Nostalgic followers of tennis would, more often than not, always agree that the 1980s was one of the most interesting and captivating periods in the open era of tennis. The widespread reception of television sets in houses contributed to an increased following of the game by a world audience, and a shift from wooden racquets to composite ones paved way for a more dynamic form of tennis. The 80s showcased a number of male players who could easily be bracketed in the all-time greats’ category: Jimmy Connors, Björn Borg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker. But one name that stands out amongst the greats is that of Ivan Lendl.
Born in 1960 in erstwhile Czechoslovakia, to parents who were professional tennis greats in their own country, it was only natural that from an early age, young Ivan took to tennis like fish to water. He was a consistent champion of many singles titles at the junior level, and by the time he turned professional in 1978, he was already ranked no. 1 amongst the boys. He made a dream start to his men’s career, winning numerous tournaments, such as the Masters Grand Prix and World Championship Tennis.
Grand Slam Title in 1984
His first Grand Slam title came in 1984 at the French Open. Facing fellow legend John McEnroe in the finals, who was undefeated the whole year, Lendl quickly found himself two sets down. But his calm demeanour and steely determination saw him mount an impressive comeback to clinch his very first title in Roland Garros. The final score read 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5, and was, as most people would concede, a classic for the ages. Many regard this as the greatest victory in his entire career. Apart from the numerous Grand Slam and other tournament titles, as a singles player and for his country in the Davis Cup, the title of legend or great can only be conferred to someone whose peers and rivals are also worthy of that same honour.
One of tennis’ greatest rivalries was the one between Lendl’s ice and McEnroe’s fire. These polar opposites, not only in personality but also in playing styles, battled each other at the official level in 36 matches throughout the decade, out of which, Lendl won 21 times. Their animosity was not just on the tennis court, but also outside it. They took special glee in trying to unnerve each other at various press conferences, much to the delight of the sport’s enthusiasts. He had an equally riveting, albeit less vocal, rivalry with another great, Jimmy Connors, against whom, he won 22 out of 35 official matches.
In an era where flair and flamboyance were the order of the day, Lendl was a solemn warrior, whose visage never betrayed his emotions. His deadpan attitude and cold character were so out of place that it even earned him the nickname ‘Old Stoneface’. Again, in a marked departure from the playing style of his peers, Lendl relied more on physical prowess rather than finesse, and is considered by many to be the pioneer of modern day ‘power tennis’. His huge serves and heavy forehand, combined with copious amounts of topspin, made him a formidable opponent in his heyday.
Quiet and soft-spoken, Lendl let his racquet do most of the talking. He would easily walk into any tennis connoisseur’s roster of top ten greatest male singles players of all time. His disciplined technique and comeuppance against his rivals have garnered him the respect of millions of fans over the years. Now, having coached Andy Murray to Wimbledon glory, his illustrious career stands firm testament to the fact that he was, and still is, one of the best players of his era.