This is, of course, a personal blog, and makes no claims of being anything other than a repository for a Slacker’s occasional writing, which is getting very occasional indeed, as time goes by. But today I am very pleased, nay – proud, to present a guest post from Sriram Subramanian, author of ‘Rain’ a philosophical drama, and now, ‘Center Court’, a tennis-centered Sports Fiction novel.
The Slacker himself has never been, as the title indicates, particularly sporty. This does not mean that he has not taken a keen interest in sport itself. Apart from the interest afforded by the statistical and technical aspects of sport, it also showcases a very human drama, drama that teaches us so much about psychology and human nature. Tennis, as sports go, is very close to the shriveled, dark thing that is the Slacker’s heart, and he once took a passionate interest in the fortunes of those who played it, with a particular fascination for the petulant and ultimately doomed wizardry of Martina Hingis and the stunning game and batshit craziness of Goran Ivanisevic.
Without any further ado, then, I give you -
The Ant and the Grasshopper
Ah, sporting rivalries!
All great individual sports have had them. The sport itself gets a huge boost to its public persona when one comes up.
Chess provides the ultimate mind vs mind battle. Here you have Karpov & Kasparov; Spassky & Fischer and if you’re so inclined you can go all the way back to Capablanca & Lasker.
|Capablanca and Lasker|
|Spassky and Fischer|
|Kasparov and Karpov|
Body vs body? Look no further than boxing. Ali & Frazier, Ali & Foreman, Hagler & Hearns, Tyson & Holyfield. Or in track-and field, you have Lewis & Johnson; Coe & Ovett & Cram; Gebresselassie & Tergat; Morceli & El Guerrouj.
|Frazier decks Ali|
|Ovett Crams Coe|
|Johnson shiftily views Lewis|
Mano-a-mano with a machine thrown in? Why, Prost & Senna, or Vettel & Hamliton these days! (I would have loved to come up with some suitable cycling example, but then of course it would be man + machine + some cocktail, known or unknown)
But the sport that provides the greatest scope for fairly long, utterly compelling rivalries involving mind and body is Tennis. It has to do with the way careers overlap (for fairly significant periods, with different career arcs) and the number of opportunities that players have to come up against each other (much more so than in most other sports).
Think tennis rivalries and you can immediately recall Federer-Nadal, Nadal-Djokovic, Federer-Djokovic, Sampras-Agassi, Becker-Edberg, Graf-Seles, Navratilova-Evert, Borg-Connors-McEnroe without too much effort.
All of these great rivalries are well known and much written about. I am going to showcase one of the most significant tennis rivalries of the last 50 years; yet it is one that most casual sports fans tend to overlook.
IVAN LENDL vs. JOHN McENROE
In the Open Era, if you ask ‘Which two players have faced each other most often?’, you get Djokovic-Nadal (50 matches), Djokovic-Federer (46 matches), Federer-Nadal (37 matches), and Djokovic-Murray (36 matches).
|Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, jus' standing around looking thuggish.|
This is striking testimony to the highly unusual situation in men’s tennis over the last decade-and-a-half. That four players at the top of the game (three of them undoubtedly all-time greats, and the fourth merely a great) would remain so stable, so focused, so utterly in control of the game for such a long period, is unprecedented, in its literal sense. Certainly, there’s never been anything like it in tennis. This is not the place to get into reasons why, but it is what it is.
But before these ‘Big 4’ emerged, the pair of players that had played each other the most was Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe (36 times). Lendl had another equally long and (equally) uncelebrated rivalry with Jimmy Connors (36 times), then you have the well known Becker-Edberg (35), Connors-McEnroe (35) and Agassi-Sampras (34).
|Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg|
I accept rivalries are not just about quantity. Borg and McEnroe played each other only 14 times; yet every kid knows about Borg and McEnroe. But it is unusual that such a storied rivalry as the one Lendl and McEnroe had rarely comes up in conversation.
One of the reasons for this is that when people think of McEnroe’s great rivals, the older generation (in tennis terms) of Borg and Connors come to mind; when they think of Lendl’s great rivals, they think of the generation after – Becker and Edberg. People don’t really think of Lendl and McEnroe as of the same generation.
