Tennis hero switches landscape to put his new driving ambition to the test

The Ivan Lendl interview: A sporting passion will soon be fulfilled – with Lendl-like precision. Ronald Atkin meets the man behind the dream
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The Independent Online

You don't see much of Ivan Lendl around the tennis scene these days. That was obvious from the number of current players and former rivals who paused to shake his hand and ask after his health as we chatted in the competitors' lounge on the final weekend of the US Open.

It is almost seven years now since a bad back forced this winner of eight Grand Slams into precipitate retirement at 34. In that time Lendl's business interests and golfing zeal have mushroomed. He cycles early every morning around the quiet country roads near his home in Goshen, on the Connecticut-New York borders. He swims. He lifts weights. But what he hardly ever does these days is hit a tennis ball, except occasionally with Caroline, one of the 10-year-old twins in his treasured array of five daughters.

"My back is OK when I don't do crazy things but I have to take good care of it, which I do," he said. "But even if I could still play, I would not be interested in the Seniors tour. I am sure it gives pleasure to the guys who are on that circuit, but not me. I could never hit the ball the way I would expect myself to hit it, and I would find that very frustrating. I suppose you could call me a perfectionist.

"Tennis was my job and I enjoyed my job tremendously, don't get me wrong. I didn't think, and I still don't, that there is any other purpose than going on court and trying to win. I know people say Seniors is entertainment, but in my book it's all about winning. Or 99 per cent of it is. And that attitude won't change."

It was a condition called facet joint syndrome which brought Lendl low. These, he explained with the patience of someone who has been through this story a few times, are small joints next to the vertebrae which act as shock absorbers. "The moment they get worn out, they don't do that and the muscles take a pounding when you run and they go into spasm. That's my condition, wear and tear caused by tennis. All of a sudden, I just couldn't finish matches, so that was a pretty direct clue that I shouldn't be doing what I was doing.

"I bike every morning, go out there and ride for 45 minutes. But I can't run, and even when I walk around a golf course I have to take a rest. When I am standing around it is difficult. Let's say I'm waiting on the tee. I either need to kneel down or sit down, then I'm OK. But if I were to stand up for 10 minutes I would get very stiff."

A left-handed, scratch golfer, Lendl says: "I don't have pain on rotation, it's just the pounding. Anything where the spine compresses is bad." The thought of Lendl kneeling on a golf course is symbolic. It is a game he has embraced with all the fervour and dedication he once poured into tennis. "When I was starting I didn't have the choice, but if I was starting over and had the choice I would start golf, no question about that, because there are a few things I prefer about golf over tennis.

"I haven't played a night round yet, I haven't gotten a bad call yet. Those bad calls really used to bother me both ways, for me and against me. Most important, though, is the question of age. I go to Florida to take part in Gary Player's golf charity with a few other has-beens like Michael Jordan and Dan Marino, and once Gary asked me how old I was when I retired. I said 34. He said if somebody had told him when he was 35 he couldn't play golf any more he would have cried. He's right. You can play golf all your life. Think about it."

Lendl clearly has thought about it. He has only once been back to Wimbledon but went to Scotland for three successive years to attend the Dunhill Cup golf event. "I love Scotland and its golf courses, love how people there understand the game, just like the English understand tennis." So enamoured of Scottish links golf is Lendl that he has been scouring the Connecticut area for five years in search of a piece of land to build what he calls "a linksy course".

"Of course we don't have the ocean where we are," he said. "I looked at 40 or 50 properties until finally I found one which is absolutely phenomenal and it just happens to be a few minutes from my house. We have 638 acres, 221 acres of meadows, no trees, and it's sitting right there. All we have to do is get the permits and seed it. Construction will involve moving less than 100,000 cubic yards of soil. Building the average Jack Nicklaus course averages over two million, I believe.

"It is just like the old Scottish courses. That's why I love going to Scotland, because you know that's just how the land has been for 200 years and they just stick tees and greens and bunkers in there. I am a traditionalist in both sports, tennis and golf. In golf, you should just use the lie of the land and not alter anything you don't have to.

"Anybody can build a golf course. Get a huge contract, go into the woods and cut out some trees, make a 480-yard par four and call it a difficult hole. But the genius of the real architects is that they use what they have, they don't have to manufacture something which isn't there. And that's what this golf course is going to be."

The whole operation, naturally, is proceeding with Lendl-like precision. "We would like to start construction next April and if we get no natural disasters we will seed by the fall [autumn] and it will be ready for a limited amount of play by the spring of 2003. The official opening date will be the Fourth of July." He paused and unleashed one of his slightly evil grins. "That happens to be a Thursday."

