Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Rooting in the Past
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Rooting in the Past 02/12/2010 - 4:24 PM

Il The final installment in my three-part mini-series on the varieties and vagaries of perception in tennis.

It’s fair to say that Ivan Lendl was not a popular champion when he was playing, particularly in the United States. He was perceived here, in the home of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, as a sallow-cheeked tennis robot from behind the Iron Curtain bent on removing all joy and artistry from the sport. Sports Illustrated summed the consensus up neatly, if not nicely, by describing Lendl on a 1985 cover as “The Champion That Nobody Cares About.” Or, as Joel Drucker put it: Borg was the Beatles, McEnroe was the Stones, and Lendl was Led Zeppelin, the guy who crushed the magic of the 70s golden age with raw, ugly power.

I would like to say that I bucked the trends, but I must admit that I was not a Lendl fan either. I was a Johnny Mac guy, and then a Boris Becker guy, and then an Andre Agassi guy. Basically I was for everyone except Ivan Lendl. It wasn’t stylistic for me. It was the fact that he won so much, and that he did it with such grim gusto. I didn’t come around to him until he dedicated himself to winning Wimbledon only to come up short in the finals twice. Then I liked him. I’m sure knowing this would make Ivan feel much better about those defeats.

But tennis fans are notorious for not appreciating what they’ve got until it’s gone. Exhibit A: Miloslav Mecir—who would have thought the Slovakian beardo with the tricky, straight-backed, soft-looking strokes would become a cult figure, an icon of tennis nostalgia for fans of a certain age? I liked the Big Cat’s game as much as anyone, and I realize he was hobbled by injuries, but let’s keep one statistic in mind: Andy Roddick, he of the much-maligned, one-shot, lunch-bucket style, has reached five Grand Slam finals; Mecir made it to two, both of which he lost badly to, yes, Ivan Lendl. Those guys who gave everyone else fits? Mecir, Brad Gilbert? They didn’t give Lendl fits. He was a combined 21-1 against them.

Still, I’m amazed to hear so many people now say that they always loved the Sultan of Sawdust. The argyles, the eyelash-picking, the shots at John McEnroe’s head—even Snoop Dogg now says Ivan was the man. So what changed? On a general level, Lendl benefits from a mysterious cultural fact: Everything looks better in the past—athletes, fashions, music, movie stars, book covers, sunglasses, lampshades, coffee cups, sports-team uniforms. Everything. People in New York City are even nostalgic for the Summer of Sam 1970s, which is a little like saying you wish there were more chances for you to be mugged or murdered as you walk down the street. My pet theory on this is that when we look at the past, we don’t take our anxiety with us. What we see is over, we know how it turned out. There’s nothing to be anxious about, so it all seems cool and quaint. This is a relief from our daily lives, where every minute is burdened, somewhere in the back of our brains, with anxiety. Why else would anyone drink? That’s what we’re removing when we do, our nerves.

Anyway, let’s examine the specific case of the resurrection of Ivan Lendl by looking at a video of the man in action, at his peak, against Boris Becker in the 1986 Masters final in New York (Find it here; I couldn't embed it.) What did so many of us miss about him the first time around?

—The intro is strange, don’t you think? Pam Shriver and John Feinstein look absurdly young and sound slightly stoned. Another odd thing about the past: When we know what someone looks like now, and then we see him or her in photos or videos from a few years earlier, they look like kids, even if they were, say 35 years old at the time. It’s a shock to see that the person we know now ever looked that young.

—I have to say Lendl’s patterned, tucked-in shirt and high socks are pretty cool. I don't see any reason to mourn the tight shorts, however.

—Lendl’s reputation is for not being particularly talented or athletic, for making fitness and power, in the form of his inside-out forehand, the coins of the tennis realm rather than the delicate volleying and shot-making of McEnroe. So what do we see Lendl do on the very first point shown here? Come to net behind a soft slice backhand and make a highly athletic and delicate stretch backhand volley. This kind of shot obviously didn’t fit into the Lendl storyline, but he had it nonetheless. That’s one thing you can say about virtually every top player—even if they have a reputation for being able to do just one or two things well, in reality they can do it all well.