Yet, John McEnroe was born in Feb 1959; Ivan Lendl was born in March 1960. Both turned Pro in 1978.
Both were ranked #1 for long periods (McEnroe 170 weeks; Lendl 270 weeks). McEnroe reached 11 Grand Slam Finals, of which he won 7. Lendl reached 19 Finals and won 8. McEnroe won 77 ATP titles in all; Lendl won 94. To Lendl’s slightly weightier overall singles career, McEnroe’s amazing doubles career provides an appropriate counterweight.
McEnroe retired at the end of the 1992 season. Lendl at the end of 1994.
They were almost exactly the same generation.
DIFFERENT CAREER ARCS
The reason why people think of them as belonging to different generations is not their ages, or their overall career spans, or even their gross achievements in the game. It is simply because they had different career arcs.
McEnroe burst out of the blocks early. As an 18-year old amateur, he made it through the qualifying at Wimbledon in 1977, and went all the way to the Semifinals, before he lost to Connors. It remains the best performance by a qualifier at any Grand Slam, and the best performance by an amateur in the Open Era.
Between 1977 and 1980, McEnroe quickly established himself amongst the top 2-3 players in the world (alongside Borg and Connors). He had memorable clashes with both, culminating in the pair of classic Wimbledon title clashes with Borg in 1980 and 1981. After a relatively fallow year in 1982, John McEnroe was unquestionably the #1 player in the world in 1983 and 1984, His 1984 remains one of the greatest calendar year performances in the Open Era.
|McEnroe and Borg|
Meanwhile, Lendl, a year younger, was in Mac’s rearview mirror. In 1978, when Mac was climbing up the senior rankings, Lendl was the World’s No. 1 Junior. Between 1980 and 1984, Lendl burnt up the track on the ATP tour. With Borg in his last playing days, and Connors going through a bit of a slump, Lendl set a series of ATP title records (> 10 titles in consecutive years, winning in 3 weeks on 3 different surfaces etc.), many of which were not equaled or surpassed till Roger Federer’s 2004-07.
But Lendl had a problem. All the success at the smaller tournaments did not translate into Grand Slam victories. In this period, he reached four Slam finals but lost them all. He lost to Borg at the French in five sets (fair enough), lost twice to Connors in front of a raucous NY crowd, lost in straights to Wilander at the Australian (then played on grass). The manner of his losses though was puzzling. The narrative was that when Lendl was pushed around, he folded, almost tanked. His Runner-Up trophies (especially at the US Open) were greeted with boos around the stadium.
The tables turned after 1984. McEnroe, after his wonderful year, took a 6-month break and was never the same force again. He won 7 Slam titles in his first 7 years, none in the next 8. Lendl won his first in 1984, and then went on to dominate the tour for much of the next 5-6 years, racking up another 7 Slams along the way.
Overall, their career Head to Head stood at 21-15 in favour of Lendl, neatly split into these two phases. At the end of 1984, it stood at 12-9 in favour of McEnroe; the remaining matches went 12-3 in favour of Lendl.
A BATTLE OF WILLS (AND A TURN OF THE TIDE)
Every great rivalry, to be truly great, needs that one special match. The keystone. Borg-Mac had it in those pair of Wimbledon Finals. Federer-Nadal ditto. Did Lendl-McEnroe produce something of that caliber?
Perhaps not in terms of sustained quality of play through five sets; but in terms of significance and drama, their French Open 1984 Final would certainly be considered one of the all-time great matches.
Roland Garros 1984 Final:
In 1984, McEnroe went 82 Wins – 3 Losses…and that’s till date the greatest win % in any calendar year in the Open Era. He started the year with 42 consecutive wins, and riding on that amazing form, reached the French Open Final. Those days, the French Open was considered a bit of a hoodoo for American players - the last American to win it was Tony Trabert in 1955. The Americans would say, ‘The French Open is where you catch a transatlantic flight, and then get beaten up by some European journeyman whose name you can’t pronounce, then you fly back home and get back to hard courts.”
