By In Stuff

Being Ivan Lendl

Every morning, I drop my daughters off at school and then drive by the brick wall where I spent countless hours dreaming of becoming a professional tennis player. I gave up on my baseball dreams when I was 13 or 14 years old and realized that I was still afraid of inside fastballs. I bizarrely held on to tennis aspirations much longer.

The wall is on the outside of a supermarket — a Harris Teeter, if you want specifics — and it faces a parking lot that was almost never filled with cars. It’s a huge brick wall, maybe 30 or 40 yards long and 15 or more feet high, and tennis balls bounce off it unpredictably. I saw this as a good thing when I was 15 or 16 and hitting tennis balls against it pretty much every day. It’s almost like that wall is alive.

I think about that wall now because on Thursday — thanks to a glorious wife who knows me in a deeper way than I know myself — I will be playing tennis with (against?) John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pat Cash and, my childhood tennis hero, Ivan Lendl. They are coming to town to play in a senior tennis event and, for my birthday, Margo bought me a chance to play in their prematch clinics. I’m sure it will be me and 50 other people. But that doesn’t matter. I’ll be on the court with them.

I cannot even begin to count how many times I faced that brick wall — whacking tennis balls turned fuzzy from the brick and concrete — and imagined I was facing Mac, Connors or, especially, Ivan Lendl. Well, that’s not exactly right. I never faced Ivan Lendl. That’s because I WAS Ivan Lendl.

The childhood hero stuff is so powerful. The other day, while working on an upcoming story on Stephen Curry, I spent a joyous few minutes talking with Jerry West. What a thrill. I cannot think of a single living athlete who is more iconic than Jerry West. In my years as a sportswriter, I’ve been absurdly lucky enough to spend some extended time with, among many other legends, Oscar Robertson, Jim Brown, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Bart Starr, Bob Feller, Rod Laver and Jerry West, and it is humbling and thrilling and intimidating … but different from what I’m feeling now. I have no memory of seeing them play when I was young. They are just before my time and so my overwhelming admiration of them has passed through a filter.

This is why, deep down, I’ve felt a twinge of nervousness when going to to talk to Buddy Bell or Ozzie Newsome or Austin Carr that I did not feel with those other legends. They are tied more closely to my heart. I once pretended to be them.

And the two people I spent most of childhood pretending to be were former Cleveland indians second baseman Duane Kuiper and the former No. 1 tennis player in the world Ivan Lendl. I’ve told my Kuiper stories countless times and will tell it at length again in April surrounding “Duane Kuiper Bobblehead Day” in San Francisco, an event I still plan to attend. Ivan Lendl is trickier.

When I was entering high school, my Dad got a new job as a mechanic in a sweater factory and our family moved from Cleveland to an apartment complex in Charlotte — the apartment complex I drive through every morning after dropping off my girls at school. Moving just before high school is a rotten thing, and for months I felt pretty rotten about it. But in the center of our complex, there were three tennis courts. I had never played tennis — I can’t even visualize a tennis court in Cleveland — but it looked interesting. I needed something.

There was an old guy in the neighborhood named George who gave tennis lessons for something like five bucks per half hour. When I say George was old, I mean OLD. He might have been 90. He couldn’t move at all, but he was pretty enthusiastic about tennis and, in my memory, he could really volley. I somehow got an $7.99 wood racket from K-Mart and began to take lessons from George. I don’t remember a single thing he told me or lesson he taught me but I still have that vision of him standing across the net, looking more or less mid-coronary, and hitting ball after ball to my forehand and then to my backhand. He must have taught me the basics of the game because I don’t know where else I would have picked them up. As it turned out, I had a decent knack for the game. I hit my first ground stroke not long before I turned 15. By 16, I was better than most people I knew — not that most people I knew liked tennis much — and I was ready to try out for high school tennis team. I was dreaming of turning pro someday.

I was obsessive about hitting tennis balls against that supermarket wall. I would say that up to that point in my life, I had never worked that relentlessly on anything — not school, not baseball, no my various jobs, certainly not reading or writing. Every day, though, I’d hit tennis balls against the wall, sometimes by day, other times under the spotty glow of street lights. In retrospect, I’m not even sure what all those hours cracking worn tennis balls at a wall did for my ACTUAL tennis game; that’s certainly not the best way to develop tennis talents. But I did it anyway, hour after hour, and all the while I would pretend to be Ivan Lendl.

There aren’t many huge Ivan Lendl fans in this world — I’ve only met one. That’s understandable. Lendl was (is?) this morose and colorless guy who was born in Czechoslovakia, relocated to American and played a power baseline tennis that was viewed skeptically by pretty much everybody (though it is now the basis for most of the best players). David Foster Wallace in his classic “Roger Federer As Religious Experience” pretty neatly summed up the way people felt about Lendl’s game.