—In 1986, this was state of the art tennis, and the all-court games on display—especially Becker’s—more than hold up for entertainment value. But knowing how the men play today, the game then seems almost half-formed, a stop on the way to 2010. No doubt in 25 years, the styles of even Federer and Nadal will no longer look state of the art, either; they’ll look like another stop along the way in the game’s eternal evolutionary process. Nevertheless, the late-80s, early-90s were an underrated period as far as quality of play is concerned. I’m always shocked at the jump that was made between 1981 and 1986. The sport seemed to evolve as much or more during that time period than it has in all the time since. It really is all about the racquets.

—Another thing I’d forgotten or never realized, and that I’ve never heard discussed about Lendl: He could really return serve. Granted, these are highlights, so we don’t see any of his shanks and errors, but it’s shocking how far Becker is from some of Lendl’s backhand chip returns as he comes to the net. Again, it isn’t power that Lendl wins with on these points, it’s placement.

—Of course, he deserves his reputation for certain other aspects of his game. Lendl had heavy feet, though he made the most of them—he does a lot of scrambling here, and never seems out of a point. His backhand was hardly fluid, but he worked hard to learn to come over it, and he uses it to thread the needle on a series of down the line passes. Even his vaunted forehand was somewhat mechanical and loopy in the backswing. Rather than going inside-out, he's best with it when he’s on the run in this video. He nearly decapitates the net-cord judge with one forehand winner.

—What seems a shame to me now, and this goes along with what I wrote about Federer and Nadal this week, is that being a fan of one player means that you can’t appreciate what that player’s most hated rival brings to the sport. You can’t learn from him, about both tennis and life in general. I may have learned about temperamental genius from John McEnroe, but I didn’t appreciate what Lendl had to offer, which would have been even more instructive—how to make do it your way, how to make the most of yourself, how to grow as a player rather than settling for what you're been given, even if it gets you ridiculed.

Lendl began his career as a choker and a tanker; he finished it as a paragon of mental fortitude and beyond-the-call-of-duty effort. He quit against Jimmy Connors in a U.S. Open final; a few years later he went so far as to skip the French Open for the chance to win the one major that had eluded him, Wimbledon. He remade his backhand. He learned to serve and volley for grass. He pretty much invented physical training for tennis, and despite his choppy feet he became a good defensive player.

The guy has earned his nostalgic-icon status. Now I can laugh about the ticks, the sawdust and the multiple racquet changes, that were once so annoying. Back then they seemed soulless and nerdy to me, a case of a guy trying too hard and making tennis less beautiful and instinctive. Now they seem forward-thinking, comically noble attempts at giving himself an edge, any edge. None was more comical than Lendl’s contribution to tennis fashion, the foreign-legion style hat he made himself for the 1990 Australian Open. It looked ridiculous, but it helped him in the heat. He won the tournament.

Tennis is too often cast as an either/or. You identify with and appreciate Federer’s easy elegance, so you can’t appreciate Nadal’s energy, and vice-versa; ditto for Sampras and Agassi, ditto for McEnroe and Lendl. But the pro tours offer too many styles, too many characters, too many ways of looking at the world to be reduced to either/or. But that’s the trade-off of being a fan—you can’t identify with everyone, so you can't learn from everyone. Today, though, it feels good to be a Lendl fan, even if I’m 20 years late. It’s easy, too, because there’s no anxiety to it. I know how it turned out for the game’s greatest overachiever. He ended up on top.


Have a good weekend.


Posted by Stewart 02/12/2010 at 04:45 PM


Posted by Ray T. 02/12/2010 at 05:06 PM

Like Navratilova, Lendl revolutionized tennis with power and fitness...that's why we now realize that he was indeed the man back then.

Posted by Ozone 02/12/2010 at 05:17 PM

Nice post! Always a pleasure to read here.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 02/12/2010 at 05:41 PM

- How about the "we won't bother putting down the doubles alleys" look? I remember when all sorts of stuff like this was trotted out as if it would affect the number of fans.

- Everyone who says "they did not hit the ball hard in those days, and accordingly, they would be creamed now" should remember that its not just speed, its speed vs. distance traveled. Those well blocked slice returns were hit from four feet inside the baseline. That is why they went by Becker quickly.