And Lendl? Well, Lendl was in his fifth Slam Final, and he hadn’t won one yet.
The match started with McEnroe seemingly unperturbed by the weight of history, or the fact that clay was a surface that favoured Lendl’s game style. In just over an hour, McEnroe was up two sets (6-3, 6-2), and Lendl seemed doomed to his fifth consecutive finals loss, further cementing his reputation as a choker when it really mattered.
Then several things happened in that fateful third set. McEnroe’s frail genius suddenly took objection to the noise coming from a cameraman’s headset. He protested; the notoriously mercurial French crowd didn’t like it – they whistled and booed; Lendl picked up his game, there was a rain delay, and when they returned, McEnroe wasn’t happy with the court conditions….
(there’s an amazing documentary of this match which makes for a wonderful courtside viewing of McEnroe’s reaction after that rain delay)
Lendl won that third set 6-4, then went on to take the match in five, 7-5, 7-5 in the last two sets. That was Lendl’s first Slam, the loss that McEnroe till this day regards as his most painful (a match he probably - with good reason - feels was his to win), and a watershed in both their careers.
McEnroe continued his amazing 1984 season with wins at Wimbledon and at the US Open (over Lendl again in the final), but the balance of power shifted after that year.
A STUDY IN CONTRASTS
So much for the numbers and stats and timelines. What made Lendl-McEnroe a compelling rivalry was the total contrast between the two men.
John McEnroe was an utter genius on the tennis court (and I for one reserve the use of that word to very, very select situations). That unique game style, starting with a service action that no coach would ever recommend, that wonderful touch and feel for the ball at the net, the ability to coax the most unexpected geometries out of a moving ball—the capacity to overcome his decidedly below-par groundstrokes with his court craft and sense for the pattern of play…watching John McEnroe do what he did on a tennis court was somewhat akin to an out-of-body experience.
Genius, of course, came with its flaws. His notorious temper, poor on-court behavior, his tendency to bully umpires and tournament referees at a time when players had the upper hand (before the ATP reasserted its dominance), his spoilt-brat peevishness when things didn’t work out his way, his disdain for things such as fitness and out-of-court training…all of these came bundled in the package.
You could search long and hard before you came up with such an exact opposite as Lendl was. He didn’t have the divine gifts that McEnroe had; but what he had was an iron will and strength of purpose. And he put these to use in a way that changed men’s tennis forever. I would argue that in terms of the lasting impact on the way the men’s game is played (whether for good or bad), Lendl had the greater say.
Along with fellow Czech defector and pioneer Martina Navratilova in the women’s game, Lendl brought physical attributes center-stage. Realising that his poor Slam Finals performance were not due to lack of courage, but lack of fitness, Lendl went to work with that single-minded purpose he had. Pretty strokes and stunning angles were to be combated with foot-speed, stamina and power. At his peak, Lendl’s forehand was a weapon feared by everyone on tour. His capacity to absorb punishment and come back was equally legendary. Lendl was the first major player to deploy the power-baseline game that is today de rigeur on the men’s tour.
|Becker and Lendl|
Lendl’s attention to detail and his little innovations were so remarkable that everyone else adopted it to the point where it’s become standard. To take one example, watch players today carry a whole set of freshly strung rackets to court. One game before the umpire calls for new balls (which happens every 7 games after the start, and 9 games thereafter), they hop across and change to a freshly strung racket. Why? Because new balls are heavier and rackets lose string tension after every game played. So replacing rackets in-sync with ball changes allows pros to maintain the same relative feel for the ball throughout.
The first player to do this? Ivan Lendl.
He was the guy who carried sawdust in his pockets, for better grip. He was the guy who built a mansion in Connecticut, NJ, and every year, when the US Open resurfaced their hard courts (sometime in July / August), he got the same contractors to come over and lay down the exact same surface on his home courts. Guy reached eight US Open Finals in a row—no accident.
