No Longer Dominant, Lendl Still a Force


Before Wimbledon, Ivan Lendl was asked to predict who might win the tournament. He was wrong. Before last year’s United States Open, he was asked for a prediction. He was wrong.

“It’s getting out of hand with the predictions,” Lendl said after defeating Arnaud Boetsch 6-2, 6-2 in his second-round match at the Volvo International Wednesday. “The last five or six times I said something, I was wrong. I should say the Whalers aren’t going to make the playoffs, so they will win the division.”

Lendl’s predictions aren’t the only thing getting out of hand these days. Try as he might, one of the world’s biggest control freaks is finding more and more things beyond his control.


His three infant daughters (two are twins), for instance. They’ve done what no other human beings could. Without uttering a word, they have gotten Lendl to give up one of his prime passions -- golf.

“They don’t stay quiet enough on the golf course,” he joked.

That loss of control, Lendl is learning to live with, and love. But what about a 1991 that has seen him lose to nobodies such as Wally Masur, Cristiano Caratti, Omar Camporese, Magnus Gustafsson, Renzo Furlan and Grant Connell? Who’s next, Richard Gordon?

In the past decade, Lendl has won more money than any tennis player in history. He has won eight Grand Slam titles. And he has never been ranked lower than No. 3 in the world.

Now there are barbarians at the net. Young barbarians. Now Ivan Lendl is 31, husband and father of three, and not only can’t he predict who’ll win any of these tournaments, he can’t even be sure he’ll make it to the quarterfinals. Lendl is batting fourth in the men’s tennis lineup these days, and that ain’t the same as batting cleanup.

Lendl’s days of dominance are over, that seems fairly obvious. But when you put the question to him, asking him if it’s unrealistic to think he’ll ever dominate the tour again, he leans back as if you’re Roger Clemens throwing the high, hard one under his chin.

“That’s a rough question,” Lendl said. “It’s possible. I don’t know what the chances are. I think I can get back up there. We’ll see.”

What you saw Wednesday was Lendl, holding off the sun with his white legionnaire’s cap -- nobody can call him a redneck -- and holding off Boetsch with the usual lethal Lendl groundstrokes. It took him only 62 minutes to dispatch Boetsch, and nearly as long to get to his postmatch press conference. That, too, was vintage Lendl.

While it may sound a bit absurd to feel sorry for someone who has won 90 tournaments and more than $17 million -- more than Jimmy Connors and Boris Becker combined -- Lendl has gotten a raw deal from some of his fellow pros and the media.

Unlike some of his peers, Lendl is not a great athlete, a fact painfully underscored every year when he tries and fails to win at Wimbledon, where the speed and eccentricity of the grass surface heavily favors the serve and volleyers, the natural talents such as Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe.

Lendl made himself into a great player, dieting like a beauty queen and practicing like a madman, establishing a work ethic few have matched. He hit the ball hard, but when he was forced to improvise, his footwork looked like your first dance lesson. When he started reaching Grand Slam finals, only to lose -- he lost four in a row before winning the 1984 French Open -- some people, Connors among them, were quick to label him a choker.

Lendl’s persona was such that there wasn’t much of a write-in campaign to the contrary. He was 18 when he joined the tour in 1978, an unsmiling, sunken-cheeked Czech with a bad haircut. He looked and moved as if he’d been assembled in an attic.

He was an easy target, a walking stereotype as he struggled to learn a new language and to understand a weird new capitalist world where to get good press, it seemed, it was more important to smile than to be a good person. Americans are the smilingest people on earth, but in the communist Eastern European culture in which Lendl was reared, there weren’t many laughs.

Lendl became Americanized quickly, but when he made it a bit too clear that he worshipped that most American of gods, money, well, that was a bit too crass for some people. Would somebody please teach the kid some cool?

Undeterred, he got his green card, bought himself a palace in Connecticut, and built a Deco Turf II court in his Greenwich backyard identical to the courts at the U.S. Open. Still, Connors insisted on calling him EYE-van, as in Ivan The Terrible, instead of the proper pronunciation, E-von. If you can’t beat him, tweak him, right Jimbo?

The big tweak continues to be Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam Lendl hasn’t won, the tournament that obsesses him. He lost in the finals to Becker in 1986, to Pat Cash in 1987. In their 1989 semifinal, he led Becker, the eventual champion, two sets to one when the rains came. Becker, who was being overwhelmed before the delay, regained his composure and won the match.

If he never wins Wimbledon, will Lendl allow it to haunt him in retirement?

“Definitely not,” he said. “What can you do if somebody is better than you? If I give it my best, how can I feel bad?”

Right now, he feels good. The wrist injury that hampered him earlier in the year and forced him to pull out of the French Open is fine, Lendl says. As always, he is looking forward to the U.S. Open, which he has won three times. “Every year, the game (the number of top players) is deeper and deeper,” Lendl said. “And that makes it more difficult to dominate it.”

Although Lendl now smiles easily, he still can be strangely secretive. The strengths and weaknesses of his game are known to even casual fans, yet Lendl refuses to discuss them publicly, for fear it might help an opponent.

“Why should I tell you what my strengths are?” Lendl said. “That’s a no-no.”

So is counting him out.