- While we are at it, look at the percentage of shots which do not bounce higher than the net. That comes from years of playing serve and volleyers where you have to keep the ball low. Modern players would not be able to tee off on the shots in this match as much as a nice, chest high topspin shot.

- I have to say tennis has "changed" since this match, not really advanced. This is what it looked like for guys who grew up with wood and then were able to switch to graphite at about age 16 or 17. Only Federer looks as comfortable with a slice backhand as these two, and neither Becker nor Lendl were famous for their slice backhands. You are simply not going to learn how to hit slices like this if you hit nothing but topspin from 10 through 18.

- Lendl, and then Becker, were part of the first generation to realize that you no longer had to "aim" a passing shot -- just crank it hard enough and it will either work or draw an even weaker volley. That was the sea change from about five years earlier. Borg at Wimbledon passed players with low, accurate, dipping shots, not like this.

- Finally, and here is where I suppose Steve is absolutely correct, with Lendl he was the first player with a good serve who really saw no need to come in behind it. Notwithstanding the fact that he never won Wimbledon, he was correct in that the graphite technology had suddenly changed the analysis, and the increase in power meant that giving the guy a target at net was no longer needed.

- Men's tennis is now so, so much more conservative compared to this match. Just so much more.

- A year earlier, McEnroe set the 94-3 singles mark. I think when this match was played he was on his partying hiatus with Tatum O'Neill. McEnroe would never win another Slam singles title.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 02/12/2010 at 05:42 PM

Sorry, make that 2 years earlier.

Posted by Corrie 02/12/2010 at 06:05 PM

Ah, Lendl, Becker, Edberg those were the days! No weak era or asterisked wins! Time certainly mellows everything. I didn't like Lendl at all at the time, and apparently he was the opposite of Federer and Nadal in the way he behaved in the locker room, but now I just feel sorry that he didn't get the acclaim he so richly deserves. I got to see him play live and it was great to see (though even better when my favourite beat him).

Posted by Ronald 02/12/2010 at 06:07 PM

Fun and well written read Tignor. I don't think that it is your best article ever (personally that belongs to the Baghdatis piece you did some months ago), it is easily top 5. A+ for this one.

Posted by MoneyPenny 02/12/2010 at 06:23 PM

The things that struck me watching the Masters video (remember, the Australian Open was played on grass back then!):

I can't believe how small Lendl's racquet head is. I mean, I can. But, compared to the sizes used today he had such a small space to work with (which I think is all the more impressive BTW).

And, the sound of the ball on the racquet strings is quite different too...

But it is strange what you do and don't remember.

I was about 10yo when Lendl first entered my tennis consciousness. I don't recall Lendl being so ungainly and such a scrapper. Yet, it seems, he was now that I have watched a few Youtube highlights. Maybe that's says more about my mind and observation skills have matured...

Posted by federerfan 02/12/2010 at 06:24 PM

i hated lendl in the 80s...reason? my brother liked him :)

But like Steve, I am very happy than I am a lendl fan, even if 20+ years late.

And may i say, dunlop, the day you stop posting here in TW, will be the day i consider stopping reading posts here! ** bows down **

Posted by Jimbo Fan 02/12/2010 at 06:25 PM

Great post by Steve and nice additions by Dunlop Maxply (you do know that that was the racket of Lendl's rival McEnroe). I was wondering when he or Pete would do a piece on Ivan Lendl, probably the most underappreciated great player of the Open Era.

He was something of a late bloomer as he won his first Grand Slam title at 24 (Wilander won his LAST GS title at 24). But just going by the numbers his career was impressive: 19 GS Finals, including 8 consecutive US Open Finals. Even his arch-enemy John McEnroe thinks that is one of the great achievements of the Open Era. He had a very long run as a top player (1981-1991). Johnny Mac, who was only a year older, was not a real factor at Grand Slams after 1985.

In his famous piece on Federer, David Foster Wallace credited Ivan as being the father of the modern game. He hit a huge serve, and then used a forehand (rather than a volley) to finish the point.

Posted by Ruth 02/12/2010 at 06:55 PM

"That’s one thing you can say about virtually every top player—even if they have a reputation for being able to do just one or two things well, in reality they can do it all well."

