Obsession - Ivan Lendl's Lonely Quest For Perfection
Very long, but fantastic literature for anyone wanting to learn about Ivan Lendl. Discusses his personal life, his upbringing, his transformation into the incredible player he was. It's quite comprehensive. At first it sort of dehumanizes Lendl, but quite quickly is gets much deeper and revealing.
New York / June 26, 1989
Ivan Lendl's Lonely Quest for Perfection
It was about three in the afternoon, and Ivan Lendl had walked into the lobby of a Hilton hotel in suburban Atlanta, dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and running shoes. He was there for an exhibition tournament, and he'd just raced through a match against the Ecuadoran Andres Gomez. The workout wasn't sufficient: Now Lendl intended to take a three- or four-mile run.
As he walked toward the parking lot, Lendl met Andre Agassi, the young sensation who blew into the top five in the world in 1988 but has yet to win a tournament this year. Agassi was hanging out with a player named Derrick Rostagno.
"Hey, Ivan, how ya doin'?" Agassi said. Lendl, six foot two and very soldi, towered over Agassi, who is five foot ten and borders on the frail. Agassi looked as if he might ask Lendl for an autograph. Lendl looked as if he might not give him one.
"Ya wanna seee the car I'm gonna buy?" Agassi asked, tagging along. "I've been working out. I got a trainer who's traveling with me. Next year, I'm gonna have legs like you."
"You need a trainer at home, not on the road," Lendl said, conclusively. "Have him give you a workout you can take with you. Don't waste your money taking him on the road."
"Nah, he does more than just a workout," said Agassi. "I've even been watching my diet, if you can believe it."
Suddenly, they were standing in front of a huge Winnebago in the far reaches of the lot. It belonged to Rostagno.
"Great, huh?" said Agassi, opening the door and climbing into the driver's seat. "I'm gonna get one of these."
"How can you buy a car, Andre?" Lendle said, smiling. "You're not even old enough to have a driving license."
"Get real," said Agassi.
"How old are you?" said Lendl, enjoying the tease.
"It's my birthday Saturday, I'm gonna be nineteen."
Lendl smiled. "You wanna take a run with us?"
"Nah," said Agassi, still in the driver's seat. "Not right now." Lendl shrugged. It was perhaps 85 degrees and equally humid. Weather that separates the men from the boys. Being fit is one of Lendl's many obsessions, and he wasn't about to take Agassi's nouveau training regimen very seriously. "The guy doesn't do anything for eighteen years," Lendl said as he set off on his run, "and then he thinks he can turn it around in a few weeks. It doesn't work that way." Lendl is even more disdainful of the women players on the tour. Except for Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, he thinks, the women just don't pay attention to fitness. They eat terribly, they camp out in the backcourt and hit moonballs, and they don't move at all. Lendl may hit from the baseline, but he can move. He's fit. You can count on it.
A week later, Lendl played the Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills and trounced Agassi in the semifinals. In the finals, playing in chily, overcast 50-degree weather, he beat a clay-courter named Jaime Yzaga 6-2, 6-1. That night, Lendl was scheduled to fly to Hamburg, Germany, for the start of two months of play in Europe. Despite his tight schedule and the unpleasant weather, he returned to his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, wheeled out his ten-speed bike, and celebrated his seventy-seventh professional-tournament victory by taking a grueling 37-mile ride.
Lendl, 29, has been the top tennis player in the world for nearly four years. He has won seven grand-slam titles, including the French and the U.S. Open three times each. He is also the all-time leading prize-money winner in tennis--nearly $14 million, and that represents just a small part of his earnings. this year alone, he'll take in nearly $3 million for exhibition play and another $3 million or so in endorsements--including deals with Adidas, Hertz, and Gatorade. Lendl lives with his twenty-year-old girlfriend, Samantha Frankel, in a 16,000-square-foot Georgian mansion in Greenwich and owns another 45 prime acres nearby. But even Greenwich has begun to feel a bit crowded. If all goes well, he'll soon begin building a 30,000-square-foot house on an 800-acre working farm that he's negotiating to buy in northern Connecticut. Now that he's ready to become a gentleman farmer. If he stays healthy, Lendl believes he can remain at the top of tennis for another three or four years.
His success, to understate it wildly, is no accident. More than any other tennis champion in recent years, Lendl has systematized what it takes to perform consistently at a peak level.
Three great and very different champions preceded him. Jimmy Connors seemed to play by animal instinct--hitting the ball as hard as he could every day and not thinking a whole lot about how or why he did it. Bjorn Borg, born with preternatural calmness, let handlers plan his every move, leaving him free to focus solely on playing tennis. John McEnroe was a natural--an artist with such incomparable feel for the game that it compensated for his erratic moods and his disdain for training.
