Rooting in the Past

Friday, February 12, 2010 /by

Il The final installment in my three-part mini-series on the varieties and vagaries of perception in tennis.

It’s fair to say that Ivan Lendl was not a popular champion when he was playing, particularly in the United States. He was perceived here, in the home of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, as a sallow-cheeked tennis robot from behind the Iron Curtain bent on removing all joy and artistry from the sport. Sports Illustrated summed the consensus up neatly, if not nicely, by describing Lendl on a 1985 cover as “The Champion That Nobody Cares About.” Or, as Joel Drucker put it: Borg was the Beatles, McEnroe was the Stones, and Lendl was Led Zeppelin, the guy who crushed the magic of the 70s golden age with raw, ugly power.

I would like to say that I bucked the trends, but I must admit that I was not a Lendl fan either. I was a Johnny Mac guy, and then a Boris Becker guy, and then an Andre Agassi guy. Basically I was for everyone except Ivan Lendl. It wasn’t stylistic for me. It was the fact that he won so much, and that he did it with such grim gusto. I didn’t come around to him until he dedicated himself to winning Wimbledon only to come up short in the finals twice. Then I liked him. I’m sure knowing this would make Ivan feel much better about those defeats.

But tennis fans are notorious for not appreciating what they’ve got until it’s gone. Exhibit A: Miloslav Mecir—who would have thought the Slovakian beardo with the tricky, straight-backed, soft-looking strokes would become a cult figure, an icon of tennis nostalgia for fans of a certain age? I liked the Big Cat’s game as much as anyone, and I realize he was hobbled by injuries, but let’s keep one statistic in mind: Andy Roddick, he of the much-maligned, one-shot, lunch-bucket style, has reached five Grand Slam finals; Mecir made it to two, both of which he lost badly to, yes, Ivan Lendl. Those guys who gave everyone else fits? Mecir, Brad Gilbert? They didn’t give Lendl fits. He was a combined 21-1 against them.

Still, I’m amazed to hear so many people now say that they always loved the Sultan of Sawdust. The argyles, the eyelash-picking, the shots at John McEnroe’s head—even Snoop Dogg now says Ivan was the man. So what changed? On a general level, Lendl benefits from a mysterious cultural fact: Everything looks better in the past—athletes, fashions, music, movie stars, book covers, sunglasses, lampshades, coffee cups, sports-team uniforms. Everything. People in New York City are even nostalgic for the Summer of Sam 1970s, which is a little like saying you wish there were more chances for you to be mugged or murdered as you walk down the street. My pet theory on this is that when we look at the past, we don’t take our anxiety with us. What we see is over, we know how it turned out. There’s nothing to be anxious about, so it all seems cool and quaint. This is a relief from our daily lives, where every minute is burdened, somewhere in the back of our brains, with anxiety. Why else would anyone drink? That’s what we’re removing when we do, our nerves.

Anyway, let’s examine the specific case of the resurrection of Ivan Lendl by looking at a video of the man in action, at his peak, against Boris Becker in the 1986 Masters final in New York (Find it here; I couldn't embed it.) What did so many of us miss about him the first time around?

—The intro is strange, don’t you think? Pam Shriver and John Feinstein look absurdly young and sound slightly stoned. Another odd thing about the past: When we know what someone looks like now, and then we see him or her in photos or videos from a few years earlier, they look like kids, even if they were, say 35 years old at the time. It’s a shock to see that the person we know now ever looked that young.

—I have to say Lendl’s patterned, tucked-in shirt and high socks are pretty cool. I don't see any reason to mourn the tight shorts, however.

—Lendl’s reputation is for not being particularly talented or athletic, for making fitness and power, in the form of his inside-out forehand, the coins of the tennis realm rather than the delicate volleying and shot-making of McEnroe. So what do we see Lendl do on the very first point shown here? Come to net behind a soft slice backhand and make a highly athletic and delicate stretch backhand volley. This kind of shot obviously didn’t fit into the Lendl storyline, but he had it nonetheless. That’s one thing you can say about virtually every top player—even if they have a reputation for being able to do just one or two things well, in reality they can do it all well.

—In 1986, this was state of the art tennis, and the all-court games on display—especially Becker’s—more than hold up for entertainment value. But knowing how the men play today, the game then seems almost half-formed, a stop on the way to 2010. No doubt in 25 years, the styles of even Federer and Nadal will no longer look state of the art, either; they’ll look like another stop along the way in the game’s eternal evolutionary process. Nevertheless, the late-80s, early-90s were an underrated period as far as quality of play is concerned. I’m always shocked at the jump that was made between 1981 and 1986. The sport seemed to evolve as much or more during that time period than it has in all the time since. It really is all about the racquets.

—Another thing I’d forgotten or never realized, and that I’ve never heard discussed about Lendl: He could really return serve. Granted, these are highlights, so we don’t see any of his shanks and errors, but it’s shocking how far Becker is from some of Lendl’s backhand chip returns as he comes to the net. Again, it isn’t power that Lendl wins with on these points, it’s placement.

—Of course, he deserves his reputation for certain other aspects of his game. Lendl had heavy feet, though he made the most of them—he does a lot of scrambling here, and never seems out of a point. His backhand was hardly fluid, but he worked hard to learn to come over it, and he uses it to thread the needle on a series of down the line passes. Even his vaunted forehand was somewhat mechanical and loopy in the backswing. Rather than going inside-out, he's best with it when he’s on the run in this video. He nearly decapitates the net-cord judge with one forehand winner.

—What seems a shame to me now, and this goes along with what I wrote about Federer and Nadal this week, is that being a fan of one player means that you can’t appreciate what that player’s most hated rival brings to the sport. You can’t learn from him, about both tennis and life in general. I may have learned about temperamental genius from John McEnroe, but I didn’t appreciate what Lendl had to offer, which would have been even more instructive—how to make do it your way, how to make the most of yourself, how to grow as a player rather than settling for what you're been given, even if it gets you ridiculed.

Lendl began his career as a choker and a tanker; he finished it as a paragon of mental fortitude and beyond-the-call-of-duty effort. He quit against Jimmy Connors in a U.S. Open final; a few years later he went so far as to skip the French Open for the chance to win the one major that had eluded him, Wimbledon. He remade his backhand. He learned to serve and volley for grass. He pretty much invented physical training for tennis, and despite his choppy feet he became a good defensive player.

The guy has earned his nostalgic-icon status. Now I can laugh about the ticks, the sawdust and the multiple racquet changes, that were once so annoying. Back then they seemed soulless and nerdy to me, a case of a guy trying too hard and making tennis less beautiful and instinctive. Now they seem forward-thinking, comically noble attempts at giving himself an edge, any edge. None was more comical than Lendl’s contribution to tennis fashion, the foreign-legion style hat he made himself for the 1990 Australian Open. It looked ridiculous, but it helped him in the heat. He won the tournament.

Tennis is too often cast as an either/or. You identify with and appreciate Federer’s easy elegance, so you can’t appreciate Nadal’s energy, and vice-versa; ditto for Sampras and Agassi, ditto for McEnroe and Lendl. But the pro tours offer too many styles, too many characters, too many ways of looking at the world to be reduced to either/or. But that’s the trade-off of being a fan—you can’t identify with everyone, so you can't learn from everyone. Today, though, it feels good to be a Lendl fan, even if I’m 20 years late. It’s easy, too, because there’s no anxiety to it. I know how it turned out for the game’s greatest overachiever. He ended up on top.

***

Have a good weekend.

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