Ivan Lendl: Champions Tour 'is bringing back a lot of great memories'

After 14 years without lifting a racket, the former World No 1 is playing competitive tennis again. He tells Paul Newman why
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The Independent Online

John McEnroe was confused. Ivan Lendl was on the other side of the net, but this was not the dour, steely-eyed opponent he remembered. "He tried a sense of humour today, which threw me off for a while," McEnroe said after playing Lendl for the first time in 18 years. "He was saying a lot of things to me. The things we used to say to each other weren't always pleasant – but this was."

Lendl's debut on the ATP Champions Tour here in Paris at the Stade Coubertin on Sunday was his first appearance in a tournament since his retirement in 1994. The 50-year-old from the Czech Republic, who became an American citizen, did not play for 14 years because of the back problems that forced his retirement, but treatment has finally enabled him to get back on court. Although he quit when trailing McEnroe 6-4, 3-2, the problem this time was a pulled calf muscle.

"It's difficult after not playing for so long, but it's also a lot of fun," Lendl said. "It's nice seeing the other players again. It brings a lot of good memories back."

Lendl insists he was always misunderstood, but these days he cuts a more relaxed figure than the man who was one of the most committed and driven players – and, as a result of his ultra-competitive nature and apparently humourless demeanour, one of the most unloved – in the history of tennis. He was world No 1 for 270 weeks (only Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have topped the rankings for longer), won 94 singles titles and claimed eight Grand Slam crowns, with Wimbledon, where he was runner-up twice and a semi-finalist on five other occasions, the only major honour to elude him.

He still speaks with a marked eastern European accent, almost wholly free of Americanisms despite having lived in the United States for so long, but the smiles and raucous laughs are those of a man no longer utterly consumed by his job. Nevertheless, his life is still dominated by sport, especially the golfing and equestrian careers of his five daughters. This summer was the first for years he has not spent on the road accompanying his children to golf tournaments.

Golf provided Lendl with the competition that he missed after giving up tennis and he was good enough to play in some professional events. If his interest at one stage bordered on an obsession – he was once said to have played 300 rounds in a year – he now derives great fun from it.

"I'm having a ball playing golf," he said. "This is a tremendous year actually. I turned 50, I'm getting to play tennis again and enjoying that and I've played a bunch of senior golf tournaments that I'm enjoying. I played the US Senior Open qualifying – I just missed out – and I played the Connecticut Open, the Connecticut Senior Open and the Vermont Open. It's a lot of fun."

Lendl used to cycle 200 miles a week, follows professional cycling closely and has ambitions to ride up l'Alpe d'Huez. He works hard at his fitness, rollerblading 15 miles a day, six days a week. "It's less stress on the knees than running," he said. "It's great for the lungs as well. It's just bad for the wrists when you fall. I've fallen twice and it wasn't pretty." He watches ice hockey on television and takes a keen interest in football. "What's going to happen to Rooney?" he asked. "Is he going to Barcelona?"

Although he rarely attends tennis tournaments, Lendl always takes an interest in the latter stages of Grand Slam events. He is hugely impressed by current standards. "Players today are better trained, better fed and better coached," he said. "They have more shots. They can serve better, volley better, they are more complete players. Some of it is down to the modern materials, some of it is training, some of it is diet."

As someone who made hard work and fitness a priority, it is no surprise that Lendl particularly enjoys watching Rafael Nadal. "I admire how he goes out and says: 'OK, to win the US Open I need to improve my serve'. Then he and his uncle go away and work on his serve. And his serve was a great, great weapon [in New York]. That's how you get better. That's how you separate yourself from the rest."

Lendl insisted that all his daughters played sport. The oldest, Marika, showed promise at tennis, but, he said, "people were a pain in the butt". He explained: "When she was 10 they would walk up to her when she was warming up and say: 'Are you going to be as good as your Dad?' I mean, what kind of a person says that?" Marika also suffered injuries. "She quit all sports at first, which didn't go down very well with me," Lendl said. "So then I had to bribe her. I promised her a dog if she played golf for three months, six days a week, knowing very well that she would get the bug. So she has the dog and she plays golf. And then her sisters followed."

Marika, 20, and Isabelle play college golf at the University of Florida, while Daniela, another golfer, is going to the University of Alabama. Caroline and Nikki are keen horse riders. The family spend their summers in Connecticut and winters in Florida. Lendl recently opened his own tennis academy at Vero Beach, which is another incentive to play again. "I believe that you have to show the kids, not just tell them," he said.

Lendl settled in the United States in 1984 and stopped representing Czechoslovakia in the Davis Cup the following year. He believes that coming from a Communist-controlled country was a major reason why he was not universally popular. "I think a big part of it was the Cold War," he said. "Where I came from didn't do me any favours, even though I hated them more than anyone."

Later this year he will face Bjorn Borg in his home city of Ostrava, where he has not played for 30 years. It is a chance to appear in front of old friends who were denied the chance to watch him. "They blacked me out, so the kids didn't get to see me on television or play in person," he said.

Lendl has also committed to play in Hungary, in Australia at the start of next year and in New York in February at an event he is promoting. "If I enjoy playing I will do it more," he said. "And if I don't enjoy it I'll never play again."

Life in brief

Born 7 March, 1960, Ostrava

* Lendl turned professional in 1978. He played in 19 Grand Slam finals, winnning eight. His first title was the 1984 French Open, beating John McEnroe.

* Won again at Roland Garros in '86 and '87, and the Australian Open in 1989 and 1990. Reached eight consecutive US Open finals from 1982-89, winning three.

* Lendl became world No 1 in 1983, He would go on to reclaim the top spot on four occasions. He retired in 1994.