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Tennis : He May Not Be Fans' Choice, but Lendl Is No. 1 Again

February 05, 1989|Thomas Bonk

To some tennis fans, Ivan Lendl has never quite represented what a No. 1 player ought to be. There's no flair there, they say.

Lendl is seen as a robot--and a dour one at that--sending back boring ground stroke after boring ground stroke, rarely straying far his natural habitat, the baseline.

Since he is not a great natural athlete, Lendl's talent is the result of hours and weeks and years of practice and drills. His style may not be pretty but it certainly is effective.

Lendl serves well enough, and he volleys adequately when he needs to, but that is not Lendl's game plan.

"My game normally is to hit the ball hard with a lot of top spin . . . and take my chances that I can out-run and out-last the other guy," Lendl said.

For better or worse, Lendl is back as the No. 1 player in the world again after riding in Mats Wilander's back seat for the last 5 months. There may be no better player in the world at this moment than Lendl.

He answered any questions about coming back from shoulder surgery with an unexpectedly strong performance at the Masters, where he lost a 5-set final to Boris Becker.

He began the new year by winning the year's first Grand Slam event, the Australian Open, which he had never won before.

Now, there is only one Grand Slam event Lendl has never won: Wimbledon. And this time, Lendl will be playing it with a strong shoulder, which may make a difference.

"I haven't won Wimbledon and if I had my choice, that is the one I would like to win," he said. "It's more important to me, at least at this stage, than the French."

Lendl has won 3 times at Paris and 3 times at New York, so the victory at Melbourne was his seventh Grand Slam title.

Tony Roche, who coaches Lendl, said Lendl is hitting the ball harder than ever, despite the arthroscopic shoulder surgery in late September. Lendl said his successful comeback is due to a lot of hard work.

"I have a healthy shoulder, to start with, and I'm sure it was there even though it was not hurting before, but it was causing a little bit of weakness in the shoulder," he said.

"The surgery, I knew probably since early August that I was going to have it. I was doing a lot of strengthening of the muscles around and then after the surgery. If you do strengthening, you recover more quicker and I had the luxury of time. I could wait with the surgery until after the Open and build up a little bit for it.

"All that together gave me a stronger arm and shoulder and I think that's why I am able to hit the ball sometimes harder than before."

John McEnroe would agree. Lendl beat McEnroe in straight sets, although he needed 2 tiebreakers, in the Australian quarterfinals, the 29th time they have played each other in a tournament.

"He's just so consistent," McEnroe said. "(But) I don't feel that he can't be beaten."

After a match at the Australian Open, Martina Navratilova left something for doubles teammate Pam Shriver in Shriver's locker.

Shriver opened the tiny plastic bottle, poured out some of its contents and rubbed it on her nose.

She thought it was moisturizer cream. But it wasn't.

It was bubble bath.

Said Shriver: "It's hard to act cool when your nose is bubbling."

Trivia Quiz: What are 53, 51, 46, 63, 55, 50 and 71?

Helena Sukova, who made it to the finals of the Australian Open before losing to Steffi Graf, has entered the $250,000 Virginia Slims of Indian Wells.

The first-year tournament, which will be played March 6-12 at Hyatt Grand Champions, also has commitments from Chris Evert, Pam Shriver, Hana Mandlikova, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, Lori McNeil and Stephanie Rehe.

Sukova, the tallest player on the Virginia Slims circuit, also has a very tall order if she expects to become No. 1. She has to beat Steffi Graf, which no one has been doing very often for 3 years.

But becoming No. 1 isn't foremost in Sukova's mind.

"Well, I would rather start more from No. 6 to No. 5," she said. "I am trying not to think too much about those things because things can go up and down. I think it's more important, for sure, how you play or how you feel about your game. Then the ranking just comes with that."

Sukova was defeated, 6-4, 6-4, but she accounted for a third of the games that Graf lost in the entire tournament.

"She's the best there is," Sukova said of Graf.

There are going to be a lot of eyes on Mats Wilander on his return to the Grand Prix circuit. The first tournament for the newly dethroned No. 1 player in the world is coming right up.

Wilander will be studied as a possible case of tennis burnout after dropping to No. 2 in the rankings. Wilander, who went out in the second round at Melbourne is scheduled to play in the $415,000 Volvo/U.S. Indoors at Memphis.

Wilander thinks he can get his game and his mental outlook back in shape.

"Computer ranking is not the most important thing," he said. "I think I still feel that maybe I'm No. 1 from having a great last year, but I think that at this moment, obviously I'm not because there are a lot of other players who are playing better at this stage.

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