Now, there's something that I wish more people would recognize and remember. But, if that happened, along with the silly "he's just a big server" and "he's so one-dimensional" comments, we'd have missed Lendl's own funny comment about Agassi -- "a forehand and a haircut" -- although I'm sure that, unlike some of the other disparaging commenters, Lendl knew that Agassi was and would be more than that. :)

Posted by Tari 02/12/2010 at 07:03 PM

Love this. Love it. Loved Lendl when he was playing. Thanks.

Posted by VC 02/12/2010 at 08:27 PM

Wonderful article, and nice video. I didn't watch much of Lendl in his prime, but he looks very good. I started watching tennis as a Boris Becker fan (just because my Dad was one) and as a result, I never managed to appreciate Stefan Edberg's wonderful talent. :-) In my defense, I was a young kid back then.

Great comments by Dunlop Maxply, enjoyed reading them. :-) Couldn't agree more about the slice and the conservative tennis these days.

Posted by Redbird Craig 02/12/2010 at 08:49 PM

Dunlop, I liked what you said except I have to take issue on a couple of things...

One, tennis has advanced, not just changed. I really enjoyed the variety of players back then, where guys came in like Becker/Edberg/McEnroe and others stayed back and pounded like Lendl. However, the kind of training and fitness necessary to play tennis now is leaps and bounds ahead of what used to count as "working out" back in that day. The players are bigger, faster, and have fewer weaknesses now. A supposed "weakness" like Fed's backhand or Djokovic's net game are nothing when compared to the inability of top 10 guys like, say Richard Krajicek to execute backhand passing shots.

Also, I don't think men's tennis is more conservative now. The risks taken now are merely different. Whereas back in the 80's and early 90's risk taking meant coming to net, now it means going for more on your groundies b/c the racquets and the strings preclude coming forward as much.

However, I agree with you on your larger points about how tennis evolved with the new sticks. You make a particularly good point about how Lendl was the first to make his passing shots more about ripping a hard shot to set up an easy 2nd pass but before you had to hit dippers and delicate off-pace passes in order to get 'er done.

Posted by Bhai Mirzai 02/12/2010 at 09:52 PM

I was too young in the Borg days, and we only used to watch Wimdbledon shown live in Pakistan. My elder sister was a huge Borg fan, and I secretly rooted for anyone but Borg (because he used to win every year).

Then I beame an Edberg fan over Becker.

But I remember my friend commenting that Lendl was the best. I think he was right.

Posted by DoucheCzech 02/12/2010 at 09:56 PM

Anyone who replies by stating: "First!" should be banned. From life.

Posted by Mr. T. 02/13/2010 at 09:34 AM

Steve - An outstanding post, Steve. I must confess to not appreciating Lendl in his days of glory. His duels with Mac cast him as the heavy due to his lack of emotion and tendency to drill Mac at the net and denying Mac at the French Open. His long and boring French Open finals with Wilander where they seemed to be in backhand drills endlessly. I remember watching Lendl at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and not appreciating his power and fitness. But your video showed him at his best - a great defender with power and enough speed to frustrate even Becker at times. Lendl was tough to approach, even on his backhand, as Becker found out in your video. He,like Martina, brought fitness to a new level in tennis.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 02/13/2010 at 11:45 AM

"I didn’t come around to him until he dedicated himself to winning Wimbledon only to come up short in the finals twice. Then I liked him. I’m sure knowing this would make Ivan feel much better about those defeats."

I love it, Steve. The first bit of real self-deprecating sarcasm I've read from you in a while. And very funny, too!

Posted by jsmauger 02/13/2010 at 11:50 AM

Very enjoyable post. I think being thoughtfully and critically nostalgic about 80s tennis is a fine approach to thinking about the game.

First, I was never a Lendl fan, although I admired his consistency, power, and commitment to do whatever it took to win. The one shot of Lendl's I remember most vividly, a shot Lendl routinely played to great effect, was his delicate, dipping, sharply-angled cross court backhand slice chip. This shot invariably bamboozled his opponent, especially a net rusher, who suddenly found himself out of position trying to volley a paceless ball that had inexplicably dipped two feet below the level of the net. I loved this dinky shot and practiced to make it part of my repertoire. This shot revealed a Lendl who possessed finesse and thoughtfulness rather than the bashing automaton he was most often portrayed as. I always thought this subtle slice backhand revealed more about Lendl's personality, and potentially even his sense of humor, than his on-court demeanor ever did.

