Player Of The 1980's? Surely It Must Be The Great Ivan Lendl!
Sit back and look at him. The great Ivan in full concentration about to hit that wonderful one-handed backhand of his. A stroke he hit very much like present day Roger Federer (if you don't believe me take a look at these comparisons)
When discussing the old greats, we often mention Laver, Borg and McEnroe. But Lendl is somewhat forgotten. He was not charismatic enough. For someone carrying the nickname Ivan the Terrible, he was way too robotic.
McEnroe even once said, "He's hurt the popularity of the sport so much. Do you like a robot being No. 1?"
He wasn't the most popular, outspoken, or engaging player. How could he be, coming from Czechoslovakia, where they could claim his passport any time they wanted? That halted his relations with the media and vice versa with the fans. Ivan, as the person he is and was, probably did not care too much. He minded his own business, trained harder, and won more.
In my mind, he was by far and away the player of the 80's. Wait a minute, doesn't that title belong to McEnroe?
After his great '84 year, in which he compiled an 82-3 match record has yet to be toppled. He made it to his last Slam final in the' 85 US Open in which he lost to Lendl. He also competed in the famous '84 final in which Lendl denied McEnroe his eluding French title after McEnroe was up two sets to love, a break in the third, and 4-2 in the fourth.
Lendl, on the other hand, was a dominating force throughout possibly the most competitive decades in men's tennis. How many weeks at number one? 272.
That is more than five years of that decade, second to only Sampras and Federer. How many consecutive weeks in the top five? 588, from 1980-92. Do you need other stats to be impressed?
How about 8 US Open finals in a row (82-89, winning three), or how about 9 consecutive year-end championship finals (80-89, winning a record 5)? Or what about being the only male player to have won at least 90 percent of his matches in five different years (1982: 106-9; 1985: 84-7; 1986: 74-6; 1987: 74-7; 1989: 79-7). And should we forget him making 27 out of 34 GS semifinals between 82-91 or his 19 GS final appearances which was only topped by Federer last year?
If anyone was a force in the eighties, it was surely Lendl.
He wasn't as natural as McEnroe. His touch wasn't quit the same, surely not at the net, which made him struggle so much at Wimbledon in a time of serve and volley tennis. That one eluding slam title which would have put him in league with the very, very best in our minds.
He came close though. Loosing a close 5-setter in 85 to a 17 year old Becker and then two years later to Cash. Along with five looses in the semifinals, two before Becker, three after Cash. Apart from Federer, he is surely the most consistent performer in the Slams, making a record 10 consecutive semi's (now more than doubled by Federer) and turning in top performances at all the Slams year in and year out (yes Agassi won all four, but he wasn't as consistent as Lendl I would argue and Laver didn't have hard courts to play Slams on).
Nowadays, Lendl is remembered as one of those that pioneered the modern power tennis. He played mostly from the baseline, and he was probably one of the hardest workers ever to play on the ATP tour. Lendl lived by a fitness regime that would make his likelihood of success increase with the amount of sets played. His running forehand was stunning. Likewise, were his beautiful one-handed backhand and his serve, while on, were among the best on tour.
What especially makes Lendl great, in my mind, is that he competed and prevailed against so many of the all-time greats.
How would we look at McEnroe today was is not for Lendl? According to Lendl, McEnroe would probably have bothered to go to Australia and win had he gotten that '84 French Open title from Lendl. He may have finished with all four of them and a total of 10-12 Slams instead of the present seven, one short of Lendl. Lendl enjoys a 21-15 head to head against the great McEnroe (though many of these wins are in McEnroe's fall). Against Connors he is 22-13 (same thing though), against Borg he is down 2-6, but Borg retired as Lendl was making headway.
Against his younger peers, he always came out on top too. He is 15-7 against Wilander, he is 11-10 against the six years younger Becker winning their last three encounters, 13-14 against Edberg loosing the last four, 4-0 against Courier, down 3-5 against Sampras loosing four of their last five encounters, 6-2 up against Agassi and 5-3 against Cash.
How many other players can show head-to-head numbers like these against so many all-time greats? Has there been any, or even Laver? But was his competition really as fierce? It is hard to compare obviously.
The only thing that detracts a little from that record is that, apart from McEnroe being born in 59 and who won fame and fortune much quicker, he is pretty much the only great born around 1960. The next batch are all five years or more younger.
Nevertheless, that doesn't take away him being the dominant player in possibly the most competitive decade.
Why is he not hailed more for that feat? Possibly because he never was the popular number one. He was the stone-man and the base-liner without the Borg looks and charisma. He wasn't much of a showman, he didn't care about much else than getting his win, and he did not continue his afterlife in tennis. He was through, so why should he, might be his answer.
To finish, here is a link to a great recent interview with Lendl that gives an excellent insight to his straight-forward no bull kind of character. He is a man of facts and science and so was his tennis. Perhaps that too accounts for his lack of popularity:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/columnists/paul_kimmage/article6349407.ece
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