Lendl, by contrast, is the ultimate grind. Believing that his natural skills alone weren't enough to make him a No. 1 player, he set out to win by working harder than anyone else. He has turned his life into an ongoing scientific experiment, using himself as a guinea pig. He cannot remember a time during the past decade when he took two consecutive weeks of pure vacation. Every hour is scheduled, not just for practice--three to four hours a day, nearly every non-match day of the year--but also for a brutal fitness-training program and a regimen of exercises aimed purely at improving his mental toughness.
His rituals on the court--the number of times he bounces the ball, the way he straightens his strings between points, even the application of sawdust to his grip--are purposeful and unvarying. His racquets are strung, weighted, and balanced to precise specifications, since Lendl can detect even minute differences. He monitors his diet rigorously, and he had his blood chemistry checked regularly to ensure that he's getting exactly what he needs. He even takes naps on schedule.
"The men's tennis tour is a brutal existence," says Robert Haas, a nutritionist and the author of Eat to Win, who has worked with numerous top players, including Lendl. "If you are sensitive to your surroundings--the bed you sleep on, the people you have to deal with, the jet lag, the press, the last loss--then you might as well hang it up. Most tennis players are too neurotic to be champions. They worry about too many things. To get on top and stay there, you have to be an animal. You have to be the type of person who can shut out everything."
The players who find that easiest are those who don't have much on their minds in the first place. But Lendl is far more thoughtful and sensitive than he lets on. The irony is that making himself into a machine has been a hard and painful process--not just physically, but also emotionally. Pushing aside conflict and shutting out distraction don't come to him naturally. Just as he has worked relentlessly on his physical fitness, so has he taught himself to master his mind.
What was perceived early in his career as coldness and arrogance was often just the public face-the competitive mask--that Lendl wore to cover his fear and insecurity. He was an only child from Czechoslovakia, alone in a new country, unfamiliar with the language. But he was determined to play tennis at the top. For him, that required suppressing feelings of vulnerability, presenting to the public a picture of strength that he himself eventually began to believe.
Lendl's style of play is called artless, predictable, and dull. What isn't appreciated is how hard he works to accomplish the sort of consistency that inspires such comments. He cannot, he believes, smile and joke on the court the way some players do, because he needs all his focus to play tennis. He cannot take time off from playing, practicing, and training, he says because he loses his hard-earned feel so quickly and then must struggle so long to get it back. He even seeks to reshape his liabilities into assets. He uses fear, for example, to drive himself harder. Even when he is far ahead of a weaker opponent, he tries to play as if he's behind, knowing that what may at one moment seem to be control of a match can slip away during a single key exchange.
Lendl learned all this through painful experience. For many years, he was saddled with a reputation as a player who couldn't win the big matches--a choker. He never accepted the tag, always had logical explanations for his losses. By working harder, he reasoned, he would eventually prevail And to a remarkable degree, he has.
The one variable Lendl has not been able to eliminate is the fact that he's still human. Even the most meticulous planning will not produce all the answers. When you count on being able to use logic to remain in control and then something illogical occurs, the computer can crash. The whole system can go haywire.
Until a fortnight ago, Lendl was on a remarkable roll, playing the best tennis of his life. He had already won five tournaments this year, including the Australian, the first leg of the grand slam. He went into the French Open the overwhelming favorite and raced through his first three matches without losing a set. In the fourth round, he came up against Michael Chang, a seventeen-year-old who is improving fast but was scarcely seen as a threat. Sure enough, Lendl won the first two sets easily.
But in the thir set, Lendl made several unforced errors and began to unravel. Odd as it may seem, Chang's relative lack of fitness may have been the factor that cost Lendl the match. In the fourth set, Chang began to suffer from muscle cramps. Bye the fifth set, they were so severe that Chang resorted to serving underhand and hitting soft, high lobs to stay in points. Unnerved by his inability to quickly put away an opponent who was so clearly on the ropes, Lendl made one inexplicable error after another, culminating with a double fault at match point.
"Ivan is a very structured thinker," says Alexis Castori, a Florida psychologist who has worked with Lendl on the mental aspects of his game. "When Chang began to cramp and mix things up, I suspect it was not anything Ivan had imagined could happen. He has gotten much better about taking a situation as it is, rather than how he'd like it to be. But apparently this was a constellation of events he just wasn't able to format in his mind. And as a result, he lost control of the match."