And, this shot lives on. In a Tennis Channel 2010 Aussie Open highlight reel, Federer plays it against a net-rushing Tsonga in their semi, and the result was just as effective as Lendl's-forcing an incoming Tsonga to attempt a volley from well below net level, a volley he gracelessly dumps into the net. I've never been able to figure out how you handle this kind of ball; luckily almost no one, pros or recreational players, is capable of executing it anymore.

Posted by Truong 02/13/2010 at 11:54 AM

Dunlop Maxply, excellence point

"- Lendl, and then Becker, were part of the first generation to realize that you no longer had to "aim" a passing shot -- just crank it hard enough and it will either work or draw an even weaker volley. That was the sea change from about five years earlier. Borg at Wimbledon passed players with low, accurate, dipping shots, not like this."

That may be the answer for model tennis, base line huger, not sever & volley.

Posted by basscat 02/13/2010 at 12:00 PM

Great post. I always liked Lendl. I beleive his style of play set the pattern for todays game. He was intense on the court but his post match interviews could be full of sarcastic humor. Looking forward to his exibition match.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 02/13/2010 at 12:08 PM

Lendl's backhand was underrated anmd his forehand overratedm, IMO.

That chip return is deceptively good in its simplicity and its ability to neutralizes or paralyze his opponent. Hos forehand, while heavy as a ton of bricks, was too loopy and could be rushed, which might explain why he was never quite able to leap that Wimbledon hurdle.

Becker's slice backhand was always one of the oddest looking shots to me. Something about the way he kept the wrist up and firm, so that on the finish his racquet tip pointed up instead of down. Odd, but very effective.

Lendl may have been guilty of having heavy feet, clop-clopping around the court, but he could motor when he needed to, and he saw and seized opportunities as well as anyone.

No wonder McEnroe never liked him.

I personally never cared for the abstract print designs on his shirts. And I recall he wore extremely laerge wrist bands that were practically the length of his forearm.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 02/13/2010 at 12:13 PM

jsmauger, I couldn't agree with you more, and I, too, have worked to make that low-dipping, pace-sucking cross-court chip an integral part of my defensive game. I beliebve the only way to play it is to either (a) let is land and half-volley it, or (b) meet it with an extremely firm volley, sticking it quickly as a fencer might quickly parry and thrust.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 02/13/2010 at 01:55 PM

Thanks Steve,

I agree Lendl didnt get the accolades he deserved.He was a "late bloomer" in terms of GS titles.Another player who came up short at Wimbledon.I agree with Dunlop.Though I thought Lendl had a great b/hand.He certainly wasnt Mr Personality but I really dont think that worried him at all.He was very "buisness like" his records speak for it self.

Posted by Michele 02/13/2010 at 02:20 PM

Never liked Lendl and still don't. Remember Tennis Channel's "Perspectives with Ivan Lendl?" Didn't think so.

But the real reason I wasn't a Lendl fan is because of Pat Cash. Lendl also suffered from being, well, unattractive. Mean but true. And as a 17 year old girl, watching the Aussie hunk serve and volley his way to a straight-set Wimbledon win over Lendl was exhilarating. And I'll never forget the sign someone held up in the stands after the win: "Cash Is Better Than a Czech."

Lendl may have a better record, a better legacy, but Cash was the H.O.A.T (hottest of all time), before Safin arrived on tour to take that title.

Posted by fedfan 02/13/2010 at 02:31 PM

I'm sorry Steve, but not even this well written article will make me nostalgic for Ivan Lendl. He was a winner though, for a good number of years. Can't deny that.

Posted by remain anonymous 02/13/2010 at 04:21 PM

jsmauger you wanna know how to handle that low dipping slice/chip ???

Watch... McEnroe, Edberg, Sampras, Rafter and you'll find an answer!!!