“Ivan Lendl was the first top pro whose strokes and tactics appeared to be designed around the special capacities of the composite racket. His goal was to win points from the baseline, via either passing shots or outright winners. His weapon was his groundstrokes, especially his forehand, which he could hit with overwhelming pace because of the amount of topspin he put on the ball. … It wasn’t that Ivan Lendl was an immortally great tennis player. He was simply the first top pro to demonstrate what heavy topspin and raw power could achieve from the baseline. And, most important, the achievement was replicable, just like the composite racket.”

I don’t agree with DFW on all this, by the way. I think Lendl’s game was not quite replicable; it had its own individual genius that he never quite got credit for. He reached eight straight U.S. Open finals, came back from two sets down to beat McEnroe at the French and twice reached the final at Wimbledon despite his aversion to the surface (he was literally allergic to grass). I think he didn’t get much acclaim or love because he was so sullen and private and because he was surrounded by all these huge personalities with big and bold tennis games — McEnroe and Connors and Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker at the head of the class. There were numerous stories (I read them all) that insisted Lendl was privately a funny and thoughtful guy who had significantly more charm and enthusiasm for life than the brooding figure who whipped heavy topspin forehands and backhands past rushing volleyers.

I blandly believed those stories and still do but personality had little to do with why I loved Lendl. His game was my North Star. I looped my forehand because he did. I hit a one-handed topspin backhand because he did. For a while I had this ridiculously high toss on my serve because he did. I wanted to carry around sawdust in my pocket the way he did and spread it on the handle of the racket when it became slippery from sweat. Like he did. I used to memorize quotes of his and repeat them in my mind when I was hitting the ball against the wall — and this was somewhat challenging because Lendl didn’t have many memorable quotes. I remember he once had a lesson in Tennis Magazine that had to do lifting the racket after contact on the backhand. I worked on that for days even though i didn’t quite know what he meant.

And, of course, I pretended to be him in matches. On the wall, I could see Johnny Mac coming in on his cutting backhand approach, and to pass him I needed to hit that slightly discolored brick right there. Oh. Missed it. Here comes Mac again. Hit the brick. Oh. Missed it. In my head Ivan Lendl raged. Come on! What is wrong with you? Loop that forehand! Here’s Jimmy Connors hitting that flat two-handed backhand that clears the net by one-tenth of an inch — bend your knees, lift that backhand, get it over the net, hit it deeper, harder …

Looking back on all that. .. I didn’t become an especially good tennis player. I failed miserably in high school. I can still hit a big serve that will hit triple digits on the radar gun (getting it in is another matter), and I can still hit heavy topspin forehands that eat up players at my level, and I am still so wildly inconsistent that I can lose to more or less anybody. And of course I’m in terrible shape so my best trait as a younger player — my ability to move on the court — is completely gone. If I gained anything out of those days hitting the ball against the wall it is that, if you see me practice against a ball machine or something, you might think I’m a really good player. I’m not. But I practice well.

Thursday morning, I’m going to drive by the wall where I dropped so many dreams and then, a few hours later, I will hit tennis balls against McEnroe and Connors for real along with other dreamers. And I’m nervous, actually nervous, the kind of nervous I never am even when talking to legends like Jerry West. Ivan Lendl is going to be there. I wonder if he will see any of his game in me. I doubt it. But you never know.

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30 Responses to Being Ivan Lendl

  1. Ken K says:

    I’ve grown to really appreciate Lendl and his game as i got older. However, growing up i was not a fan. I am the same as you Joe so the cold war was still alive and Lendl looked like you could just slap a Red Army uniform on him and he would fit right into the May Day marches. Not something a red blooded american could cheer for especially with Connors, Johnny Mac and then the next wave of americans right behind them.

  2. Tom says:

    That’s so cool. When I was in high school I played copious amounts of tennis and my own hero was Boris Becker. I liked him so much better than the ascending frostilocks Andre Agassi. Of course, as I got older, I’d grow to be an Agassi fan.
    My sports dream now would be to play golf with John Elway. I’m pretty sure it’d be 5 hours of The Chris Farley Show.

  3. MisterMJ says:

    My father LOVED Lendl. He was an engineer so he just admired Lendl’s consistency and precision – there was a certain stoic, workman-like quality to him and he was much different from some of his more fiery American contemporaries (Johnny Man and Connors). He also liked how Lendl was viewed a “loser” early in his career – someone who won the lesser tournaments but folded when the majors came around – but amassed quite a Grand Slam collection by the end of his career.

    One of my earliest memories as a kid was being at Disnyeland and waking up one morning in a hotel and hearing my dad cheer on Lendl, as he played (and got beaten down) by Pat Cash. I remember the TV being tiny, and Wimbledon being on grass, you could barely see the ball on the screen. But my dad had his face a foot away from the TV trying to will Lendl to his elusive Wimbledon major. Not to be!

