Typical of his generation of tennis stars, Czechoslovakia’s Ivan Lendl, 21, is not one to poor-mouth himself. “Many Czech people are very talented. They can do many things, but when they get to a certain level, they are satisfied. I am not like that, thank God.” Lendl’s friend, Polish pro Wojtek Fibak, agrees. “Ivan is very unusual for the Eastern European type,” says Fibak. “He isn’t shy and fearful. He is confident. The one who believes is the winner. Ivan was always a believer.”
At home, where in 1980 he led his country’s Davis Cup team to its first title, Ivan has long been a hero. Now on the global tennis circuit, he is ranked third to John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. In the past month Lendl has beaten McEnroe twice and earned twice as much money in the process.
Recently nobody has been a match for Ivan. Last week the 6’2″, 170-pound Lendl extended his winning streak to 40 consecutive matches. What really thrilled the tennis world, though, was Ivan’s three-hour-52-minute victory over Vitas Gerulaitis in the final of the $400,000 Volvo Masters in January. At one stage Lendl was down two sets and at match point in the third.
Off-court Ivan has the social sophistication of an American 15-year-old, chugging Coke (no ice) with breakfast and hitching rides behind cars on roller skates. He speaks five languages through a mouthful of tangled teeth and says little in any of them. Already testy with reporters, he walked out on one of his first U.S. interviews when asked political questions. A Czech citizen, he has maintained silence on his country’s policies. He must give 20 percent of his tennis earnings (over $1 million last year) to the Czech Tennis Federation. In return, he and his parents can travel freely.
Lendl’s relentless dedication was fostered in a country where tennis is as much a tradition as baseball is in America. Born in the industrial city of Ostrava, Ivan, an only child, learned tennis at his mother’s elbow. She was once ranked No. 3 nationally, and his father, a lawyer, was in the top 15. As a toddler, Ivan recalls being tied to the net post while his mother practiced. Later, he remembers, “All I wanted to do was get out of school and go to the tennis club, where I would play until dark. I was very disappointed when it was raining.”
At 8, he entered and lost his first tournament. Seven years later he went to Florida for the Orange Bowl tournament for juniors, losing in the quarterfinals. “My parents never said I had to play,” he reports, “but they taught me not to get upset if I played badly because it breaks my concentration.”
In 1978 Ivan was the world’s top junior. Since then he has been on the tennis circuit constantly—usually alone, sometimes accompanied by his mother, who does his laundry and makes his favorite dish, dumplings.
He recently bought his parents a house in Prague. Ivan makes a point of saying that his home is in Czechoslovakia, though he has a condominium in Florida, an apartment in Paris and a garage for his Mercedes at Fibak’s home in Connecticut. An avid reader of 20th-century history, he can also solve Rubik’s Cube in two minutes 30 seconds but takes considerably more time with his tennis.
He still practices at least four hours most days (his forehand is his strength; his volley is a weakness). He also replays tapes of his televised performances, remembers every match played, and can rattle off the details of his various contracts. A line of Ivan Lendl tennis wear is in the works; he already endorses a racket and shoe.
Though he finds time to date, his most frequent companions are Fibak and other Eastern Europeans. So far groupies and fans are not a threat. “I’m going to do everything for my privacy,” he warns. “If people come over, I will open the door and let the dog out.”