Posted by jimbo 02/13/2010 at 04:26 PM

Nice post as always Steve. Your writing and insights are always, well, interesting.....
I have to take issue with your statement about the versatility of pro tennis players. A lot of today's pros can not volley1 even at the club level! It is a disgrace! Lol!
Otherwise, a great piece, thanks. For a
"colorless" guy, Lendl is an interesting character.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 02/13/2010 at 04:33 PM

I think, in the end as in the beginning, Lendl was greatly misunderstood. He was painted as a misanthrope, and soulless. But I think beneath the facade that most if not all great competitors create for themselves to protect their privacy and hide their vulnerabilities, he had a wit and sensitivity that seemed incongruous with his public persona.

His early tankings and chokes may have hined at that sensitivity and at the younger man's vulnerabilities. But he manned upo, to use today's favorite metaphor, remade himself into a champion among rivals with more "natural talent" and eanred, for that effort, even greater public scorn. But his consistency, once he made it to the top, was Borg-like.

I'll remember him also for one of the shrewdest comments an athlete has spoken, and I paraphrase: "When you have the oppponent down, you must step on his neck."

While that may soiund on the surface to be unduly cruel or sadistic, I think what he was really intimating there was that to be a great champion, you mustn't let your natural fellow feelings for your opponent, your humanity, get in the way of taking him out. You must be willing to fire that shot, to choke the life out of your opponent, to be the killer. I cannot think of a more accurate way to describe what winning sometimes takes from a man (or woman). And if you're not willing to be the killer, you cannot be the champion.

Posted by Anand 02/13/2010 at 04:47 PM

Great article - Steve. I too started rooting for Lendl in the early 90's when he was trying win Wimby. It was hard to root against him even though I was a big Edberg and Becker fan. I also think that Lendl tried to adapt. I remember him venturing to the net more than usual in 1990-91 Wimby. IMHO it was variable bounce at Wimby that finally defeated him. He probably wishes he played on the slow grass of today. The clip does show how low the balls stayed with the eastern grip groundies. I would like to think that a player with similar shots could do some damage on the tour right now - Stephanek 2.0 maybe.

Posted by Cotton Jack 02/13/2010 at 05:38 PM

One of the happiest days of my childhood was Lendl murdering Becker in the Queens final in 1990. Yes! This year is *his* year! Or so I thought until the Wimbledon semifinal: Edberg swept him away in straight sets.

Posted by Cotton Jack 02/13/2010 at 06:01 PM

Looking at this clip the first thing that I'm struck by is a very forceful recollection of just how much I hated Becker in the 80s.

Posted by jsmauger 02/13/2010 at 06:24 PM

Dear "remain anonymous"-good moniker that, by the way,

"Posted by remain anonymous 02/13/2010 at 04:21 PM

jsmauger you wanna know how to handle that low dipping slice/chip ???

Watch... McEnroe, Edberg, Sampras, Rafter and you'll find an answer!!!"

I don't volley as well those guys! Wish I did, but that's just my point. Look at your list-a list of some of the best volleyers, excluding Rod Laver, that have ever played the game with Sampras the "worst" of the bunch. And, even those guys would be dead on the succeeding pass if they don't hit a perfect stop volley or sharp angle. Sayonara.

Posted by Jay Thomas 02/13/2010 at 11:11 PM

I'd be curious to read which current players the commenters on this blog do not like, but feel they could learn from. I must admit, mine would be Andy Murray. I don't like the guy, but there is plenty to learn from him: patience, self-belief, his (too rarely deployed) ability to go from defense to offense...

Posted by jerkstore 02/14/2010 at 04:36 PM

Speaking of Pam Shriver, I never liked her as a player nor now as a commentator and it's a joke she's in the HOF. The only thing you can learn from her is to pick a good doubles partner.

oh yeah, happy valentines day

Lendl was cool when he used to hit his 'passing shots' right at Mac...

Posted by Btaylor 02/14/2010 at 11:47 PM

Nice article, Steve

It was Lendl who inspired me to pick up the game of tennis...
ALWAYS was a Lendl fan and still am...

I felt that he seemed to always get the unfair press for his quiet, no nonsense approach to the game...(much like the way that I feel about Sampras)

I never needed (and still don't) all of the entertainment hoopla and opinions that permeate today's game in order to be enthralled with a good competitive match...

In fact my favorite players run in direct succession from Lendl to Sampras to Federer...

How interesting that each successive player was the main one to usher in the demise of the former's dominance...

I, for one, feel truly blessed...

