French Open Rewind: John McEnroe vs. Ivan Lendl 1984—The Big Bad Collapse

JA AllenSenior Writer IMay 22, 2009

L’amour est tout!  France, however, had no love at all for the super brat!

Perhaps that is why the French Open was never kind to John McEnroe—in fact, it has seldom offered any warm, fuzzy moments to American male tennis pros.  

But on June 10, 1984, the French Open gods delivered McEnroe the cruelest cut of all. 

1984 was the year of Big Mac.  McEnroe won all but three matches that year [his record standing at 82-3] and won 13 singles titles.  It was far and away his most spectacular year, and the tennis great would never find his way to these heights again. 

No one would—although Roger Federer came close in 2005.

Ivan Lendl, who was 24 years old in 1984, had never won a major tournament.  When McEnroe and Lendl met in the finals of the French Open in June of 1984, McEnroe was the prohibitive favorite, having in essence assembled a perfect season to date. 

McEnroe had not lost a match in 1984. 

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Lendl was loudly criticized for always being a bridegroom.  He made it to the finals ceremony but he was left on duty at the altar, usually sweeping up after the groom had whisked the bride away.

The 1984 French Open Final Match appeared to be heading into familiar territory.  McEnroe was on fire—serving well, striking the ball with deft, decisive strokes, and generally making Lendl look slow-footed and slow-witted at times. 

McEnroe broke serve early in the first set and went up, 4-2, allowing him to dictate play on his own serve and capture the first set, 6-3, without too much difficulty.

The second set was even worse for the Czech. 

With two breaks of serve, Lendl seemed to collapse again under the heavy weight of expectation.  McEnroe continued his assault without pity and tore through the second set, 6-2. 

The restless French crowd concluded that this was to be a quick match, and they wanted to see some effort flow from Lendl.  At this point, McEnroe had won the first two sets in a little more than an hour. 

The turning point of the match came in the third set.  McEnroe was becoming increasingly agitated by a camera man whose headset was emitting noise that apparently disturbed the quick-tempered American. 

When the score stood at 1-1 with an advantage over Lendl of 0-30, McEnroe walked over to the camera man and shouted something into his headset.

With McEnroe’s concentration broken, Lendl escaped.  Then he broke McEnroe’s serve, and McEnroe broke back with the third set seesawing back and forth.

Lendl, in the meantime, had found his game and his ground strokes became menacing.  McEnroe’s game grew steadily weaker as Lendl’s grew stronger.  The seesaw third set finally went to Lendl, 6-4. 

Lendl was in the best shape of his life.  He found renewed energy in the fourth and fifth sets while McEnroe struggled. 

McEnroe broke Lendl’s serve in the fourth set and went up 4-2, but the American’s serve began to falter and it was no longer the weapon it had been during the first two sets. 

Lendl slowly found his courage and with it, the corners and lines.  He broke back to 4-4.  Then he extended his lead to 6-5, finally taking the fourth set, 7-5. 

The match went to the fifth set.  All was even.  Only three times in the past had the champion come from 0-2 down to win in five sets. 

The French crowd was fully engaged and fully behind Lendl, the underdog.  They chanted his name and cheered wildly when points fell his way.

All of this was getting on McEnroe’s frayed nerves.  But the world's No. 1 player never quit while struggling mightily in the last set.

In the sixth game of the set, McEnroe held break points against Lendl, but he could not convert.  Lendl’s power surged after this while McEnroe faded quickly.  McEnroe fell to 15-40 on his own serve at 5-6.  Match points were now against him.

He saved one match point but then shoved a volley wide, and Lendl won the match.  It marked the biggest collapse in the history of the tournament to date, with Lendl winning the last set, 7-5. 

The match lasted four hours and eight minutes.  McEnroe declined to address the crowd who had been so vocal in their support of Lendl, and his escape was accompanied by a chorus of boos.

The red clay of Paris had buried another American alive.

McEnroe, however, berated his own play and blamed himself for the collapse.  He felt he allowed Lendl back into the match when he lost his concentration. 

That point in the third set when he had Lendl in a death grip and let him go to appease his anger at the camera man—was that the moment when McEnroe lost the match?  In later years, McEnroe confessed that this match still haunts him. 

The match was a turning point for Lendl, who had no trouble after this victory winning the big matches.  The monkey was officially off his back.  Lendl would become a real thorn in the side of McEnroe for the rest of his career. 

There had never been a bigger collapse by an American during the French Open final.  The win would have given McEnroe a shot at a calendar year slam because, in 1984, the Australian was still played in December.

McEnroe went on the win at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1984.  The slam was all within his grasp.

So close, so very close...


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