Tennis: Lendl floored at first hurdle

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The Independent Online
IVAN LENDL is looking forward to becoming a father for the fourth time during the first week of Wimbledon in June. Whether he is destined to experience joy as a player at future Grand Slam championships is open to doubt.

While defeat in the major tournaments has been a common occurrence since Lendl won the Australian Open in 1990, 12 years have elapsed since the former world No 1 was last eliminated in the first round of a Grand Slam.

Christian Bergstrom, of Sweden, achieved the feat here yesterday, 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. Charlie Fancutt, of Australia, previously held the distinction with a five-set victory at Wimbledon in 1981. Only two other players have dispatched the Czech-born American so early: the Australian, Peter McNamara, when Lendl played his first match at Wimbledon in 1979, and Jose-Luis Clerc, of Argentina, on Lendl's debut at the French Open in 1978.

Lendl's disappointment at losing to Fancutt was so acute that he declined to compete at the All England Club the following year. Since then he has gained recognition as the sport's ultimate professional and has tried various methods of preparation without mastering the vagaries of the grass-court game.

Yesterday, with eight Grand Slam titles and almost dollars 20m (pounds 13.3m) in official career prize-money to his credit, and nothing to prove, the 32-year-old Lendl could afford to be philosophical about his early departure from Melbourne's rubberised concrete courts.

To be fair, the eighth-seeded Lendl was not expected to perform well here; indeed it was surprising that he even turned up after 10 weeks' inactivity recovering from a pulled groin muscle. He was virtually written out of the script before Andre Agassi and Goran Ivanisevic were declared unfit. At the United States Open in September, Lendl came close to defeating the champion, Stefan Edberg, in five sets in the quarter-finals after winning a marathon against Boris Becker in the fourth round.

This week, Becker and Lendl have followed each other out of Flinders Park in quick succession after losing to Swedish opponents. Becker, defeated by Anders Jarryd on Monday, was hampered by a strained thigh muscle. Lendl was simply not match fit.

'If I came out here and played any better after not practising properly for two months and not playing any matches I would be surprised,' he said. 'It's actually encouraging for me that I was able to play four sets without any pain. I was really pleased with that.'

Lendl intends to remain in Australia to work on his game before competing in tournaments in Marseilles, Milan and Rotterdam, which suggests that his enthusiasm for the game is strong enough to keep him from joining John McEnroe on the sidelines.

Victories against Ivanisevic and Michael Chang on the way to winning the Tokyo tournament in October convinced him that he was far from finished. Unfortunately, the injury he picked up in Antwerp in November robbed him of the physical condition for the greater test here. Bergstrom, who had failed to win a set in two previous matches against Lendl, could hardly claim a spectacular victory. The general quality of the match was poor and erratic, as instanced by the third set, which the Swede lost by having his serve broken four times to Lendl's two.

Bergstrom, a 25-year-old from Gothenburg who has joined the professional tennis community in Monte Carlo, was a Wimbledon quarter-finalist in 1990 and reached the fourth round last year. He is not the type to go into a match unprepared, and he correctly reasoned that Lendl would not be his old assertive self.

'My game plan was to make him a little bit insecure on the court,' the Swede said. He set about this by taxing Lendl with drop shots, by moving to the net behind his serve and by craftily playing the angles to wrong-foot him.

For two sets, Lendl was totally flummoxed, errors spraying from his once-feared forehand as he wilted beneath a legionnaire's cap. 'He (Bergstrom) was right, I was a bit insecure,' he said. 'But I don't think it had that much to do with his game. He mixed it up, but I think I was mixing it up myself more than I cared for. I'm moving, but I'm not moving fast enough. It's partially due to loss of muscle strength and partially to the instinct of reaction: the mind says says go and the body says no.'

Becker appeared to experience similar problems against Jarryd, and the German's initial response has been to inform his national federation that he will not be available for Davis Cup matches this year. He made a similar decision in 1990, after Germany had won the trophy for a second time.

While some of the leading players have stumbled into the New Year, Pete Sampras has taken to it with gusto. The third seed followed his success in the New South Wales Open in Sydney last week by swatting Germany's Carl-Uwe Steeb, 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 in only 75 minutes.

Stefan Edberg marked his 27th birthday by advancing to the second round with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win against Leonardo Lavalle, of Mexico. Michael Chang found Britain's Chris Bailey a handy target in his opening match here, winning 6-3, 6-1, 6-1.

The women's singles draw continued to be shock-proof on day two, with Steffi Graf, Jennifer Capriati and Aranxta Sanchez Vicario heading a list of comprehensive first-round winners. Only Gabriela Sabatini encountered a degree of difficulty, almost being taken to a third set before defeating America's Chanda Rubin, 6-1, 7-5.

Capriati defeated Linda Harvey-Wild 6-0, 6-1. Graf beat Nathalie Herreman, a French qualifier, 6-2, 6-2 and Sanchez Vicario began with a 6-2, 6-3 win against France's Noelle Van Lottum.

Clare Wood, a British qualifier, was unable to add to Monique Javer's first-round victory, losing a keenly contested match with Germany's Barbara Rittner, 7-5, 6-3. Javer earned a second round match against the sixth seed, Conchita Martinez, by defeating America's Carrie Cunningham, 6-3, 6-1.

Monica Seles is usually the one to be found discussing a latest fashion fad. Yesterday it was Graf, explaining how much she had enjoyed wearing a high-neck aerobics-style bodysuit under her tennis outfit. 'I don't intend to put it on when it's 35 degrees on court,' she added, evidently keener to be a Barbie than a barbie.

Results, Sport in Short

(Photograph omitted)