Tennis history has properly exalted Ivan Lendl as a winner, as a pioneer of the baseline style, as a multiple grand-slam winner.
But Lendl knows about waiting. He was six years on tour before he won his first grand slam title, losing four finals before winning his first major in dramatic style. Even then he had to be patient. Down two sets and then 2-4 in the fourth to John McEnroe at the 1984 French Open, Lendl battled back at Roland Garros to claim his title.
Now 51, he has finally come back to tennis, striding with purpose into the sport he dominated in the 1980s. He arrives back in his heartland with a message for those who want to play, for those who aspire to be great and for Andy Murray, who shares with Lendl a losing run of grand slam titles. The Scot’s sequence is three finals – two in Australia and one in Flushing Meadows – but he may be consoled to hear Lendl’s view of initial defeat at the final hurdle.
“You try to learn from each experience that you have whether in tennis or in life,” he said. “Those grand-slam finals were great learning experiences. So were the ones that I won.” Lendl does not expand, but he won eight grand-slam titles though he can’t quite convey the joy he derived from them.
“It is almost impossible to explain although it is very satisfying when you are able to perform at a high level,” he said. This drive continued when he left tennis. Lendl, born in the Czech Republic, took to the American fairways and tried to compete professionally as a golfer. He was good, very good. This is not enough at the highest levels. He still competes on the celebrity tour but he was never likely to challenge the Mickelsons and the Woods the way he once battled the McEnroes and Beckers.
It was, then, back to tennis. He recently launched a junior tennis academy on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, but why the wait after walking away from tennis in 1994?
“Following my retirement from tennis, I spent a lot of time with my family and also recharging myself after many years on the tour,” he said. “A few years ago I determined that it was time to start playing again and as I got back in shape, I realised how much I love tennis and want to stay involved.
So, beginning in about 2008, I have become involved as co-promoter with StarGames and Madison Square Garden of the BNP Paribas Showdown, playing exhibitions around the world and working with junior tennis players and golfers. The move to Hilton Head will give us the ability to work with more juniors in an environment where we can really deliver a well-rounded education on and off the court. I am really looking forward to it.”
Lendl, of course, was linked to coaching Murray after the departure of Alex Corretja from the Scot’s team. He would not be drawn on the speculation but did offer an invitation to the world No.4.
“I think there were a lot of people that the press linked to coaching Andy. I am not really that interested in travelling the tour with a player so it would take an unusual situation for me to do one-on-one coaching,” said Lendl.
But he added: “I have an open door in Hilton Head and would invite tour players to come see me there any time. We would have some fun and work on their games if they wanted my input.”
His basic philosophy has never changed. Lendl has always believed in the value of hard work, practice and anticipating problems rather than merely reacting to them. “One of the most important things for a tennis player is preparation,” he said. “If you are prepared for your situation, you have a chance to perform at the highest level.”
He wants, though, to coach individuals, being suspicious of a broad-brush approach to sporting education. “We look at each student on a case by case basis and design programmes geared to them specifically. There are not really any generalisations on these things,” he said.
He will not pick out one moment that summed up his career, not even that French Open final of 1984. “There were many exciting moments but I am not a guy that looks back at those things. In many ways, that was a different life,” he said.
Married with five daughters and living in Connecticut, he is enjoying life. “I can tell you that I am having a great time now playing some of the guys I used to play on tour. I was just in South America playing Andres Gomez, which was really fun. Playing John [McEnroe] at Madison Square Garden a few months ago in front of 17,000 fans was great. I am playing Michael Stich in Hamburg next month, which should be another great time.
“Tennis has allowed me to do so many things and opened so many doors. I now hope that through our academy, we can help some kids have great experiences.”
He watches the tour now with the excitement of a fan. “The level of tennis is fantastic. The guys are in better shape, they cover the court so well and new technology enables them to do things that we could never do. I find it very interesting to watch,” he said.
And what would be his best advice to the tennis player of any level? “Be prepared,” he said. Be patient, too.
IVAN THE GREAT
Date of birth:March 7, 1960
Turn pro: 1978
Retired: December 20, 1994
Career prize money:$21.2m
Grand slam titles:Australian Open (1989, 1990), French Open (1984, 1986, 1987), US Open (1985, 1986, 1987)
The wait for a grand slam title: Lendl reached his first grand slam final at the French Open in 1981, where he lost in five sets to Bjorn Borg. His second came at the US Open in 1982, where he was defeated by Jimmy Connors. In 1983, he was the runner-up at both the Australian Open and the US Open.
Lendl’s first grand slam finally came at the 1984 French Open, where he defeated John McEnroe at Roland Garros in what was arguably the Czech’s finest win. After finding himself down two sets to love and later trailing 4-2 in the fourth set, Lendl battled back to claim the title 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5.