The Day Ivan Lendl Got the Monkey Off His Back

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The Day Ivan Lendl Got the Monkey Off His Back

It was June 9, 1984 (exactly one year before I was born!). Ivan Lendl was sitting exhausted in the Roland Garros room. After four hours of grueling tennis, he was severely dehydrated and in a not-so-pleasant condition.

In comes Bud Collins, the broadcaster, ready for his interview with Lendl. But there was a slight change in the opening statement this time: "Ivan, the one question I no longer can ask you: Why can't you win the big one?"

Ivan Lendl, the world No. 2, the winner of 39 titles and over $4 million in prize money, was the overwhelming underdog coming into the Roland Garros 1984 final.

The reasons were plenty. John McEnroe, the other finalist and world no. 1, was in the form of his life with a winning streak of 42 consecutive matches.

Moreover, he had dominated Lendl in their last six meetings, including two on clay, the surface for this showdown.

But, the biggest reason was Lendl's inability to win major finals. Coming into this final, Lendl had dropped four major finals: against Borg in '81 on this very court, against Jimmy Connors in '82 and '83 on Connors' home turf at the Flushing, and against Mats Wilander on the Australian grass in '83.

He had already earned the choker tag, and against the form-of-his-life super-brat McEnroe, the result was being considered one-sided.

The contest started as predicted, with McEnroe in full flow. He was consistently serving big, playing an error-free game at the net and putting away every overhead smash that crossed the net.

Even the linesman seemed afraid of Mac, as various close calls went against Lendl! Mac was in such fine form that he broke Lendl thrice (who was serving at 75 percent) to take the first two sets 6-3, 6-2.

The match looked like it was going to be an early finish, and America's long wait for boasting another clay court champion (the last one being Tony Trabert in 1954!) finally seemed like ending.

Critics were already evaluating the impact of yet another GS final loss on Lendl. But something happened thereafter, which changed the course of the match.

At 1-1 in the third, Mac got irritated with a photographer, and slammed his earphones. He lost concentration and did not serve at the same high level thereafter.

The stats showed that while he served 60 percent in the first two sets, the rate dropped to an abysmal 35 percent in the next three!

Moreover, Lendl started using the overhead lob effectively. This resulted in a series of fascinating cat and mouse rallies, but Lendl usually had the upper hand as he negated Mac's net approaches.

He also started mixing things up by serve-volleying, charging to the net, and jumping on Mac's serves (until now, he was standing way behind the baseline, which gave Mac ample time to come to the net).

Mac was unsure what to do, stayed back even on some first serves, and found it difficult to hold. Lendl won the set 6-4.

The fourth set was the turning point of the match, as Lendl bounced back after being down 1-4, and saved five break points in the sixth game (including 0-40 deficit), to take the set 7-5.

The fifth set ultimately became the test of stamina in which Lendl usually held the upper hand. Even though the exhausted McEnroe gave him a scare at 0-30 in the seventh game, Lendl always seemed in control of the set.

At 5-6, an exhausted Mac found himself two match points down at 15-40. He served two huge serves after this, saved the first with a winner, but pushed a simple volley (even by Lendl's standard!) long.

Lendl raised his arms in jubilation. He had finally put the monkey off his back!

This match reminded me of the Wimbledon final in 1980. While that match was a baseline lesson on how to win on the fast grass, this final was almost a perfect serve-and-volley exhibition to conquer the slow dirt!

McEnroe never again came close to winning at Roland Garros. Lendl went on to win this title twice again, and five other slams.

Considering the players on both sides of the net, the quality, and the length of the contest, this remains as one of the best contested finals at Roland Garros.

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