One of the marks of Lendl's reign as champion has been his resilience. Even after the loss to Chang (who went on to win the tournament), he immediately managed to see a bright side to the defeat. By getting knocked out so early on the French clay, he explained to reporters, he had an extra week to prepare for Wimbledon, which begins on the grass next Monday. Since he does not change surfaces easily and since his baseline game is not ideally suited to grass, that time could prove crucial. After all, he's already won the French three times. Winning Wimbledon is one of the few goals that he has not achieved.
Less than half an hour after his loss, Lendl was on the phone to a good friend who helps arrange his schedule. They spoke for twenty minutes about how Lendl could travel most quickly to England, whether the house he's rented at Wimbledon could be readied for earlier occupancy, and what it would take to get him a wild-card entry into a tune-up grass-court tournament. Never once during the call did Lendl mention the match against Chang. He may have been hurting, but he would not allow himself to look back. The machine was back in working order.
On a beautiful Florida afternoon, Lendl was steering his Range Rover off the island of Key Biscayne, where he was scheduled to play a first-round match the next day in the Lipton International. He was headed to play eighteen holes of golf at the Riviera Country Club. In the seat next to him was Warren Bosworth, a short, rotund, bespectacled 53-year-old businessman whose company is responsible for customizing Lendl's racquets and who has also become one of his closest friends. During the two weeks of the Lipton, Lendl and Samantha Frankel had arranged to share a condominium with Bosworth and his wife.
"The first time I met Warren was in 1980," Lendl explained. "He was traveling with Brian Gottfried, and Gottfried had just beat me 7-6, 6-2. I remember Warren coming over to me in the locker room and saying, 'Oh, don't worry about it, you're going to be okay. You're going to be a top player someday.' All I felt like saying was 'F--- off.' Did I say that to you, Warren?"
Bosworth laughed, "You did. You did."
"If I was nice to Warren," Lendl said, "then he wouldn't feel good. I don't know what it is. Warren just invites abuse."
"My mother taught me that every so often you need lessons in humility," said Bosworth. "So occasionally I step out of my normal role and pal around with Ivan, just to sharpen those skills."
At the golf course, Lendl and Bosworth were joined by a mutual friend and business colleague, Bob Miller. Lendl, who always prefers to bet on his golf, suggested they play skins--$2 a hole, plus $5 for birdies, $100 for eagles--even up. That gave Lendl an edge, since his handicap of ten is several strokes better than either Bosworth's or Miller's.
"Are you ready, girls?" Lendl said.
"He always tries to rush me," Bosworth says. "Ivan always tells people, 'Warren is the worst golfer.' I don't know why he does it, but I kind of like it. Because then beating him is so much sweeter."
Of course, it's not easy one-upping Lendl. Three days earlier, he and Bosworth had played another round of golf. As is Lendl's wont, he was razzing Bosworth mercilessly about his game. Bosworth generally tried to ignore such comments, but on this day, he finally decided to retaliate. He picked up a cup of water, turned around in his cart, and tossed it back toward Lendl. He missed, but that isn't what amused Lendl most. Rather, it was that in turning around, Bosworth failed to realize that he still had his foot on the accelerator. No sooner had he tossed the water than his cart smashed head-on into a tree.
"It just cracked me up," said Lendl, smiling broadly at the memory. "Warren, show them all your cuts."
"We go at each other all the time," Bosworth explained. "My wife, Barbara, thinks we're two little children."
"I have a sick sense of humor," Lendl says. "I can laugh at a lot of things other people don't find funny."
His own nightmares, for instance. When Lendl wakes up with a bad dream, his first reaction is to laugh. This year, he was playing John McEnroe in Dallas. McEnroe has made many nasty comments about Lendl's play. "We don't love each other; there's no secret about that," says Lendl. McEnroe came to net, and Lendl drilled a ball at him so hard that McEnroe couldn't get out of the way, and the ball knocked him down. Lendl had to turn around so McEnroe wouldn't see him laughing.
Sometimes, because English isn't Lendl's first language, his jokes don't quite come off the way he intends. But mostly he means what he says, whether you like it or not. His favorite comedian is Sam Kinison, master of malice. Lendl himself is an equal-opportunity offender. He tells jokes about Jews, Poles, Italians, gays. Humor seems to serve him in several ways. One is one-upmanship; it keeps him in control. Joking also provides a means of coping in social situations where he might otherwise be uncomfortable or self-conscious. But most of all, Lendl's teasing and sarcasm seem to be his own odd way of showing affection. The closer the friend, the more relentless the ribbing he's likely to get.
