Tennis: Lessons of Lendl point way forward for Sampras: World No 1 fancied to retain US Open title as his critics are attacked by one of his most notable predecessors. John Roberts reports

Click to follow
IRRITATED by movement among the spectators during one of the promenade concerts which appear to have supplanted tennis on the ATP Tour of late, Ivan Lendl pronounced himself glad to be 'on the way out, not on the way in'.

How close the 34-year-old Czech-born American may be to following his former rivals, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, through the exit is a matter for conjecture. It seems reasonable to assume, however, that Lendl's participation at the United States Open, which starts on Monday, is motivated by force of habit rather than a conviction that the singles championship could be his again.

A world ranking of No 29 summarises the decline of the player who, in the 1980s, dominated to the extent of being No 1 for a record total of 270 weeks. He emerged at the tail-end of the Bjorn Borg phenomenom and prospered in spite of experiencing much abuse and resentment during the Connors-McEnroe era.

Lendl had changed from major to minor before the decision by the ATP Tour, which organises the men's game outside the four Grand Slams and the Davis Cup, to experiment with pop music as part of an attempt to embellish its tournaments - an innovation which tends to overlook that what is required is a livelier string section.

Not that Lendl could be described as lively, even in his prime. He was an acquired taste, a powerful, if robotic, performer, respected for the stolid virtues of fitness, dedication and persistence, and eventually gaining sympathetic favour through the lost cause of his quest for the Wimbledon title.

A gaunt physiognomy accompanied a dour style of play, and the image of 'The Man in the Iron Mask' was heightened as the young Lendl strove to come to grips with the nuances of the English language. Once this was achieved, the sharp-minded baseliner became as formidable in post-match debate as he was on the court.

'It is sickening that someone who is down to earth, polite, behaves well, is reasonably clever and wears nice clothes almost has to apologise for being the way he is.'

The quote is Lendl's, but with reference not to himself but to Pete Sampras, the 23-year-old American who is currently at the head of the game, who promises to reign for a considerable time and who reluctantly is experiencing the painful courtship of popularity.

Sampras is everything Lendl is not: a natural talent whose attacking style is so fluent as to make the game appear easy. Several judges already number him among the greats. But Lendl had what Sampras lacks: Connors and McEnroe.

Just as Borg's amazing powers of concentration enabled him to achieve success and adoration while Ilie Nastase, Connors and McEnroe, three brilliant mavericks, in turn provided the pyrotechnics, so Lendl evolved as a successful straight man, the consummate professional, a counterpoint to Connors' rabble-rousing and McEnroe's tantrums.

Sampras finds himself isolated. His style is perfect for the modern game of pace and power: athletic, and far from one-dimensional in his shot-making, his accuracy and variation when serving tends to restrict the number of rallies, particularly on the faster surfaces. Impressive though this is, it can produce monotonous matches, as exemplified by the Wimbledon final, in which Sampras successfully defended the title by out-serving Goran Ivanisevic.

Moreover, there is scarcely an alternative to Sampras in terms of style and personality. Andre Agassi, the obvious foil, has not displayed the staying power necessary to be a consistent force. By far the No 1 attraction, Agassi does not attract often enough, and this is proving to be the biggest disappointment of men's tennis in the 1990s. Ten years Lendl's junior, Agassi is currently ranked No 20.

Four years ago, when Sampras defeated the flashy Las Vegan in straight sets to become the youngest United States men's singles champion, it was hoped that the pair would contest many more major finals. Agassi, twice a runner- up at the French Open, graduated at Wimbledon in 1992. Sampras succeeded him as the All England Club champion last year and is the holder of every Grand Slam singles title except the French.

In 1988, Lendl invited the fledgling Sampras to train with him at his home in Connecticut, partly to gauge the potential of a future challenger. 'He had me biking 15 to 20 miles a day, and we spoke about my tennis, how hard you have to work if you want to make it to the top,' Sampras recounted.

Early in 1990, mindful of Lendl's advice, Sampras booked himself into the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Acadamy in Florida, hired a trainer for three weeks, ran, lifted, sprinted and played tennis for up to six hours per day.

In September that year, the groundwork was turned to advantage when Sampras won the US Open at the age of 19. Facing Lendl in the quarter-finals, the Californian proved to be the fitter and more resourceful, producing 24 aces and defeating the three- times champion, 6-2 in the fifth set. So ended Lendl's hopes of setting a championship record of nine consecutive finals, Sampras becoming the first player to defeat him before the concluding day since Vitas Gerulaitis achieved the feat in five sets in 1981.

Sampras viewed his prodigious triumph at Flushing Meadow as premature, and this was reflected in many performances until his game began to flourish consistently last year. He has lost to only four players in 31 matches at the US Open - Jaime Yzaga, Jay Berger, Jim Courier and Stefan Edberg - and, having nursed a foot injury, he is fancied to make a successful defence and win the title for a third time.

Should this be accomplished, Sampras would be the first man to win three of the four Grand Slams in a calendar year since Mats Wilander in 1988 and the first since Connors, in 1974, to win three of the four including Wimbledon. In view of the criticism levelled at the sport, it must disappoint the standard-bearer that he is being held partly responsible for a lack of charisma in the men's game.

Such considerations long ceased to trouble Lendl, if they ever did. He regards enquiries concerning retirement as impudent, almost an invasion of privacy. After all, he is only 26 days older than Linford Christie and has the advantage of not having to sprint home in the top three to be handsomely rewarded.

Last year, for example, Lendl received dollars 1,075,876 ( pounds 694,000) in prize-money, in spite of 11 defeats in his opening matches (offset to a degree by tournament victories in Munich and Tokyo). So far this year he has won dollars 245,164, and has been embarrassed in opening matches on only three occasions, the last time by Arnaud Boetsch at the French Open, when a back injury prompted him to withdraw from Wimbledon.

The chap does have an estate to maintain, four daughters to raise and a pack of German shepherd dogs to feed, and, let's face it, dollars 20,493,667 does not stretch far nowadays.

(Photograph omitted)