Rewind 1985: The Rise of Ivan Lendl and the Fall of John McEnroe

Rajat JainSenior Analyst IAugust 11, 2009

With the US Open just three weeks away, the Tennis Domain at Bleacher Report offers you the "Rewind" series to refresh the history of this amazing tournament. Long John, Rob, JAA, Frankie, Sud, Rohini, and others will join this series.

Out of the 11 Grand Slam finals losses that Ivan Lendl suffered, a big chunk of those were during the early part of his career. After ending up as the bridesmaid on the first four occasions, he finally got the monkey off his back at the French Open final in '84, when he unexpectedly defeated favorite John McEnroe.

Even after this epic victory, though, Lendl was yet to figure out the McEnroe code. The American pummeled him later that year in the finals of the US Open and Year End Cup with lopsided score lines of 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 and 7-5, 6-0, 6-4.

Miseries continued, as he failed to defend his French Open crown in ’85 by losing yet another major final, this time to Mats Wilander. His Grand Slam finals record stood at a pathetic 1-6, and, coupled with his consecutive losses at the Masters Cup finals in the last two years, there were enough doubts over Lendl’s capability to perform at the big stage. Question marks were raised over his quest to attain the No. 1 ranking.

McEnroe was not enjoying a particularly good year as well, as he fell tamely to Kevin Curren at his favorite surface in Wimbledon.

The Open at New York was particularly important for both the top-seeded players. John wanted to resurrect his tame year with a major title, while Lendl desperately wanted to get over his disappointments in the big finals.

Other than the fifth-set tie-breaker in his opening round, Mac enjoyed a comfortable road to the semis, while Lendl did not face too many problems either. It was the performance in the semis, though, which played a vital role on the second Sunday.

Lendl avenged his losses in ’82 and ’83 finals by defeating the third character in this “hate triangle”—Jimmy Connors—which gave a major boost to his confidence. Mac, on the other hand, was exhausted after his four hour long slugfest against Mats Wilander in the second SF of the Super Saturday.

This, ultimately, proved to be the turning point in their rivalry, and their respective careers.

McEnroe started the proceedings in fine fashion by holding comfortably at love and then breaking Lendl at 15 who looked like he was experimenting on his passing shots and volleys in the initial few games. The American used his fine service form to find himself in a comfortable position to take the first set.

Things change quickly in tennis, though. Mac did not lose a single point in five of his six service games in the first set, while Lendl was struggling to hold serve but at 5-3 on serve though, he lost his game at love, and got blitzed in the tie-breaker only managing to win a single point!

Lendl then served consistently, and passed beautifully on either side of Mac, mainly using his reliable backhand. Mac’s brilliant deep volleys were counter punched at double-the-speed using the running forehand, and he felt uncomfortable at the back of the court as Lendl was opportunistic in running towards the net at the first opportunity.

The sublime volleys he hit that day were absent a year before in ’84: The employment of Tony Roche—or Coach Roche, as he is often called—was paying dividends.

The defending champion was trying everything in his might, but was overpowered and out thought by Lendl. At one point during the match, the super-brat, who loved to fight with umpires on wrong calls, conceded a point in Lendl’s favor even though the umpire and linemen called against it!

The normally emotionless Lendl began to sense his victory, and with each big point yelled and fist pumped his way towards cruise control, as he did nothing wrong in the final two sets.

At 5-4 in the third, Lendl’s confidence was there to be seen as the baseline grinder serve-n-volleyed on all four points to win his second Grand Slam title at his beloved surface.

History was changed, as McEnroe yielded the no. 1 ranking after four years to Lendl.

He participated in Australian Open for only the second time in his career—in a vain attempt to reclaim his lost spot—proof of the impact this loss had over him (years later, he wrote in his autobiography, that his old-rival Bjorn Borg had suggested this to him in a hotel room).

He would go on to win only two of his final 11 meetings with Lendl.

Mac couldn’t repeat his glory years of ’81 to ’84 after that, as this final remained the last of his career. He reached the semis only three more times.

Lendl got the boost he needed, and went on to dominate the game in late eighties. He won six more majors and three more Year End championships, while enjoyed an astonishing 270 weeks at no. 1, bettered only by Pete Sampras.

Sometimes, one match is all it takes to define history.


P.S.: It is rather strange that YouTube has only one 16-second clip of this match. Enjoy these two great passing shots.

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