One time, Lendl was playing in a golf foursome against Bob Miller and a partner whom Miller had brought along. Lendl's team trounced Miller's and won a few dollars for the effort. At the end of the round, Lendl went off to a pay phone and dialed Miller's wife. "Bob just asked me to call," Lendl told her, totally deadpan. "He's on his way home, but he just lost a lot of money playing golf with us. He didn't have the cash to pay up for today, and he wants to play with us again tomorrow, so he asked if you would go to the bank before it closes and take out a couple thousand dollars for him." When Miller got home, his wife gave him hell. Lendl couldn't have been more tickled.
More recently, Lendl was visiting Bosworth, and Bosworth's lawyer, Stanley Cohen, a car collector, showed up in a Ferrari GTO worth $2.5 million. Cohen asked Lendl if he wanted to drive it. "No way," said Lendl. So they all sat around and talked for a while. As he was leaving, Cohen asked Lendl to autograph a racquet cover. Lendl obliged. "To Stanley," he wrote. "F--- you and your Ferrari." Far from offended, Cohen framed the cover and hung it on his wall. Men act like awed boys in Lendl's presence. Pleased just to be around him, they are only too happy to be on the receiving end of his jokes.
By the end of the fifth hole, hitting long shots off the tee, Lendl was one under par. Just to keep himself busy between holes, he'd also taken responsibility for finding the errant balls hit by Bosworth and Miller.
Lendl took up golf seriously just four years ago. In part, he was looking for something to relieve the boredom of hanging around in the locker room. He doesn't enjoy reading books (in part because he is a very slow reader), and taking up a more physically demanding sport would have cost him energy he needs for tennis. Once he began to play, he became obsessed.
"Ivan has an addictive personality, but fortunately his addictions are positive," says Robert Haas. "He may not have the innate tennis ability of a John McEnroe, but he has enormous sheer athletic ability. With coaching and training, Ivan can master and execute any kind of stroke or movement with the skill of a champion." Indeed, by the end of two weeks of playing nearly every day after his matches at the Lipton, Lendl was regularly shooting in the high seventies. Once he retires from tennis, he fully intends to make himself a scratch golfer.
"I don't play sports, and the only one I'm good is horseback riding," says Samantha Frankel, who has been living with Lendl for the past three years. "Ivan told me that if he took up riding, he'd be better than me in a month. I said, 'Well, you're probably right.' He's just got an incredible will to win in everything. And he doesn't do anything unless he can do it well."
Castori remembers visiting Lendl during a stage when he was collecting miniature racing cars. No sooner did she comment on them than he challenged her to a race. Another time, when he'd put up a basketball net, Castori mentioned that as a kid she'd played one-on-one with her brother. "Great," said Lendl. "Let's play three out of five." During the winter, Lendl lets the water in the swimming pool at his home freeze over and then plays ice hockey against Janek Mars, the caretaker at his house. Any forum will do; it's the competition Lendl craves.
Lendl won the round with Bosworth and Miller, shooting a very respectable 82, and they retired to the clubhouse for a drink. While the two older men ordered beers and gobbled down peanuts, Lendl sipped at a diet 7-Up--no sugar, no caffeine. Lendl almost never drinks alcohol. Being high means being out of control.
It was getting on toward seven when Lendl and Bosworth returned to the condominium. Samantha was out taking a run when they walked in, and the immediate object of Lendl's attention was Cayden, one of his three German shepherds. Because Lendl knew that he'd be spending nearly three weeks in Florida, he'd arranged to re-create home life more than he usually does. Janek's wife, Litka, who cooks for Lendl, flew down to prepare his meals. Samantha and a friend of hers drove the Range Rover down from Connecticut, with Cayden in the back.
Lendl takes great pride in his dogs. Earlier in the day, after he finished his practice, Samantha had been standing with Cayden on a leash when Lendl came off the court. "Did you explain," he asked her, "how, he's fully trained?"
"Fully trained" is a euphemism for Cayden's capacity to attack on Lendl's command. But Lendl's relationship to the dogs is more complex than that. The primary reason for getting his first dog, Misia, was companionship. "I was 22, I was living alone, and I was lonely," Lendl says. "I was injured, and I wasn't playing. I went to Bermuda, and I just spend 24 hours a day with Misia. And then eventually I go another dog. As with everything that catches my interest, I went deeper and deeper and deeper, and now I'm stuck in it. And I love it."
When his newest dog arrives from Australia, Lendl will have four. He hopes to breed German shepherds, and flying to tournaments, he often studies pedigrees and genetic-breeding charts. "I guess because I'm a perfectionist," says Lendl, "I think my dogs should be the best-looking dogs, the smartest dogs, and the best-trained dogs."
