Ivan Lendl? His name seemed like an error on the billboards that had been promoting his old-timer matchup with rival John McEnroe last night at Madison Square Garden, one designed to rekindle tennis awareness in the U.S. during the dreary winter months.
Lendl. While McEnroe is ubiquitous, and headliners Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras also make appearances on television and at events, Lendl had disappeared in retirement ether.
And there he was, the hulky frame taking the court for the warm-up in a sold-out Garden. He was using a racket whose head was so small it looked like a flyswatter, and he was turning over his forehands and chipping his backhands directly into the middle of net.
McEnroe had been relishing this night. He’d never liked Lendl. In his book You Cannot Be Serious, McEnroe called Lendl a “scary robot.”
“He was a very strange guy, to put it charitably,” McEnroe wrote. “What ever happened to him as a kid, it had left him with an odd, harsh demeanor …”
McEnroe had trouble beating Lendl. Throughout his career, McEnroe would have a losing record to Lendl, who went on to define the modern power baseline game with his tireless conditioning and flawless ground strokes. And Lendl would hand McEnroe the biggest loss of his career, in five sets at the finals of the 1984 French Open. McEnroe, whose style was more dynamic as a serve and net player, had won the first two sets against Lendl and was up in the third, only to choke it all away. McEnroe was so riled by the loss he had trouble returning to Paris because of the bad memories the city evoked. Of his performance. Of Lendl.
Sure, McEnroe had avenged that loss and had recently played Lendl in a few seniors events (“I wouldn’t mention them if I didn’t win,” McEnroe said), but it was clear that a win last night in front of his fans at the Garden was critical to keeping the McEnroe ego together.
And then, kind of mysteriously, he quit. McEnroe had been hitting the ball well, racing to a quick 6–3 lead. But after looking tight, Lendl was finding his rhythm. His timing had improved. It looked as though Lendl was bracing for a comeback. So why the early retirement?
In the press conference after, McEnroe hobbled into the interview clutching his second beer. He’d injured his ankle the day before, messing around by training with a younger pro as he likes doing, in this case Pete Sampras. The ankle was killing him, he said, and even though he was only two games away from winning, and even though he felt he could “grease” it out, he explained his reasoning for retiring so early was to spare what was left of his senior career. It was also a courtesy to Lendl, McEnroe said. It wasn’t fair for his old foe to watch him gimping around the court.
As McEnroe went on to defend his rationale, it wasn’t hard to speculate if McEnroe’s old demons from the 1984 French final had reappeared as Lendl began to hit the ball with confidence, and the hyper competitive McEnroe decided to retire with a healthy lead rather than risk losing a few more games or perhaps the lead with Lendl.
“If John would have continued playing, what do you think would have happened? You were looking good there in the end, Ivan.”
During his turn in this interview room, Lendl didn’t need to think hard about his reply.
“Any way I answer that question is going to look bad, so I won’t,” he said, to a few chuckles.
Most incredible was Lendl’s return to the game. After his retirement, he explained that back injuries forced him to spend fourteen years without touching a racket. But recently, using advanced techniques, his doctor was able to isolate a few of Lendl’s back problems. He’d been able to practice for one hour for about three or four days a week. His timing looked slow, but even stepping on the court in front of tens of thousands of people was remarkable given Lendl’s physical constraints.
Above all, Lendl didn’t seem to care about winning anymore. He didn’t like to go to events and tournaments because of the burdens of travel. “You know how it is, it’s a pain in the ass!” he said. He now lives in Florida and his routine is militant: hit the driving range or the golf course with his two German shepherds, fall asleep in an armchair for a few hours watching sports, take the dogs for an afternoon walk, and watch them play in the lake.
“I certainly don’t lose any sleep if I lose a tennis match,” he said.