Posted by Charles 02/15/2010 at 05:37 AM

Doubtless, the press is enormously influential in helping fans form favourites. Perhaps here in Canada I did not absorb the same pro-American/anti-foreigner vibes that US commentators were likely throwing against Lendl in deference to Connors and McEnroe. I was a huge fan of Lendl in the 80's and admired his calm persona in the face of the childish tirades thrown by Jimbo and Johnny. I also remember that the US press tried to cast Navratilova as the soulless automaton until it became too obvious that she clearly was not - and had become an American citizen.
Thankfully, seems to afford reasonably fair treatment to players of many nationalities.

Posted by Cami 02/15/2010 at 06:51 AM

Your last two articles got me thinking. I've always been a Federer fan, but I realize I have more to learn from Nadal: how to never ever give up and never be scared. I am in awe of Federer's game, but I wonder what I can learn from him. And the only thing I can come up with is how to live up to your genius. Which is why I feel so few people would be able to relate to Federer: first you would have to be a genius at something...

That's why, even though I am not a fan of Nadal's game, I am amazed by him as aperson: his mental strength, sheer courage and belief and genuine humility at the same time! He's an inspiration.

I am curious what other people think they can learn from Roger...

Posted by tina 02/15/2010 at 11:04 AM

Re: the intro - I must agree with darling Rino Tamassi's point. I miss Rino. Of course, I also miss the Master's at Madison Square Garden - I was at this match.

Lendl's personality initially came across as hard, but he seemed to soften considerably after marriage and how many daughters, in the end - four?

Today, I can see his business-like approach on the court in Marin Čilić, who wastes no emotional energy during matches.

Lendl's sawdust all over the baselines always bugged me, though.

Posted by tina 02/15/2010 at 11:07 AM

Charles - FYI, as I recall, the American press fell in love with Navratilova when she first defected, years before her citizenship.

Posted by C.F. 02/15/2010 at 04:15 PM

Hey, don't be mean to Led Zeppelin. They were ubercool. Lendl was just... not.


Great post. It's interesting to think of how much we can learn from past players, since there's less emotion in the equation.

Posted by reckoner 02/16/2010 at 04:53 AM

steve, thanks so much for this post. youve written some great stuff all these yrs, but this post wasnt so much entertaining on the strength of the writing, but on the timeliness of the topic. ok im biased. i was a huge lendl fan and he remains my all-time favorite athlete. too many things i could ramble on about in my retarded fandom, but i will relay one particular moment that was the sweetest of all for this guy that basically got bad pub and no love his entire career.

watching him play, and lose, a semi to edberg at the 92 USO was probably the most gratifying thing a lendl fan couldve witnessed as he prepared to wind down his career. the guy finally got the cheers at the open that yr, after making 8 straight USO finals and getting booed in all of them, after winning a hat trick of titles against more charismatic opponents, after famously laying decoturf II in his greenwich backyard to mimick the bounce at flushing meadows, after all that sawdust and ritual and stoicism and dry wit, in the twilight of his career w/ a bad back, revamped service motion, a backhand he began to slice rather than drill, and a new contract w/ mizuno that had him looking like he dressed in the dark, he comes into the 92 open in such clear decline, takes out becker in the quarters in 5, then battles edberg over another 5 in a semi spread out over 2 rain delayed days, and on the brink of getting his american citizenship and ditching the czech roots, garners a massive standing ovation from the nyc crowd in a losing effort to the swede... thats what i will always remember about ivan lendl, finally and deservingly embraced after being overlooked and overdue for the entirety of a brilliant career.

dude, lendl wasnt cool in retrospect. he was cool all along. he was the pride of the eastern bloc and he chased the american dream, and his forehand made an entire era recognize what time it was.

Posted by Bodofett 02/16/2010 at 08:06 AM

I'd like to hear your thoughts about the increasing problem of injuries in tennis.

I find it funny that while so many things such as equipment , tatics are addressed there is little done from the ATP to provide for the players health i.e esp since the equipment has made the sport even more demanding.

Shouldnt the ATP be reinvesting more of their money into some research charity-like scheme that would enable proper , research into newer options ?
And what about other sports too i.e. when they have so much at stake and all it takes is a connective tissue breakdown to effectively end someones career.