As it has been for Lendl, discipline is the key to successful training. "Dogs are probably just like kids," he says. "They push you and see how far they can go. You should always encourage them and you should never yell at them. But the most important thing is to make the dog understand that when you say something, it has to be done."
The payoff is extraordinary loyalty. "Many times you don't know if a person is loyal or is just faking it," says Lendl. "With dogs you always know that they mean what they're doing. And they have great sensitivity. If I'm in a good mood when I come in, they will run over to play. If I come back from the U.S. Open after I have lost and I'm in a bad mood, they will sense that and leave me alone."
Actually, all of those closest to Lendl become very sensitive to his moods and learn when it is best to leave him be.
"When you're talking about a guy who is at combat in a major tennis tournament," Bosworth says, "he simply has no room for anyone else's schedule or thoughts or feelings."
"I call it his monster personality," says Samantha Frankel. "He recovers a little faster now when he gets off the court, but Ivan can be very difficult and demanding and short-tempered during tournaments. I'm very easygoing and I don't like to fight, so I take the brunt of it when he's upset. If I have something I'm upset about, I don't bring it up during a tournament. I save it."
Lendl has become accustomed, for example, to Frankel's presence at every match he plays. Except for exhibitions, she can't remember a match she's missed during the past four and a half years. Once, however, she was watching a doubles match, and toward the end, she began to feel so physically ill that she left. Afterward, the first thing Lendl asked her was where she'd gone. It was clear to her that he was upset. Now Frankel won't even get up during a match to go to the bathroom.
Dinner was waiting for Lendl on the dining-room table when he returned to the condominium from golf. He sat down by himself and began to eat the nondescript-looking Polish food that Litka cooks for him--a noodle dish, a thick, white soup, fresh fruit for dessert. He ate a lot, but quickly and with no great passion. "If I could get fed by injection, I would," Lendl says. "Some people live to eat. I eat to live. It gives me more pleasure to go and play street hockey than to eat, no matter how good the food is."
After dinner, Lendl walked over to a couch in the living room and flipped through USA Today. Then he turned on the television. If there had been a hockey game on, he would have watched it. Lendl is at least as passionate about hockey as he is about golf, and he serves on the advisory board of the Hartford Whalers. At home in Greenwich, he has a satellite dish, and he can usually find a hockey gave at any hour. On this evening, however, he had to settle for watching Family Feud and calling the USA Today sports line every half-hour for hockey scores.
At 9 P.M., a masseur arrived. Lendl disappeared into the bedroom to get his rubdown. By 10:15, he was asleep.
Order was the order of Ivan Lendl's childhood. Growing up in the city of Ostrava, he was ruled by authorities: his parents--most of all his mother--and, later , the government. He would rebel against all of them in time, but never against the order. That he imposed on himself. It gave him comfort.
Both of his parents were tennis players. His father, Jiri, a Lawyer, was ranked in the top fifteen in Czechoslovakia; his mother, Olga, far more driven, reached No. 2 among women. "My father was the one who used his mind better when he was playing," Lendl says. "He played a smart game, but he didn't have the will, so when the going got really tough and he started feeling tired, he would just let go. My mom was the one who would never give up. Ever. She was kind of a bully. She'd say, 'I'm going to break you down.' And she would."
Even today, Lendl sees his game as much more like his mother's than his father's. "She didn't have all that much talent, even less than I do. For her, it all came from work. If she doesn't play, she can't hit a ball properly. Neither can I. If I don't play for two weeks, I can't hit a topspin. I just lose the timing, I can't move on court; I lose everything. that's why I can't take a long break. I would love to, but I can't."
Lendl's mother worked part-time as a secretary, and when she got off in the afternoons, she took her infant son along to the local tennis club in a stroller. By six, he was hitting a ball against a backboard with a wooden paddle. At eight, he was playing with the other local boys. The coach began pairing him with older players. "He always had me play above my head. You were forced to improve or you would get kicked every day. Nobody likes that."
Mother and son would stay each day at the club until dark. "I loved it," Lendl remembers. "I had a habit of biting my nails. My mom didn't like it, and she would check them every week. How many nails I bit was how many days I wouldn't go to the tennis courts. And that was the worst for me."
His parents both coached him, but he fought with his mother. "We never got along on the court. My father could always explain things to me. With my mom, she would ask me to do something I wouldn't think was right, and I'd ask why, and she would get frustrated and just throw me off the court. She would use force. She didn't know how to make it fun."
Lendl had a weak backhand growing up, and to compensate, he would rush net as often as possible. "My mom would say to me, 'We're going to practice backhand crosscourts, and you can't come to the net.' My dad would say, 'We're playing backhand crosscourt and you can come to the net on the eleventh shot.' He would make it into a bit a of a competition with a reward at the end. That was the difference."
