slam venues.
Lendl was also the holder of many esteemed records. He held a match winning record of over 90% in five years between 1982 and 1989.This was a testament to his great consistency and was a record only ever beaten by Federer in 2006.
Training and fitness played a huge part in Lendl’s success, a regime that many aspiring players sought to emulate.It stood Lendl in great stead in the crucible of tight matches and reflected the generally disciplined approach he took to everything.
Never one you could accuse of being ‘charismatic’, he had a sombre, serious (some would have said, robotic) demeanour both on and off court.There were several high-profile extroverts in the game at the time (Connors, McEnroe and Becker), but the role of ‘show pony’ was not for him, preferring to let his racquet do most of the talking for him.He may have found today’s media and celebrity-driven world uncomfortable for that reason.
Having forged a successful career in golf after his retirement in the early 1990’s, he is now once again at the centre of things through his association as coach and mentor with Andy Murray.Huge strides in the Scot’s game have been evident since Lendl’s involvement.It is an association which Lendl clearly relishes – giving something back for his successful time on Tour.
Where does Lendl rate in the all-time stakes? His Grand Slam Singles haul of 8 puts him equal with Perry, Rosewall, Agassi and Connors.Compared with his contemporaries, however, he is behind Borg, but ahead of McEnroe, Becker, Edberg and Cash on this metric.Compared to McEnroe, however, he had nothing like the American’s illustrious doubles record.
Lendl left a clear legacy in the game and was one of the players instrumental in the rise to dominance of European tennis.Not always comfortable with the media limelight, he placed being ‘respected’ above being ‘liked’.All who look at his tennis achievements, fans and opponents, hold him in the highest of respect.