The two tennis clubs Lendl owns in the area do not overtly promote his name, but this course will certainly bear his trademark. "I will hit thousands and thousands of balls before that, because the moment they start construction and start planning where the bunkers will be I will be there every day, hitting balls, making sure the bunkers are in places where they are really in play, not where people can blow the ball 30 yards past them."

A distinguished, 17-year playing career was finally capped two months ago when Lendl was admitted to the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. If this honour was perhaps a little overdue, it was no more so than the unseemly pause over his application for US citizenship, which was not processed until July 1992.

Lendl is not inclined to carp over such matters, however. "I knew for quite a while that the Hall of Fame thing was coming. It's a great honour and I'm very proud of it, but it's not something I was thinking about every day. As a matter of fact, I had made other plans for that Saturday until somebody pointed out that was the weekend I was going to the Hall of Fame. I cherish it, but I wasn't preoccupied with it. I didn't even think about deserving it, or whether I would get it one day.

"I put it in the same category as the number one ranking. It's very nice, but it was not my objective. My objective was trying to win the majors, and if you win enough majors you become number one and you get into the Hall of Fame."

Number one may not have been the objective, but it was certainly his exclusive property for a total of 270 weeks, a record only recently surpassed by Pete Sampras. Lendl won a total of 1,069 matches and 94 tournaments, second only to Jimmy Connors in both. His eight Grand Slams came through two victories at the Australian Open, three at the French and three more at the US, where he reached the final an astonishing eight straight years between 1982 and 1989.

The one Grand Slam he did not win, of course, was Wimbledon. There were runner-up places in 1986, to Boris Becker, and the following year, to Pat Cash. It is Lendl's fate to be classed as one of the sport's greats who never won Wimbledon, rather as Sampras has laboured for years without success at the French and Bjorn Borg never won the US title.

The interesting point is that his Wimbledon record is what Lendl is proudest of. "The tournament absolutely, positively, did not suit my style, but I was able to do very well there, even though I never won the title. Two Wimbledon finals and five semi-finals may not be as good an achievement as eight US Open finals and three titles but, relatively speaking, I think it's superior. I wish I had learnt to like Wimbledon sooner, because I came to love it."

Nowadays, Lendl offers one of those grins and an anecdote if Wimbledon is mentioned. "A friend of mine made a lot of money on that. One day he said, 'I need to buy you a drink and dinner'. I asked why and he said, 'I went to a bar recently and there were about 25 guys watching a tennis match. I said to them, help me guys, what year was it Lendl won Wimbledon? They said, no, he never did. So I wagered 100 dollars with each of them. They put their money on the table and I picked it up and said, 'Thank you very much, 1978, juniors'. So we had a great laugh and we had dinner."

All those victories over the years were ground out thanks to a regime of diet and fitness frightening in its intensity. So it is a supreme irony that it was an injury which forced his retirement. Perhaps the body was telling Lendl something he was in denial about, that at 34 his career was at an end, because 1994 was the first year he failed to win a title since 1979.

But be assured that Ivan Lendl continues to lead a full life, always looking forward, from the moment he mounts his bike for those early-morning rides. "I don't have time to live in the past. With my family and my golf and my business work I am completely occupied. I wish there were 40 hours in a day."

But, you wonder, are there any things he might have done differently? Before the question is completed, the answer is on its way. "Sure I would. You will never make every decision the right one. You will make mistakes, whether it's on the golf course, the tennis court or in life. But as long as you take into consideration what talent you have and what knowledge you have and make the best possible decision at the time, you can't be unhappy with yourself.

"And that's what I am trying to teach my kids."

Biography

Born: 7 March 1960, Ostrava, Czechoslovakia

1978: Won Junior Wimbledon

1980: Won record total of 109 matches

1982: Lost only nine of 115 matches, taking 10 titles

1984: Won first Grand Slam, the French Open 1985: Won US Open, ended year No 1 for first time

1986: Won French and US Opens

1987: Won French and US Opens for third time

1989: Won 10 titles. Married Samantha Frankel

1992: Became US citizen

1994: Retired in December with back injury

Record: Won a total of 1,069 matches and 94 tournaments. Won eight Grand Slams and was runner-up 11 times. Reached US Open final eight straight years, 1982-1989. Ranked No 1 a total of 270 weeks. Played 57 Slam events, won 222 matches, lost 49

Total prize money: $21,262,417

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