The struggle with his mother continued at home. She insisted that he eat vegetables, and he refused. She would put a timer on the table, set it at ten minutes, and leave the room. "She'd say to me, 'If you don't eat, I'm going to call the zoo, and the elephant is going to come and get you.' I was scared of the elephant. So I always tried to push her as far as I could, but then when it was a minute to go, I would just swallow everything."
If the pressure on Lendl was intense, it was partly because he was the only child. "It is good because you get a lot of attention, and it is bad because you get too much attention," he says. "At times, I wished there might have been another kid. But maybe I would have changed my mind then. There would be too much attention for a baby, and I would be jealous."
Even now, Lendl speaks to his parents, who still live in Czechoslovakia, nearly every day. When he was playing the exhibition in Atlanta not long ago, he failed to call home one evening after a match. The next day, when he called, his mother was upset. "She wants to know every day what happens. I said to her, 'Mom, it was four o'clock in the morning for you when my match ended. And it was an exhibition.' She said, 'I don't care. I needed to know. I couldn't sleep.'" Several times a year, for the major tournaments, Lendl's parents come to watch, and stay with him. But even now, he resists looking toward them during a match, reluctant to catch a disapproving look on his mother's face.
Still, he has come to view his mother more sympathetically as he's gotten older. "She was always very critical because she wanted me to do better," Lendl says now. "That's why I do as well as I do in tennis--because I will never be pleased. I'll always want to do it better. If I go to school and get an A, I shouldn't be complimented, because that's my job. If I get an F, I should be in trouble."
Between school and tennis, leisure was rare for the young Lendl. "There was always something to do, and I had to plan carefully," he says. "My mom always had me do certain things. You come home from school and change your clothes, you put your shirt and pants into the closet--you don't just throw it on the chair. You finish your lunch and dry the dishes. The garbage is full, you go and empty it. If I was disorganized, I wouldn't have had enough time in the day. If I had two and a half hours of homework, I would say to myself, ' Okay, I'll do an hour after school, and that leaves me one and a half for the evening.' And I'd come back from the courts at eight, start working at 8:30, and I'd be done at ten and go to bed. Just like that."
And what of time, say, to hang out and chase girls?
"No, not at all. But it didn't bother me."
At fourteen, Lendl beat his mother for the first time. He remembers every detail of the day, including the fact that she was very upset when it was over. "I was so proud that I couldn't fit through the door," he says, grinning even now. By the age of fifteen, he was playing tournaments in the United States. Special arrangements were made for him to miss classes. He was smart and focused enough to earn A's and B's simply by studying on his own and returning only for exams. Today, he speaks four languages and understands two others. Math was his favorite subject; he has always been attracted by the logic of numbers. History was his least favorite subject.
"I hated it," he says, "because what they feed you is not right, so why bother with it?" Lendl was eight years old when the Russian tanks rolled into Prague. As he grew up, his logic made him question the Socialist system he was living under. Hard work was not rewarded, incentive was suffocated, advancement was impossible. Playing tennis in the West--seeing capitalism up close--only confirmed his belief.
"My father was a lawyer. There is no private practice in Czechoslovakia, so he worked for a government company. He was making, say 45,000 crowns a year. The lowest-price car was 60,000. Or a TV cost 8,000 crowns. How can you put one quarter of your salary just to get a color TV? The flip side is that you have things like free medical care. But if you're not famous or important, and your wife is having a baby, and you don't go and pay the doctor 1,000 crowns on the side, he won't even show up. I always laugh when I see people in America criticizing it here. I say, 'Why don't you go for three months to Czechoslovakia?' Sometimes I think people here have too much freedom to criticize."
At eighteen, Lendl won the junior title at Wimbledon, and by the time he graduated form high school, he had become determined to turn professional, not to live a life dominated by others. Lendl has no nostalgia for his motherland. "I hate living in the past," he says. "I like to live in the present and plan for the future."
"I'm different than Czech people," Lendl would tell Jerry Solomon, his agent during the early years. "I'm not going to be overrun the way they have been."
Still, at his father's insistence, Lendl enrolled at the university, as a fallback. But very quickly he began winning matches and moving up in the rankings. He withdrew from school, entered the army, and left the next day to resume playing tennis. His main responsibility as an army officer was playing Davis Cup matches for Czechoslovakia. By 1980, he was ranked No. 6 in the world. But he was lonely.