  4. eric h says:

    C’mon Joe, you’ve got to post a follow-up now. I.e., did Lendl take a liking to your game? (Love your work; your writing imparts so much humanity into sportswriting… which is usually so bland in the hands of lesser mortals; keep it up.)

  5. Paul says:

    I’ll be in Chralotte on Thursday (but not on-court, alas). I, too, idolized Lendl as a kid (why didn’t I root for the Americans, in retrospect?). I coveted his Adidas racquet and clothing. Funny how such a seemingly charmless guy could inspire hero-worship in kids. Anyway, really enjoyed the post. Have fun hitting w/ the legends!

    • invitro says:

      Lendl was my favorite male tennis player, and the reason why is simple and obvious: McEnroe and Connors were (and are) dicks.

      • Mike says:

        The only tennis match I’ve seen live was the final of a tournament in Toronto, Lendl vs. McEnroe.

        I HATED McEnroe.

        Lendl beat him in straight sets. 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. There were only three breaks in the entire match.

        Now, that’s methodically tearing a player into little pieces! I was thrilled; Lendl was my favorite after that match!

      • True that. I never liked Lendl, but I couldn’t ever get myself to root for McEnroe or Connors. To me, they were the jagoffs you’d meet in High School games who you dreamed about beating with a baseball bat. The guys who would spike you, or try to hit you with a pitch…. or get in your way on the base paths. Real tools. They’d do anything to win, including cheating. I still don’t get why McEnroe and Connors were popular.

      • Maurice says:

        Very well put. Connors was a bully and a cheat whilst McEnroe was little more than a whiny adolescent who would break things when he didn’t get his way, the two of them forever publicly belittling Lendl to an obliging, lapdog American media in order to make themselves look better (funny that!). But it’s Lendl who’s having the last laugh – Courier, Wilander, Sampras, et al . . . have all commented on the quality of Lendl’s character. And, oh yes, he coached Murray to few big wins I hear . . . Cheers!

  6. Michael says:

    Sounds like me wanting to be George Brett. I studied his swing and did my best to copy it every time I was up. I had it perfected…except for the fact that I didn’t make contact as often as he could and had warning track power at best. But it was always fun.

    Many years later I did meet Brett in a hotel in Chicago. He was a dick.

    Hope you get better treatment from your idol.

    • MisterMJ says:

      Same thing happened to me. Idolized Mike Schmidt when I was growing up and learning about baseball. I played 3B in little league and tried to wear the #20 jersey every year.

      My older brother’s buddy was a caddie at a local, upscale golf course where we’d just all hang out during the summer. I was just a kid, having finished 5th grade. Schmidt was there one day (this was in the early 90s so he was already retired) and he looked to be done with his round, as he was walking towards the parking lot. I’m coming from his side so I jog to get in front of him so he can see me walking up to him.

      I had a speech all ready to give him, how he was my favorite player, how I was so proud he hit 500 home runs, how I played third base and wore #20. I see him, look him in the eye, say “Hi Mr. Schmidt …” and he looks away, stares at nothing in the opposite direction, and walks right by. I didn’t want his autograph. Just wanted him to hear my 10 seconds and get some kind of acknowledgement.

      That’s really the day I learned that athletes can be great on the field but far from it, off the field.

      • scott b says:

        I’d heard about Schmidt being unpleasant and abrasive to kids on a golf course from someone working security at charity golf courses that perfectly mirrors your story. It’s a shame.

        • Saw Schmidt at the Bob Hope pro am in the late 80s or early 90s. He hit a pull hook into the trees. You could tell he was uncomfortable wading into the fans to find his ball. Some fans tried to talk to him a little and he dismissed them with a wave. Then someone shouted, hey Schmidt, you’re just going to pull hook it into the water, so why not have a little fun when people try to talk to you. Everyone laughed and he kind of gave a bit of a smirk. Then he pull hooked the shot into the water to thunderous laughter. I’ll give him credit though, he laughed a bit and took a bow after the shot.

      • Chris Smith says:

        My ex-wife had a similar thing with Johnny Bench. You know, Mr. “Baseball Bunch”, always smiling, Johnny Bench. She was working for a local news affiliate and he came in for an interview. She offered to get him a drink…coffee, soda, orange juice, or apple juice. He asked for grapefruit. She told him they didn’t have any grapefruit juice and he flipped out about how they could expect him to come there without having his juice. Because every intern controls the vending machine.

        Anthony Munoz, on the other hand, was gracious in every way to them. I, too, got to meet Munoz at a golf event and he was as nice as could be. Hands looked like a bunch of bananas hanging on an arm and the grips of his clubs looked like the handles on baseball bats, but he was very good to be around. That’s one large man…holy smokes….and he was in great shape, too….not fat large, just big.

