Tennis fans finally come around to Lendl
By RAY McNULTY
February 22, 2007
OK, I'll admit it: I wasn't much of an Ivan Lendl fan.
Not back when.
Not when I first started to care about tennis, back in the late 1970s, which, really, makes me no different than most American tennis fans of my generation.
There was Jimmy Connors. There was John McEnroe. There was The Cold War.
And Lendl was on the other side.
Or so we thought.
"People didn't understand," Lendl was saying earlier this week from his winter home in Vero Beach, Fla., "that we hated the (Soviet) system more than they did."
Didn't care, either.
Lendl was from Czechoslovakia, a communist country. He spoke with an Eastern Bloc accent we didn't trust. He was one of them in an us against them world.
It didn't matter that he chose to live among us, or that he preferred our way of life so much that he became a U.S. citizen in 1992. We still rooted for the other guy, especially if the other guy was one of ours.
When Lendl played against Connors or McEnroe in a U.S. Open final, he was the visiting team.
But he refused to go away.
He started beating Connors, beating McEnroe, beating everyone the game put in front of him. He worked harder, hit harder, played harder. He climbed to the top of the tennis world and stayed there until Father Time served him off the court.
And, eventually, he won so much for so long that he won us over.
"Sometimes, it takes awhile before people realize you're not what they thought you were," said Lendl, who was enshrined in the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2001 after a career in which he reached 19 Grand Slam finals, won eight of them and held the No. 1 ranking for a then-record 270 weeks.
Now, Lendl, who retired in 1994 and will turn 47 next month, is a respected and admired champion.
He doesn't play tennis any more - "The last time I played for pleasure was 10 years ago," he said - but he keeps up with the sport. He thinks Roger Federer is playing the best tennis ever. He was not surprised by this week's news that Federer had tied Connors' record of 160 consecutive weeks with the No. 1 ranking.
"I'm not sure that's news," said Lendl, who held the No. 1 ranking for 157 consecutive weeks from 1985-88. "He might have all the records before he's done."
Don't, however, try to tell Lendl it was tougher in his time than it is for Federer now.
True, Lendl's losses in Grand Slam finals came against the likes of Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Wilander, Becker and Cash. But Federer's dominance, he said, has nothing to do with an absence of fitting foes.
"He's just so much better than those other guys," Lendl said. "If he wasn't there, you'd have four or five guys with four or five majors. But he gobbles them all up."
Lendl wasn't as smooth as Federer, didn't have as many weapons, didn't look as pretty on the court. But he was every bit the warrior.
"I wanted to win every match," he said, "every tournament."
He's still competitive today, albeit on the golf course. And if you see him there, wave or say hello. He's not the cold, impersonal robot we thought he was. He's not the enemy. He's a nice guy and a good neighbor.
It's a shame, really, that America didn't embrace his greatness and appreciate his effort until it was so late in the game. But he holds no grudge.
"When I retired," Lendl said, "my coach, Tony Roche, told me: 'The older you get, the better you were.'"