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Doubles Match: The Old Ivan Lendl Meets the New One

JACK SMITH

May 25, 1992|JACK SMITH

Ivan Lendl is a professional tennis player. For a record 169 weeks he was the No. 1 tennis player in the world, as calculated by the dispassionate computer. Today he is No. 11.

My wife and I met Lendl at the cocktail hour one evening a few years ago in a hotel in Frankfurt, Germany. We were sitting in a booth with another American couple when Lendl walked in with another player, his doubles partner. They were both in their tennis togs. We had just seen them lose a local match on the bar TV.

The other woman in our group was a tennis fan. She recognized Lendl. She got up and walked over to him, gushing, and shook his hand. I was not at that time a Lendl fan; I thought him rather cold. In fact, sportswriters said that he had ice water in his veins. But I too got up to shake his hand.

I was struck by his boyishness. He seemed quite ingenuous. Shy, even, but polite, and engaging. I have liked him ever since. I have watched him play on TV, always rooting for him. He has always been a gentleman. He might protest a call now and then, but he has never been guilty of the self-indulgent, obscene behavior of Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe. I have witnessed his decline, always hurting when he lost. I'm sure he would have no recollection of me whatever. It is strange how the slightest contact with celebrity can produce a lasting loyalty in us common folk.

Lendl is a Czech, with a Czech accent. He left his homeland years ago and now lives in a Connecticut mansion with his beautiful wife, Samantha, and their three daughters. He will become a U.S. citizen in July. There is no reason for me to feel sorry for him. From his tennis prizes and product endorsements he is a multimillionaire. He will never have to win another tournament.

But he's going to try. Lendl will be playing this week in the French Open, one of the tennis world's four Grand Slam tournaments. He has won it three times. But since then he has had hip tendinitis and hand surgery. And he is 32 years old. That isn't old for a vice president, but for a soubrette, or a tennis player, it's getting on. The game may be getting too fast for him. In a recent match a monster serve by the young Goran Ivanisevic broke his racquet strings.

I am indebted to an excellent article in the New York Times, by Robin Finn, for some insights into Lendl's state of mind. "I am not happy where I am," he told Finn. "I think I have hit bottom, for me. I want to go up. . . . But if I believed now that this slump is permanent, I think I would call it quits."

Finn notes that Lendl most recently went down in the second round of the Italian Open. "I think I have no interest in hanging around at No. 15, No. 12." he said. "I would really have to ask myself if I enjoy this game so much that I could take that."

Of the French Open he said. "I want it pretty badly, actually. And if people say I don't have much fire in me anymore, they don't know what they're talking about. It's burning pretty good, especially now that I'm not winning much."

If Lendl were to win the French Open, it would give him nine Grand Slams, putting him ahead of Connors as tops among active players. He wants it. But it isn't the most important thing in his life.

Finn recalls that while competing this winter in Europe, Lendl read about a teen-age motorbike racer whose little finger was injured in an accident. He had a choice of having the finger removed, which would let him go right back to racing, or having surgery and therapy, which would sideline him indefinitely. Evidently the youth had not decided.

At first Lendl could hardly believe that he would think of sacrificing a finger for his sport. "But when I thought about it later, I realized that if something like that had happened to me when I was 19, I probably would have felt the same as him. Now, no way could I lose a finger just to go on playing. If I am different, that's how."

That seems to me to be a nice distinction between the new Lendl and the old. Tennis is to live for, but not to die for.

Nevertheless, as I watch the Open on TV, I will feel as if I am living or dying on every stroke. But if he loses, I will keep in mind that it's better than losing a little finger.

And, as I say, I don't even know the guy.

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