I know this is an area not getting that much attention in modern medicine as some might think, and you need only look at rafa or sharapova to see the same injuries that were problems 20, 30 , 50 100 yrs ago are still problems now , all be it , with more chance of occuring.

Posted by Kombo 02/16/2010 at 09:17 AM

"I am curious what other people think they can learn from Roger..."

- Keep your eye on the ball.

I think much of Roger's 'genius' is comprised of individually banal aptitudes that are collectively awesome.

I've been more a Roger than a Rafa fan, but have learnt some things from watching Rafa, mostly that the weight of shot (heavy topspin) can be as effective as power and placement. At the end of the day, you just want your opponent to have dificulty doing what they want with their shots. Pick a strategy and stick to it, even if it means hitting every possible shot to someone's backhand. Keep fighting, sometimes the other guy breaks down, dips a level, or just plain gives up. I've also learnt that there are limits to what the body can take day in and day out and a good serve will always be a most valuable asset.

Posted by Mandeep Ghuman 02/16/2010 at 11:22 AM

Right on the money Steve. I never liked Sampras' game until a few years after his retirement. In the similar vein, I never want Nadal to win. This fact sometimes makes me oblivious to the effort (retrieving and tremendous shot making) that Nadal brings in his package. Heck, I get so biased by Fed-Nadal rivalry that even Nadal's humility and poise fail to impress me.
Good reflective article Mr. Tignor.

Posted by P 02/16/2010 at 03:20 PM


Great article yet again. You continue to write meaningful stuff unlike a certain demagogue (PB) who seems to be preoccupied with putting asterisks against Federer as a cheap method of getting people to read his stuff. Every time I read your articles, I feel like I come away learning something new.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 02/16/2010 at 03:27 PM

What I've learned, but still fail to put into practice, from Roger Federer:

1. Respect the game, the court, your opponent.
2. Know your limitations, and play within them.
3. Maximize your potential by minimizing your faults/errors.
4. Play the percentages; they exist for a reason: they pay off handsomely.
5. Let it flow when you're feeling the ball; rein it in when you're not.
6. Stay as light on your feet as possible; and lean into your shots.
7. Know when to play defense and when to go on the offensive; and be quick about it.
8. Use your serve to establish an advantage early in the point, not to win it outright.
9. Use your best shot as often as possible, without unduly sacrificing court position.
10. Give your opponent credit and praise; it's not easy being the one who comes up short.

- Slice

Posted by Cami 02/16/2010 at 03:40 PM

Slice-n-Dice, I like your list :). But I am curious, why is it that you fail to put it in practice?

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 02/16/2010 at 04:08 PM


It's not for a lack of trying, trust me. And some of them I do put in practice regularly. Others are simply more difficult to do than to imagine doing. But to be honmest, most of them are doable, and that is why I think that in fact Federer can teach us all quite a lot. He's not all about the talent.

Posted by Eric 03/16/2010 at 04:24 PM

Back in Lendl's day I felt as if I were his only fan. For a long time, it was all about Conners ad McEnroe or so it seemed--two vulgar American brats. They made me feel ashamed to have them represent my country. And the media of course, just kept perpetuating the their myth. It was nauseating. Meanwhile, Lendl, who loved our country, was, instead, stereotypically viewed as a robotic commie, with nothing to offer but a cold, detached personality. I felt for him and obsessively rooted for him. He and Borg (and later Edberg and Wilander) for some reason, each in their own ways, for me exemplified dignity and integrity. I lost total respect for Sports Illustrated when they featured him on their cover (the one and only time, I believe) as the champion 'nobody cared about'. A myth it turns out that they themselves were largely responsible for perpetuating.
When I think of Lendl today, I think of one of the greatest tennis champions of all time. Yes, It's hard to measure the greatness of players by comparing this or that. Today it's Fed vs. Rafa, or Agassi vs. Sampress. But back in Lendl's day he, throughout the years, faced Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Edberg, Wilanders, Becker, Sampras, and Agassi, let alone lesser greats like Mecir, Gomez (clay) and Cash (grass)--a foreboding list of champions that stood between him and a Grand Slam! Viva Lendl, the epitome of a true champion.

Posted by Peninnah 07/03/2017 at 01:50 AM

Thanks for sharing this post

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