Continuing with our series on the greatest tennis players of all time, here’s No. 13 on our list.
No. 13 – Ivan Lendl
Silence can be golden but at times, it can also be misleading. In the case of Ivan Lendl, his silent demeanor was always misinterpreted as a sign of negative aggression rather than viewed for what it was – a part of his inherent personality. Lendl was one of the most prolific tennis players of his time, but his silent and looming presence at times made more headlines than his game itself.
Any mention of Lendl’s game evokes memories of his rivalry with American John McEnroe, and one match in particular – the 1984 French Open final, where the two played an almost gladiatorial battle. A first in so many respects for both players, this match, which was ultimately won by Lendl, proved to be the start of an era of dominance the like of which has rarely been seen in tennis.
Born in Czechoslovakia to tennis-playing parents, Lendl’s choice to take up tennis professionally was perhaps predictable. But where his parents had created and stayed within their own small niche, Lendl managed to surpass their niche and create one for himself – not only in his native country but also across the world.
Tasting success first at the junior level, Lendl won the boys’ singles titles at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 1978. And although he failed to make it big again at Wimbledon after turning pro, he won three French Open titles in his career and was a runner-up on two other occasions.
Apart from a rip-roaring running forehand that he wielded like a warlock would use a wand, Lendl’s strongest quality was his methodological deconstruction of his opponent’s game. The principle of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ was perhaps never more applicable to anyone else’s game or preparation as it was to Lendl’s. His clinical approach towards his game and his constant efforts to enhance various aspects of it made him his own toughest task-master.
When Lendl realized that his liberal use of the backhand slice wasn’t paying sufficient dividends, Lendl incorporated a heavier topspin backhand in his arsenal which brought him his first Grand Slam laurel at the 1984 French Open. But where the change in his backhand proved to strike gold for him at Roland Garros, his hardcore baseline game frequently let him down at Wimbledon. Try as he might – and he did try till the very last – Lendl never managed to approach the net effectively enough, a tactic that is especially potent on the fast courts of Wimbledon. His efforts to modify his game did, however, bring him a couple of small victories, allowing him to reach the finals twice in ’86 and ’87.
With eight Grand Slam titles spread over a 15-year career, Lendl made the record books with a tally of 19 Grand Slam finals, which was, at the time, higher than what anyone had achieved in the Open Era. While Lendl might not have had a repertoire of record-breaking Slam titles, he had things which were perhaps even more valuable: consistency, and the will to push himself to the limit. This desire of his to constantly better his own potential was starkly visible all though the 15 years that he spent on the professional tennis circuit. And perhaps it is this famed dedication of Lendl’s that motivated Andy Murray to hire him as his coach right before the start of the 2012 season.
Where there are fans, critics and detractors can never be far off. This was vividly true in Lendl’s case, as controversies hounded him for almost his entire career, and not just on court. His decision to play exhibition games in the then apartheid-ruled South Africa led the Czechoslovakian authorities to fine him and ban him from being a part of the Czech Davis Cup team. Lendl refused to accept either the fine or the ban and thereafter fast-tracked his decision to apply for a US citizenship, which he attained in the year 1992.
Following his retirement in the year 1994 because of a series of inveterate backaches, Lendl took to golf. And as you might have expected, he took it up in a manner not dissimilar to his tennis. He is today a keen golfer, just as he once was a keen and passionate tennis player. He knows his game and he knows his handicaps and he knows how to do his best, for as he once said, “If I didn’t practice the way I should, then I wouldn’t play that I know I can.” That, in a nutshell, is Ivan Lendl for the world to see, accept and appreciate.
Watch some of the most memorable moments of Lendl’s Grand Slam career in this neat little video:
Here are the other players who have made it so far:
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: