Lendl retires after losing battle with back problems force Lendl into r etirement

John Roberts looks back at the glittering career of the Czech-born tenn is player

How cruel that Ivan Lendl, who prided himself on being the fittest player in tennis, had to announce his retirement yesterday because of a back injury.

We had seen the day coming, long before a degenerative condition of the spine known as facet joint syndrome forced the issue three months before his 35th birthday.

During the past couple of years, when his edge was no longer there and a variety of physical problems began to take a toll, it was apparent that Lendl could not finish his career near the top. Hopes were expressed that he would avoid the embarrassment

of a slide down the rankings.

"This is not when I would have chosen to retire,'' he said yesterday during a conference call organised by the ATP Tour, "but the spasms and pain are such that I can no longer play, even occasionally.''

To add insult to injury, the player who was the world No 1 for a record 270 weeks ended his career ranked number 55. And he is last remembered leaving the Stadium Court at Flushing Meadow, New York, in September, his back having stiffened to the extent that he could no longer continue a second-round match against Germany's Bernd Karbacher at the United States Open.

Lendl had trailed, 4-6, 6-7, 0-1, after being unable to convert any of nine set-points after leading 5-0 in the second set. It was the fourth time during the year that the back had caused him to quit a match, the injury also having prompted his withdrawal from Wimbledon in June.

Flushing Meadow was almost home to Lendl. He won the US Open three times and competed in eight consecutive finals during the 1980s. But it did not provide a suitable finale for a great champion.

Lendl achieved everything except a Wimbledon singles title - "my one regret''. His quest for the sport's most coveted prize endeared him to a public which at first was less than enamoured of his gaunt physiognomy and robotic style.

Having worked his way to the final in 1986, he was faced with the wunderkind, Boris Becker, who defeated him in straight sets. A year later, Pat Cash, another fast court specialist, inflicted similar damage.

In 1990, Lendl bypassed the clay courts of the French Open in order to work on grass for eight weeks, only to be halted by Stefan Edberg in the Wimbledon semi-finals.

The first hint of decline came after he lost to Edberg in the semi-finals of the US Open in 1991, having begun the year as runner-up to Becker at the Australian championships.

Last year, Lendl won only one match in the four Grand Slam championships and finished outside the world top 10 for the first time since 1979. Successes in Munich and Tokyo did, however, enable him to extend his record of winning at least one singles title every year since 1980.

The sequence was broken this year. The nearest Lendl came was in Sydney in January, when he lost to Pete Sampras, the world No 1, in the final of the New South Wales Open. In his next tournament, Lendl had the misfortune to encounter Sampras again, in the fourth round of the Australian Open.

To put Lendl's career in perspective, he first appeared in a Grand Slam final, raw but resilient, at the 1981 French Open. It was the occasion of Bjorn Borg's sixth and final victory in Paris (6-1 in the fifth set); indeed, it was the Swede's last major

triumph anywhere.

Lendl's image of deep-eyed, hollow-cheeked concentration while methodically constructing points from the baseline was not relieved by a tendency to be introverted and uncommunicative during post-match interviews.

Here was a young player from Czechoslovakia adjusting to the demands of an individualistic professional sport while at the same time endeavouring to master English, the tongue of the tour. Inside, a shrewd intelligence and a biting wit were biding their time.

Lendl's casting as the straight man - even the villain in certain American minds - to the saucy song and dance routines of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe was compounded by the Czech's habit of making millions of dollars while not having a major title to his name.

The perception changed dramatically after he recovered from two sets down to defeat McEnroe in the 1984 French Open final. The emphasis transferred from Lendl's mechanical play to his supreme physical condition, and he was acknowledged as the consummate professional.

Sampras had an exhausting experience of Lendl's regimen when invited to train at his home in Connecticut in 1988. "He played in the Masters at night and got up at 6.30 next morning and made me do aerobics,'' Sampras recalled."We'd hit in the garden in the morning, and he'd take a nap and I'd go for a 20-mile bike ride. He had his trainer in his car following me around, and he didn't let me quit. After I got back from a bike ride, four of his dogs were staring at me and growling. Ever since t hen, I'm afraid of dogs. If Ivan starts coaching, I wouldn't want him to coach me!''

Lendl, the winner of $21.26m (£14m) in official prize-money alone, had not given much thought to coaching until the notion was put to him yesterday. "I'll consider it,'' he said. "I'd like to remain in the game, but I'm not sure how.''

He plans to extend his management company, Spectrum Sports, and intends to find time for golf, having been assured that the back problem need not keep him from the fairways.

As he once remarked between Wimbledon championships, grass is for golf anway.

the lendl story Born: Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, 7 March, 1960.

Nationality: United States citizenship, July, 1992.

Status: Married, Samantha, September 1989; four daughters, Marika (1990), twins Caroline and Isabelle (1991), Daniela (1993).

Lives: Goshen, Connecticut, USA.

Height: 6ft 2in Weight: 12st 5lb.

Plays: Right-handed. Turned professional: 1978. Highest singles ranking: No 1, Feburary 1983, and for a record 270 weeks in total.

Career prize-money: $21.26m (£13m).

Career singles titles: 94.

Grand Slam singles titles: 8 (French 1984, 86, 87; United States 1985, 86, 87; Australian 1989, 90).

Grand Slam singles finalist: 11 (French 1981, 85; United States 1982, 83, 84, 88, 89; Australian 1983, 91; Wimbledon 1986, 87)

Career tour match wins: 1,069 (Second only to Jimmy Connors).

Davis Cup: Member of victorious 1980 Czechoslovakian team; played 1978-85, won 22, lost 15.

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