Ivan Lendl was one the most dominant players of the late '80s. He won eight grand slams, reached the finals of 11 others (more than any other player to date), held the world No. 1 for 270 weeks (more than any player except Pete Sampras).
The list is endless.
However, he was denied the biggest title of them all—the Wimbledon Championship.
It's not hard to figure out why. He possessed a big—but inconsistent—first serve, he did not like the low and awkward bounce at this surface, and most of all, he was never as comfortable at the net like a great grass-courter.
However, a closer look at his career would reveal that he was, in fact, an excellent grass-court player, unfortunate not to lay hands at this coveted trophy.
Lendl’s Career on Grass
Lendl had an 81–25 record on grass, and with a winning percentage of more than .76, a better record than many Wimbledon champions.
His performance is often underrated at Wimbledon. He pushed through the Wimbledon draws several times, reaching the final four seven times, including two final appearances in ’86 and ’87. In addition, he was also a finalist at the Australian Open in ’83 and a semifinalist in ‘85, when it was played on grass.
It is said that the secret recipe of success is 95 percent talent and hard work, and 5 percent luck. While Lendl scored profoundly in the first one, he failed appallingly in the second.
Lendl played in an era that included some of the greatest grass-court players of all time—John McEnroe, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg—at the peak of their careers!
Lendl ran into a peak Mac in ’83 and Connors in ’84; the charismatic German, Becker, in ’86, ’88, and ’89; and the sublime Swede, Edberg, in ’90. Edberg also took him out in the Australian Open semifinal in ’85.
In the remaining final in ’87, he lost to Pat Cash, who was on a dream run just like Richard Krajicek in ’96.
Not bad players to lose to!
Despite this, Lendl outplayed Mac and Becker on course to win the Queen’s in ’90 (which is considered the finest grass-court tennis by many), and stretched Becker and Edberg full distance on grass, even managing to defeat Edberg at Wimbledon in ’87.
Lendl’s Adaption on Grass
Lendl often criticized grass-court tournaments as the ones meant for “cows,” but there was no person in history more committed to improving his record at Wimbledon than Lendl.
Lendl skipped the French Open two times, when he was the favorite to win it, to practice on grass. He employed Tony Roche to improve his net game, and became a very competent volleyer during the late '80s. In fact, so good, that he had the confidence to attack the net even on his second serves!
Probably the only fault of Lendl was that he tried to emulate McEnroe or Becker, rather than the other great Wimbledon champion, Borg.
The reason that made Borg successful was the way he effectively hid his comparatively weaker volleys by not coming in on second serves. Lendl exposed himself. Good returners like Becker and Edberg routinely passed him in the open court or strangled him with returns at his feet.
It's the reason Pat Cash beat him in 1987.
Greatest Grass-Courter Not to Win Wimbledon?
Legends like Pancho Gonzales and Ken Rosewall never won Wimbledon. Although, they would not figure in this discussion because Wimbledon was closed to these professionals before the Open era.
There is also an Australian named Patrick Rafter, who made a semifinal and two finals, but fell short in all three by greats like Sampras and Agassi, and a dream run of Ivanisevic.
But Lendl’s accomplishments would easily outlast the affable Australian’s as the greatest grass-courter never to win Wimbledon in the open era.
The one title that made the difference between calling Lendl among the greatest of all times, versus just a great.