Both players also made it very clear that theirs was an intensely personal rivalry. When McEnroe and Lendl faced up, the audience knew they would get their money’s worth—whatever the outcome of the match, there would be no quarter asked, none given. When in one early match, McEnroe hit an average approach shot and advanced to the net, Lendl had no qualms aiming directly at McEnroe’s body. (He got him, too!). Told afterwards that it might be considered unsportsmanlike, Lendl shrugged. ‘He doesn’t want to get hit, what’s he doing at the net?’ was his reaction. And McEnroe never complained about it either.
So Mac and Lendl. The genius and the everyman. The native of Queens, glib trash-talking all-American and the dour Czech from beyond the Iron Curtain who struggled to handle routine questions at press conferences. The magician, fan-favourite vs. the man whose every move on court and off it seemed robotic, a cyborg from science fiction assembled to play the gentleman’s game. The serve-and-volleyer extraordinaire vs the power-baseliner. The ballet-artiste vs. the sergeant major at parade.
After Mac and Lendl retired in the early 90s, their paths diverged, and again the contrast in natures, temperaments and personalities showed in their choices.
McEnroe remained close to the game – playing doubles, coaching the US Davis Cup Team, as a commentator on the sports networks, involved with the USTA, writing autobiographies, playing veterans tennis, playing hit-and-giggle exhibitions, handing out trophies at some events. In an interesting turn of events, the man who was the poster boy for rebellion, the ultimate anti-establishment figure, himself became part of the establishment. As a commentator, his observations on the game remain sharp and insightful, though there is also a fair tendency bring up his days as a player at every given opportunity (to be fair, he’s not unique in this regard by any means), and also sometimes to shoot from the lip first and think later.
Lendl, on the other hand, disappeared from the tennis radar after his retirement. He raised his four daughters to be golf players, lived behind his Greenwich Mansion walls fiercely guarding his privacy with electric fencing and a number of Dobermanns. 17 years after he retired, Lendl’s announcement as Andy Murray’s coach, stunned the tennis world. The decision was an unusually astute one, for Andy Murray had the same problem that Lendl had faced – he had lost his first three Slam finals. With Lendl in his corner, Murray lost a fourth final, but then won his fifth (the 2011 US Open), matching his coach.
Last year’s Wimbledon Final (Murray vs. Raonic) provides the final nugget in this fascinating contrast between two genuine greats of the game. Then recently hired as Raonic’s coach, McEnroe’s influence in his ward’s game was immediately obvious—the improved net game, the softer touch, and the increased aggressiveness to add to Raonic’s already potent serve. Raonic beat Federer in the semis in five sets to reach a Slam Final for the first time.
McEnroe didn’t watch that match from the player’s box. The reason? He was already contracted as an expert commentator by ESPN, so he called the match from the media room. Lendl on the other hand, single-minded as always, sat alongside Judy Murray, grim-faced as ever, wrapped in a sweater. He glowered at Murray, at the linesmen, at the grass and at the spectators in between points; when he stretched his arms after Murray won the first set, it was the equivalent of many others doing a full war cry.
For the record, Murray won that match in straights, but I have no doubt Johnny Mac will be back, in some form or fashion, to take on his old nemesis, Ivan Lendl.
Sriram Subramanian is an Engineer from IIT Roorkee and an MBA from IIM Calcutta. After a decade working in management consulting and corporate organisations, Sriram founded Mind Matters in 2006, which is today one of India’s leading corporate training firms.
Sriram has been closely associated with the world of sport in various capacities—as a player for his University, as a fan of multiple sports since the early 80s, as an analyst and sports writer for the Mumbai DNA and most recently as a tennis parent.
Sriram’s first novel, ‘Rain – A Survivor’s Tale’ was published in 2016 and received popular and critical acclaim. Sriram is married to Shilpa Gupta, his classmate from IIT Roorkee, also an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, ex-investment banker and the author of two novels: ‘Ananya: A Bittersweet Journey’ and ‘Double or Quits’. Their sons, Aditya and Ritwik were National and State Ranked tennis players respectively. Sriram lives in Pune.
You can purchase ‘Center Court’, a thrilling fictional story of an Indian players run at Wimbledon here.