WIMBLEDON, England — He is like some tragic hero from Greek mythology; when he catches the man it turns to a horse, when he catches the horse, it flies away as a bird. What more can Ivan Lendl try at Wimbledon? He has elevated his game, learned to move on grass, learned to come to the net, learned to handle the thunderous serves of the Beckers and Edbergs. He is masterfully prepared, kneaded by chiropractors, oiled by psychologists, his rackets and shoes perfectly engineered for his lean, strong body. Effort? Did you say effort? He will grit his teeth until they crack and squeeze the ball until it chokes for air. In the world of tennis, Ivan Lendl is Avis multiplied by 1,000: He cannot try any harder.
And yet he lost here again Saturday, an agonizing, five-set semifinal defeat to Boris Becker, 7-5, 6-7 (2-7), 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 — a match that Lendl undeniably controlled at critical moments, including the third set, when play was halted by rain for more than an hour. “Boris was shattered when we went off,” lamented Lendl, who had won the second set and was leading the third, 3-0, at the time. “He didn’t know what to do. But obviously the delay gave him a chance to pick himself up mentally.”
He sighed and shook his head. In the immortal words of Roseanne Rosannadanna: It’s aaaalways something. Last year it was also Becker, who overwhelmed Lendl in the semis with the best serve in the world; the year before, Pat Cash whitewashed him in the finals; the year before was Becker again, in the finals, straight sets. In 1984 it was Jimmy Connors, in 1983, John McEnroe. Lendl has played the best, no denying that. But Lendl has now tried Wimbledon 10 times and, despite winning every other major tournament on Earth, despite being the No. 1 player in the world, despite a devotion to diet and exercise that would make a decathlete jealous, he is 0-for-10, and the only reason it’s not 0-for-11 is that he skipped 1982, claiming he was
“allergic to grass.”
Addicted would be the better word, or perhaps maddened, possessed, mystified. Ivan Lendl sat in the same interview chair Saturday that he sat in a year ago, and a year before that, and a year before that, and here came the hauntingly familiar question: “Was today your most disappointing loss?”
“They are all disappointing.” This is a story of a man obsessed, driven to the brink by a title that he can touch but never kiss. You have to feel sorry for Ivan Lendl. Earlier in the year he declared that “only Wimbledon” mattered now, forget the money or the rankings, he was gunning for the grass. So complete was his focus that last month, at the French Open, he was upset in the fourth round by 17-year-old Michael Chang; less than half-an-hour later, Lendl was on the phone rearranging his travel schedule. Could he get an extra week at the house in England? Could he get into some grass tournament — even as a wild card — just for a tuneup? Hey, the French is a Grand Slam tournament, too, same as Wimbledon. But Lendl would not lament his early exit. He had already won a French. Wimbledon was still a dream.
And dreams motivate Lendl, 29, in a way few of us can comprehend. Here is a man who never takes two consecutive weeks of vacation, who has his blood chemistry monitored, who regulates his vegetables, his meats, his exercise, his naps, a man who celebrated a victory in the Tournament of Champions by taking a 37-mile bicycle ride. The body is not a temple to Ivan Lendl, it is a shrine, to be nurtured, massaged, fortified to invincibility.
And driven. Through four hours a day of grueling practice — no matter what the season — through additional daily rituals of mental exercise, push-ups for positive thinking. “I will never be pleased in tennis,” Lendl once said.
“I will always want to do better. If I go to school and get an A, I shouldn’t be complimented, because that is my job.”
Ivan Drago, move over. Lendl confesses that his full tank of paranoia stems from his childhood in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, where his mother, a top-ranked player, drilled him unmercifully. As a child, she even threatened him over not eating his vegetables, putting a 10-minute timer on the table and warning that
“if you don’t eat, I’m going to call the zoo, and the elephant is coming to get you.” Lendl, frightened of elephants, gave in. He was 15 years old before he could beat his mother on a tennis court, and she was not happy when he did. Even today, when his parents, on the rare occasion, attend one of his matches, Lendl hesitates to look their way for fear of catching a disapproving glance from Mom.
Take that personality and give it a magnificently tuned body and a mind that can focus so intently a bomb could go off in the stands and it wouldn’t affect his backhand — and you have the makings of obsession. And summer after summer, its bull’s-eye has been right here, the All England Club.
Each year Lendl, who is not naturally suited for the serve- and-volley game that Wimbledon grass demands, has upped his game. He needed a bigger serve? He developed it. He needed better footwork? He worked with aerobics and dance instructors. He needed better volleys? He drilled relentlessly with Tony Roche, the former Australian star, who markedly improved Lendl’s slice backhand and his volley.
It was more than evident Saturday. Lendl was a force at the net, absorbing the rocket returns from Becker and poking them into empty corners. Trailing 15-40 at 5-5 in the second set, Lendl played a series of brilliant volleys to redeem himself. And it’s true, had Becker not been given that lucky reprieve by the rain, he might have gone down. But instead he regrouped, came back, and by the fifth set, it was a mental thing. Becker, armed with the confidence of a two-time Wimbledon champion, raced across the glory line.
Lendl was second. Again.
“Sometimes you miss your shots or you feel that you did something wrong technically, something you would do differently,” Lendl said afterward, still wondering what happened. “But today there was nothing I would do differently.”
Except, of course, win. Poor Ivan. Wimbledon is the girl who looks his way but never gives him her phone number. At one point during Saturday’s sinking, he pleaded with the umpire over a series of ridiculous line-call reversals. “Come on, guys,” Lendl croaked, “I’m having a hard enough time out here, why are you making it more difficult for me?”
And yet, do you want to know the saddest part? The saddest part is that many people out there are happy Lendl lost. Becker, they feel, has a more dynamic personality. He’s more fun. They like him. Lendl, meanwhile, has been immortalized by Sports Illustrated below the words “THE CHAMPION NOBODY CARES ABOUT.” That’s not exactly the cover you frame and send home to Mom.
But it is all too true. Here is the finest player of this generation, a master champion, he has won all the tournaments that Becker never has and that McEnroe is trying to do once again. And yet fans remain unmoved. They see him as a robot. In the film “Amadeus” the King scolds Mozart, saying: “You are passionate, but you do not persuade.” Lendl suffers from the reverse.
In fact, as odd as it sounds, Lendl’s failure at Wimbledon may be the one humanizing element of his career. Losing we can understand.
Not that this provides Lendl much comfort. “How do you get over something like this?” he was asked.
“Just time,” he mumbled.
“Do you replay the match in your mind?”
“Do you think it’s all right that players (like Becker) can consult their coaches during a rain delay?”
“I don’t know. To tell you the truth, right now, I don’t care.”
And once again, the wait begins, the annual countdown before Lendl gets to come back and try this again. Will he ever get it? Perhaps not. Perhaps he is like a car engine tried too many times on a winter morning, flooded, overdone; maybe he should take his foot off the pedal because he’s certainly not catching Wimbledon this way. And sadly, history may never accept him as a great one until he does.
“Are you concerned about being 29 years old while players like Becker and Edberg are only in their early 20s?” Lendl was asked.
“When it comes to age, everybody has their own pluses and minuses,” he said.
Same holds for careers. Ironic that one day, Lendl, like the rest of us, will be buried under grass. He already knows the feeling, all too well.
Mitch Albom’s sports talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” airs tonight live from Wimbledon 9-11 on WLLZ-FM (98.7). CUTLINE His dream once again dashed on the Wimbledon grass, Ivan Lendl walks off the court Saturday after losing to Boris Becker.