Wojtek Fibak, then a high ranked Polish player who would become for five years Lendl's coach, mentor, business adviser, and closest friend, remembers him as "a sad-looking country boy from Ostrava." In 1979, Lendl began to follow Fibak around, watching his matches and going back to the locker room with him afterward. In many ways they were opposites. Fibak was gregarious, free-spirited, worldly, something of a Renaissance man. Lendl was shy, guarded, unsophisticated, and focused almost solely on tennis. Fibak, inspired by Ken Rosewall, played a delicate, tactical game that relied on touch--drop shots, slices, angles, very little power. Lendl, who hit the ball hard, heavily, and with very little variety, was fascinated by how Fibak managed to win without any big shots. After a time, Fibak decided to take the younger man under his wing.
"He wanted to conquer the world, but he didn't know how yet." Fibak says. "I didn't think he was the most talented player around, but I thought he had an extraordinary brain quality, powers of insight that would take him very far." Among other things, Lendl recognized that he could learn a great dealfrom someone very different from himself. "We were together for five years, and he never said no to me," says Fibak. "We did not have one single argument."
Fibak simply took charge of Lendl's life--not just his tennis but also his business affairs, his scheduling, even his social life. It was Fibak's wife who introduced Lendl to Samantha Frankel. They'd met her vacationing at La Samanna, the resort in St. Maarten that her father owned. When she came to New York at fourteen to attend high school at Spence, she began spending weekends at the Fibaks' house in Greenwich. Lendl was painfully shy and inexperienced with girls, but in the unpressured atmosphere that the Fibaks helped create, a romance began to develop.
Of course, Lendl adapted the lessons he learned from Fibak, to fit his own style. Fibak tried to introduce Lendl to art. Not terribly interested, Lendl nonetheless had a problem to solve: The walls in his house were bare. Introduced to the posters of a Czech painter named Alphonse Mucha, he began to collect them. Now he has the world's largest collection of Mucha posters. But his motivation remains functional and utterly unsentimental. "You can't have empty walls," he says. "I liked these posters. They caught my attention, they were affordable, and I began to buy them and to study Mucha. I like collecting one artist, because I like to concentrate on one thing at a time. I don't know anything about other artists. It's just not my form of entertainment. I'd rather go and do something physical than visit a museum."
Although Lendl was already among the top players in the world when Fibak began working with him, Fibak believed that Lendl's game needed to be overhauled. "He had a big, big forehand, but otherwide there was nothing," says Fibak. Lendl's backhand was a defensive slice, his first serve was less than overpowering, and although he rushed net at every opportunity, his volley was mediocre. He won matches, Fibak believed, because he had been programmed by his parents to be a champion, and because he was smart enough to get the most out of his limited game.
"My motto for Ivan was 'Win without playing well,' says Fibak. "I wanted to structure his game so that he was staying in points until he could go for a winner." In part, that meant making Lendl mentally tougher. "He was always very sad," says Fibak, "and he had this Slavic nature. If things didn't go his way, he gave matches away. I wanted for him to become a machine, to hid his feelings, to wear an unemotional mask on his face, not to react to anything." Lendl was an extraordinary student. When Fibak suggested shifting to a topspin backhand, it meant Lendl had to completely shift his grip and relearn the stroke. Few players at his level would have dared risk the change. In April 1980, he played a match in Las Vegas against Harole Solomon, then a top-ranked baseliner, and Fibak insisted that Lendl hit every backhand with topspin. He lost 6-1, 6-1, and left the court in tears. Lendl spent the summer in Greenwich banging away topspin backhands. The fall--just four months later--Lendl played Solomon at the U.S. Open, on the same surface as in Las Vegas, and destroyed him, 6-1, 6-0, 6-0. At the French Open the net year, Lendl reached the finals and took Bjorn Borg to five sets before succumbing. The match was monochromatic, mechanistic, endless. The program was working.
When Fibak came to watch his matches, Lendl looked over at him between every single point--and knew immediately what Fibak was thinking. When Fibak stayed home, Lendl phoned him afterward from his hotel room and reviewed every point.
By 1981, Lendl was ranked among the top three in the world, behing McEnroe and Connors. What he couldn't seem to do was win the big matches. Twice against Connors at the U.S. Open--1982 and 1983--he lost in the finals. Always, he had a logical explanation. In the second Connors final, it turned out he'd been suffering severe stomach cramps, so bad he could barely walk afterward. He still believes he lost because he wasn't fit enough. But the mind and the body are connected.
"I don't think he truly tanked matches, but he was sometimes paralyzed mentally," says Fibak. "Ivan simply wasn't able to take the pressure at the Open against Connors. When you become paralyzed mentally, it goes into your stomach or your legs. It burns your energy."
