Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Lendl works hard on his opening lines: After a series of humiliating early exits in recent tournaments, the Czech-born American reached the second round yesterday

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The Independent Online
IT WAS getting on towards chucking out time here yesterday before we got a significant upset. It was Ivan Lendl winning a match. A first-round match. Who says he had forgotten how?

While Agassi, Stich and Courier swanked on to the Centre and No 1 Courts, Lendl, that colossus of the 1980s, emerged in weak sunlight on Court 14 to the kind of respectful reception that greets fading champions. Only four photographers were present, in contrast to the dozens who snapped away at Agassi, and nowhere in the forest-zapping pile of pre-Wimbledon literature could you find a feature on the man whose game, like his country of birth (Czechoslovakia), has broken up of late.

Or so suggests his current form. In each of the last three tournaments he has played in - Rome, the French Open and Queen's - Lendl has been beaten in his opening game, just as he was in the Australian Open in January. The defeat by Stephane Huet at Roland Garros was the most humiliating. Huet was a local club player who would normally expect to get his collar felt by security guards if he tried to play there during Open fortnight.

The old tabloid headline, 'Ivan The Terrible', took on a new meaning (as in, awful). Lendl, now 33, was squashed again by Byron Black at Queen's, and the question was put to him: why go on? Why suffer the indignity of being ejected by players with telephone numbers for world rankings? Lendl was merely irritated by the suggestion that he should fade away to a life of multi-millionairedom in Connecticut.

The contrast with Martina Navratilova's defiance of the ageing process is all too acute. Both dominated the Thatcher-Reagan era and both made fitness and dedication the foundations of their game. But while Navratilova is seeded No 2 Lendl, though seeded seven, is out with the 'rags' in the betting at 50-1 and upwards.

And to think Lendl has won eight Grand Slam events since 1984: three US Opens, three French and two Australians. But no Wimbledon. Lendl, in his own defence, has pointed out again and again that players of the stature of Ken Rosewall never won Wimbledon, but Lendl's dogged pursuit of success on these grass courts suggests a deeper yearning for that final triumph.

The legs and arms are still impressively defined. When Lendl bounces on his toes, the calf muscles pulse and swell, and no longer does he bear that drained, haunted look you associate with his younger days. But it is as if the spool is turning slower now, so that no amount of iron-pumping or cardio-vascular conditioning can keep the nerve endings twitching fast enough.

At least he has his stacked millions, his business empire, and that enduring world ranking of seven, itself a product of the somewhat charitable method of calculation. However many first-round losses you suffer, only the 14 best performances are fed into the computer. As an Italian observer here said: 'It's like a surgeon performing 14 successful operations and not being penalised for killing 10 people in between.'

Those who weep for Lendl ignore both his astounding material and professional wealth. Estimates of his earnings from 15 years on the circuit stretch as high as dollars 135m (prize- money, appearance fees, endorsements). He owns a successful sports management company, is on the board of the Hartford Whalers ice hockey team, collects posters and breeds German shepherds. However big the gap in his trophy cabinet, Lendl can recall that in the mid- Eighties he held the No 1 spot longer (270 weeks) than any other man.

Yesterday he beat a 25-year-old foot soldier of the circuit, Brian Devening, who took the first set 7-6 before capitulating to lose the next three 4-6, 1-6, 3-6. One bookmaker even reduced Lendl from 100-1 to 50-1 for the championship, though there will be few takers until he has progressed far beyond players like Devening.

Time was when the world's press would have thronged into every corner of the interview room to hear Lendl's verdict on this success. Instead, the result induced only indifferent glances towards the television screen. Win or lose, it would have been no surprise now that Lendl has been pushed to the periphery of public attention.

As is the practice here, a request for a post-match interview was submitted in the expectation that at least six other reporters would follow suit, thus obliging Lendl to turn up for cross-examination.

'Sorry,' the official said, 'but he's declined. You were the only one to ask.'

(Photograph omitted)