When Lleyton Hewitt nearly decapitated Frenchman Moncourt at the net during an early round at the French Open, I smiled to myself and thought of Ivan Lendl. He would have appreciated that attempt. Lendl was always up for giving an opponent a “fuzz sandwich” at the net, as Bud Collins termed it. Or emergency dental surgery, if you have even more of a sense of humor, or how about plastic surgery on the run?
Now I almost miss those days throughout much of the 80s when I would be yelling at this guy on my TV screen. Who was going to be his next crush job on court, and was there anybody who could pulverize him for a change? And why did he have to be nearly the fittest thing around at that time?
But I never requested of Ivan that he be a nicer guy. Because what we loved about Lendl – such as we can capably love the guy – is that he was not the nicest man.
Baleful is the word that perhaps best conjures up the essence of Ivan. Particularly when he gazed at you over the net as he prepared to serve. This is one of my favorite moments in tennis, at least in the Intimidation Department. That stare down some guys give you when they are ready to serve. Roger and Rafa do it, but it’s more a look to see where you are, just checking things out. With Hewitt, there is more the flavor of “Yeah, I’m fixing you with a stare, gonna do something about it?” Kiefer relies on looks a lot too, but I don’t even want to ponder what takes place in that head.
Lendl was always the master of Filthy Looks. You felt he’d rip your heart out and send it gift-wrapped to your mom on Mother’s Day.
Lendl’s trademark was partly that ferociously competitive spirit, as well as a keen interest in fitness. He was as tough at shaping his body as he was on crushing opponents. It said something to me personally that Lendl, in his other life, wanted to ride in the Tour de France. For a tennis player to aspire to that I thought was impressive. Usually tennis players are more on the wimpy side when it comes to serious suffering in training. Cycling would be way way out in left field for most of the tennis pack. They’re not into suffering like that. That’s why they’re playing on a tennis court instead.
But Ivan wanted that kind of physical intensity. In his training and on the court. You always got a bill when you played Lendl. He paid, he figured you should too.
What ever happened to the Iron Man of tennis, I wondered. I knew he had married the long-haired brunette, Samantha, whose beauty graced the Players Box for many a tournament, next to Coach Roche. He had retired somewhere in the green expanse of Connecticut, and rarely, if ever, did he venture forth to take up anything at all regarding tennis.
Then my mom sends me an article from the May 15, 2006 issue of the New Yorker. Cut and Paste is a literal thing with my ancient mom. I get five pages of a story all about Ivan Lendl and his family. It seems that Ivan the Terrible has…well, gone into the girly business.
You see, Ivan ended up having daughters. Five of them. Lord have mercy. So God has a sense of humor after all, and rewarded Lendl with daughters. I chortled with glee when I heard this. What a perfect fate!
But then I started reading about these daughters, and it appears they are indeed ferocious chips off the old block themselves. But not in tennis. Three of the girls are already well advanced in the game of golf, and looking to weave as much destruction over the LPGA tour as their father did in his game.
The article is quite interesting as a look into the competitive psyches of up and coming female golf players, but it also reveals how Lendl as father has passed on to them some wise and trenchant expertise.
One part of us could look at the family (I hesitate to use the term, “The Brood,” but it’s somewhere close by) as an extension of Lendl’s own controlling personality. He wanted to win, at any cost. These girls do too.
The article points out that the girls took up tennis when they were younger, but for some reason they segued into golf. No reason offered. I would have been curious as to their reasons for giving it up, but maybe it is nothing more mysterious than that their father loved golf too and now spends a lot of time playing the game. You would have hoped though that Lendl could have channeled one or two of them at least our way, given the sad paucity of rising new female tennis players in this country. We need all the babes we can get.
But golf it is. And golf on the women’s side is probably getting as physical as the men’s game. Everyone’s gymming themselves to death nowadays, and before long a few female players other than Michelle Wie are going to be knocking the ball 300 yards off the tee.
Ivan’s girls started off shoving each other out of the way in their haste to beat their siblings to the top of the stairs. Never mind that they are barely past toddler stage at this point. For Lendl as father, it was important that they all learn to compete early on. It may not even have been his intention to direct them into golf; he seems to feel that competition is the staff of life, and they will need to learn it anyway.
My co-writer, Nina Rota, has discussed this Lendl story with me. She feels he is the ultimate control freak. Alright, I tend to agree. But in among the rather cold calculations, I find the hints of a personality truly invested in giving his children the best start possible. He is trying to inculcate an awareness in them, a sense of taking responsibility for their lives and their games.
Most importantly, I feel, Lendl is aware of how his own role should be in all of this.
He says, “There is a time–which is a very hard time to pinpoint, I think-when the parent must step back. I’m trying to make sure that I’m not too early, so that the girls are not lost, and not too late, so that I’m not in the way. I think that when Earl Woods stepped back a little bit was when Tiger really took off as a golfer. It’s a delicate balance.”
Delicate indeed, and one not often recognized in time.
The article features an illuminating photo of Lendl and the three older daughters who are nearly ready to take their golfing act now on the road. All standing at the edge of a forest. They’re holding golf clubs and look ready to play. They’re looking at the camera with intent looks. Determined but wary. Like a family of large, feral cats, ready to pounce from out of this forest. It seems a profoundly anti-Rousseau moment.
Hhmmm, what would have happened had Ivan had five boys instead?
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