Sportswriters had little good to say about Lendl. Nor would he give them an inch. He had his own code. If joking on the court did not come to him spontaneously, he reasoned, then he wasn't about to fake it. If it was a choice between accommodating his fans and sticking by his schedule, the tennis prevailed. The most obvious cost was financial. For a player of his level, Lendl had remarkably few product-endorsement deals. But what he didn't let on was that the criticism took a personal toll. "He was hurt by what the press wrote; he suffered very much," says George Vyborny, once one of Lendl's closest friends. "At a certain point, I think he just gave up and closed further into himself."
Lendl relied more and more on Fibak and on Jerry Solomon, then his agent at ProServ, to handle his contract with the outside world. Solomon was on virtual 24-hour call. "There were always more things that could be done better," says Solomon. "He was more demanding than any other client I've ever had. But then he's also more demanding on himself than anyone I've ever met."
Lendl's breakthrough occurred in 1984, against John McEnroe at the French Open. It was a match with remarkable parallels to the recent loss to Michael Chang but with Lendl's role reversed.
He still had yet to win a grand slam. McEnroe won the first two sets of their match easily, 6-3, 6-2, and was up 4-2 in the third. But Lendl summoned something from within, fought back, and won the last three sets 6-4, 7-5, 7-5. In the locker room afterward, he was so sick and exhausted that ice packs were applied to help him revive, and he had trouble recognizing even his closest friends.
The victory gave Lendl an enormous psychological lift. No longer cold it be said that he lacked guts. But the breakthrough was not yet complete.
After the French , Lendl found himself feeling sluggish and heavy, even in practice. He lost badly in the early rounds of several tournaments. In august, Lendl asked Solomon to call Robert Haas, who had worked earlier on a diet and conditioning program for Martina Navratilova. "I told Jerry I wasn't sure what Ivan's problem was," Haas remembers, "but that if it had anything to do with endurance and fitness, then I could definitely help."
Haas did a series of blood tests and discovered that Lendl's diet was exceptionally high in protein, and that his cholesterol level was way up in the danger zone. Sure enough, Lendl told Haas that on a normal day, he might eat five or six scrambled eggs for breakfast, a couple of McDonald's hamburgers for lunch, and a steak for dinner. "It was the sort of diet that will throw up a brick wall in the way of performance." says Haas.
Like Fibak, Haas found in Lendl the ultimate motivated student. Lendl switched to a diet dominated by pasta, soup, water, fruit, a bit of chicken, and virtually no red meat. He even ate the once-hated vegetables in the service of a greater good.
Lendl noticed changes very quickly. Having once slept as much as fourteen hours a day, he now felt rested with no more than eight even during the most strenuous tournaments, as few as four or five when he wasn't playing competitively.
Haas also helped him set up a rigorous physical-training program. Lendl bought a climber, which he could take with him to tournaments. Akin to a fireman's ladder, the climber provided a workout not only for his lower body but also for his upper body, which many tennis players ignore. Haas also encouraged Lendl to take up serious bike riding. Thin and gawky for much of his life, Lendl developed huge thighs and the upper body of a middleweight boxer.
Finally, Haas encouraged him either to meditate for twenty minutes each afternoon or to take a brief nap. Lendl opted for the nap. He can fall asleep now as soon as his head hits the pillow, and feel restored in as little as ten minutes.
"He just wasn't providing his body with the right chemicals, the right fuel." says Haas. "Once you do that, the difference may be anywhere from a one to 5 percent edge, but at his level, that means a lot."
By the end of 1984, the fitness issue became something of a metaphor for the growing distance between Fibak and Lendl. On the day after Lendl lost the finals of the Masters to McEnroe in 1985, Fibak and Lendl went to practice together. Afterward, in the locker room, Fibak told Lendl that it was probably better that he go out on his own, that he follow his own instincts about fitness and diet. "I'm not a great believer in all this," he said to him. "I'm more of a natural person on the court and off, and it's probably better for me, too, if we split. I can move on to do things I want to do."
As first, Lendl was taken aback. But in retrospect, he sees that the split was part of a critical passage to independence. "Fibak helped me tremendously, to make the transition to this country, to get me very quickly to No. 2 or 3 in the world," Lendl says. "but then I needed to go further. He felt that I should work more on the court. I was 24, and I thought I needed to work more off the court, running and bicycling and lifting weights. Fibak himself was a good player, but he could have been tremendous. He was just physically too weak. He lost many matches because he just got tired. He just didn't have the force behind him, or in him, to go and work until it hurts. He couldn't help me to take the next step because he had a different philosophy than I did--and because he hadn't been there himself."