        Interesting how some of those guys get an attitude about things while others don’t. Both are the best ever at their positions, or at least arguably so, and they couldn’t be more different.

  7. MarkH says:

    Good Luck, Joe! Lendl was also one of my favorites. I used to wear the diamond-patterned tennis shirts to school all the time, and for matches.

    I got to hit with a Pro in Vero Beach FL who knows Ivan fairly well. I don’t remember many of the tips he gave us, but the Lendl stories were absolutely priceless! I agree, it seems he has much more personality than it appeared on the court.

    I hope you had a great time… and that this motivates you to pick up your racquet more often.

    • Mark, thanks for mentioning the shirts. Even now, I still look for shirts with cool diamonds on them and, when I find one, think, “Cool, it’s an Ivan Lendl shirt!”

  8. Stan says:

    I saw Ivan hitting with some fans before a match earlier in the tour. He was ragging on this 12-year-old, just about every time the kid tried to return the ball. Ivan’s got that biting sense of humor — better get those balls in!

  9. Andrew says:

    There is nothing as sweet and pure as a boy practicing alone under a floodlight or on a freshly shoveled driveway. The sport doesn’t matter, the boy’s ability doesn’t matter, but it somehow stays with him all his life.

    • A kid in my neighborhood…. a short white kid with curly hair…. relentlessly played basketball on his driveway in pursuit of making the High School team. He did, in fact, make the team…. though he didn’t play much. Still, I imagine it was one of those victories in life to just make the team.

  10. chazzykc says:

    My favorite sports journalist quotes and references the best writer of my lifetime (IMO) regarding my sport of favor…..though i must admit I despised Lendl’s colorless demeanor and rather one dimensional approach to the sport I loved.

    After reading “Infinite Jest” I devoured all things David Foster Wallace. His suicide in 2008 was one of the most crushing days of my life. As we shared a passion and vital interest in tennis i would be remiss if I failed to provide a link to my personal favorite sports essay EVER……the referenced DFW NY Times essay from 2006. (the Times now says that Federer piece is among the top ten most frequently visited Times pages ever.)

    Enjoy Wallace’s brilliance…..

    • Ross Holden says:

      RIP DFW. One of my favorites. Like you, I started with Infinite Jest though I’m still in the process of working through his other stuff (“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is another great DFW tennis-related piece). The DFW piece on Federer is the main reason why he’s my all-time favorite tennis player.

  11. Matt says:

    I always imagined that Ivan Drago from Rocky IV was patterned off of Ivan Lendl in some way.

  12. This is the nerdiest of the nerdy columns. Because Joe likes lists, I will have one here: The top 3 nerd out columns of JoPo. 1. Playing tennis alone like Lendl 2. Reliving Strat-o-matic victories 3. The love affair with famous comedians *

    * 3a The being with idiots guy, 3b The parks and recreation guy.

  13. Pat says:

    God, what comedian had the bit about tennis being frustrating because no matter how good you get, you’ll never be as good as a wall? “Man, that guy returns everything!” I want to say Mitch Hedberg, but I’m really not sure.

    • Eric says:

      Mitch it is. “That dude is f’in RELENTLESS.”

      Although I’m pretty confident I could beat a wall. Just hit it at an angle so that it bounces back out of bounds.

  14. AJK says:

    This could easily be my childhood you’re describing. Of course, when I was Lendl playing against the brick wall (a Bell Atlantic building near my grandparent’s house), it was at Wimbledon against Boris Becker to get Lendl his missing Grand Slam.

  15. Tennis is a funny game. You can win at it with minimal talent if you have an angle. I play doubles with a partner who is 6′ 6″. I’m 6’2″. We’re both terrible, but have big serves & rush the net relentlessly. We win a lot because we intimidate the other team (we look like a wall at the net) into hitting the ball out a lot. We played a couple of smaller guys once and won the first set. They won the next two. Afterwards we were having a beer with them and they told us that after the first set they decided that we had them out of their game because we were so much bigger than they were. So, they decided they needed to play the net (their game) & bang with us & either win or go out swinging. They figured out, though they were too polite to say it, that we really had no game except to intimidate the other team out of playing their game.

  16. Ryan Gronewold says:

    Wow, that is exactly me hitting tennis balls against a brick wall as Ivan Lendl. He was by far my favorite tennis player. I used to hang my favorite Sports Illustrated covers on my wall and I still remember the only one I could find of Lendl with the phrase “The Champion that Nobody Cares About”.

  17. Ashwin Ruhee says:

    Im still a big Lendl fan n still buying his adidas shirts on eBay.

    Ashwin Ruhee

  18. Ashwin Ruhee says:

    Would love to hear more from ivan’s fans.

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