WIMBLEDON, England — Ivan Lendl will keep coming back here until they cut his arms and legs off. And he’ll never win this tournament. He can practice at his mansion until the servants go home. He can fly to Australia for special training on grass. Heck, he can start sleeping with a Toro lawn mower for all it matters. It won’t matter. He is not taking this title.
He missed again Friday, despite gearing his entire training year to this one event, despite spanning the globe for the secrets of the grass surface, despite forsaking the previous Grand Slam tournament, the French Open, to worship instead at the shrine of The Wimbledon Dream. All this and . . . thump. Booted again. And badly, too, in three sets. This was no heartbreaking marathon; Stefan Edberg got rid of Lendl so fast Friday, they barely had time to park his car.
“How disappointing is it?” someone asked Lendl after his annual exit, 1-6, 6-7 (2-7), 3-6, this time in the semifinals.
“Well, what do you think?” he snapped. “Of course it’s disappointing. You lose, you don’t play well, and it cannot be encouraging, can it?”
He grimaced. He cocked his head. I thought a wire was going to snap. Why is it that every time I listen to Lendl at Wimbledon, I keep seeing that robot from “Lost In Space” — waving his claws, yelling, “It does not compute! It does not compute!”? The grass is his windmill
Maybe because, when it comes to this tournament, that is always Lendl’s final pose: Confusion. Overload. The data does not compute. Here he is, a 30-year-old star who has won every other major event, beaten every top player in the world, been ranked No. 1 for so long he claims he no longer cares about rankings, and if he started counting his money now, we wouldn’t see him until his grandchildren were born.
Yet he can’t win Wimbledon. This is eating at him today. It will eat at him for the rest of his life. My advice, Ivan? Take a Pepto. Go see a movie. You won’t win here. Your game is not well-suited and your obsessions have gotten out of hand — and I’m not just saying that because you own three homes in Connecticut. Hey. Maybe you like Connecticut. But this Wimbledon madness? It’s not normal.
Alas, Lendl has never been normal. He is gifted beyond belief and obsessive beyond logic. Somewhere inside that disk drive of a brain is this voice that buggy-whips him, that demands perfection in body, mind, diet, house, dogs, fingernails. This is a man who would tell Felix Unger to clean up his act.
And Wimbledon, of course, is his Dulcinea, his Impossible Dream. So it was that Lendl had four new grass courts installed at coach Tony Roche’s club in Australia last year, and, in recent months, he practiced incessantly on those courts, trying to build the perfect game for Wimbledon. While other players were on the clay courts of the French Open, he was on grass, concentrating on his serve, his volley and his footwork, which has always been a step too programmed for the reflexes of lawn tennis.
And what happens Friday? Edberg beats him with the serve, the volley, and with footwork — umpteen passing shots that leave Lendl looking heavy as a tractor. “I felt slow,” Lendl admitted afterward.
Sure. He’d played four matches in five days. You can’t simulate that in practice. He was up against arguably the best grass-court player in the world. You can’t simulate that, either. And how on Earth can you simulate the mental pressure? No matter how many facilities he builds, unless Lendl wants to hire Edberg and Boris Becker as personal sparring partners, he can never truly prepare for the late rounds of Wimbledon until he gets there.
Still he thinks the blackboard is the answer. Study. Practice. Be perfect. Someone asked whether he regretted the singular devotion now that he lost.
“I’ll probably do it again,” he replied. His obsession is out of hand
Now don’t get me wrong. Lendl is a likable-enough fellow, if a little stiff. And I usually feel sorry for him. But after a while, sympathy dries up. It is easy to feel sorry for a poor sprinter who trips during the Olympic trials.
It is not so easy to feel sorry for a calculating multimillionaire who keeps building new, sophisticated schemes to capture the prize, like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. “Beep beep,” says Wimbledon. Lendl falls off the cliff.
And so he won’t win here, I’m afraid, and not just because he is getting older and there are hot young grass specialists popping up all the time. No, he won’t win because there is a point in sports in which things become too obsessive. They make you shiver at their mention, and when this happens, they are too big. You over-prepare; you can’t relax. Why is it that Lendl demolished the field — also on grass — three weeks ago at the Queens tournament, yet he gets within these hallowed grounds and down he goes, the ninth time he’s fallen in a Wimbledon final or semifinal?
There have been other great players who have missed on one Grand Slam tournament: Rosewall never won Wimbledon. Borg never won the U.S. Open. McEnroe and Connors never won the French. So Lendl’s legacy as an all-time great is assured. His sanity is another question.
“Sometimes,” mused Edberg, the winner, “you put too much pressure on yourself. Sometimes you must just relax and go for it. You go forward or you go backward.”
Unless you’re Lendl at Wimbledon, in which case you go in circles.