I began watching tennis in 1982. That's too bad, really, because Bjorn Borg had just taken his "sabbatical". He left the game at 26, claiming he was burned out. Borg had won Wimbledon five times in a row, on a surface he should have had no chance on---grass. Borg was the consummate clay courter. He could twenty, thiry, forty topspin shots in a row. He was a quick mover, and ran down shot after shot after shot. It was said that Borg was a machine. He didn't pout. He didn't react.
John McEnroe, in many ways, was his opposite. He was temperamental. He served and volleyed. He relied on touch, and a wicked left-handed serve. Tennis had never quite seen, nor I suspect, may ever see a talent like McEnroe. It's true that, in today's world of power tennis, McEnroe would simply be outhit. But in his day, he could play with the big boys.
Borg played a historical match to win his fifth Wimbledon. Having lost the fourth set tiebreak 18-16. Realize that tiebreaks in tennis is the first to 7 points, with a lead of two, and you can imagine at what fever-pitch this tiebreak went. Momentum should have shifted to McEnroe, who dodged a bullet. Yet, Borg hung tough, and would not lose serve in the fifth, ultimately winning it 8-6 in the fifth.
McEnroe was to gain his revenge twice. Later that summer, in the US Open, Borg would lose to McEnroe in five sets. Although Borg had his chances, his best chance was perhaps the previous year, where he had the misfortune of facing Roscoe Tanner, perhaps the hardest server on the tour. Had he managed to beat him, he would have played his good buddy Vitas Gerulaitis. He and Vitas would play some twenty times, and Vitas won...what? Never? Never. That would have been the semifinals. He would have met McEnroe in the finals, who was then, just brand new, just making good on his talent that he displayed with a qualifier to semifinal appearance at Wimbledon in 1977 (losing to Connors).
McEnroe would beat Borg in four sets at Wimbledon, the following year, in 1981, and would beat him again at the US Open. Borg never won the US Open.
I began watching tennis in 1982. By that point, Borg was semi-retired. One player that was seeking to be the new Borg was a Czech player, Ivan Lendl. Although people compared Lendl to Borg, they were quite different.
Borg was the best of the steady baseliners that began to dominate tennis in the mid to late 70s. Players of this mold included Guillermo Vilas, Jose Luis Clerc, and Harold Solomon. They were steady, steady players, who beat you by waiting for you to make mistakes. With their heavy topspin strokes, they could keep the ball in play, hitting hard, yet, hardly missing. Connors, by contrast, hit a flat shot, with the ball barely skimming the net, and was prone to errors, if the rallies lasted twenty or more shots. Only a player like Borg could hit that consistently against Connors.
Lendl, on the other hand, ushered in a new era of players, that included the likes of Becker, Agassi, and Sampras. He had a power forehand that had to be seen to be believed. Make no mistake, Borg had a good forehand, and he could pin you back with his forehand, and he passed as well as anyone, but he didn't hit winners like Lendl could. In the late 70s, there were few players that could hit winners past you from the baseline, while you were at the baseline too.
Lendl could do that. Even better, he had a monstrous serve. He would toss the ball some ten feet up, and could ace you left and right. He wasn't exactly Kevin Curren, nor was he McEnroe, but that serve was close to being in their league.
Early in his career, he made a habit of beating McEnroe. He would intimidate McEnroe, until McEnroe would stay back, and try to trade baseline shots. Bad idea. Lendl was too good at that. Yet, Lendl struggled against Connors. Connors could deal with Lendl's serve, and match pace for pace with Lendl. It took Lendl until the late 80s before he figured out a reliable way to beat Connors. Soft slice shots, and slow the pace. Connors worked best if you gave him pace. Not so well, if you pitty pat him. This was the strategy Arthur Ashe used to beat Connors at Wimbledon in 1975 , except Ashe, being a serve and volleyer, did volleys some too.
Lendl had a remarkable record at the US Open, appearing in every final from 1982 to 1990. He appeared in every final of the Masters from 1981 to 1990. As good as he was, he often faced someone who was better that day. If Lendl had the winning percentage of Sampras, he'd go down as the best player the game had ever produced. He might have won nine US Opens in a row.
Yet, he lost to Pat Cash and Boris Becker and Mats Wilander and Pete Sampras, not to mention Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe.
Lendl didn't have many fans. In a world where beauty brings money and fans, Lendl was an ugly man. People said he played like a robot. He didn't have the dashing looks of Borg. And, he became increasingly irasicble. Learning from McEnroe, he would complain, he would delay games by taking full breaks between points.
Yet, when you look at the modern crop of players, they owe far more to Lendl than they do to McEnroe. People admired McEnroe, but few imitated him. Few could. Lendl was the first of the big forehands. Players like Courier, Agassi, Krickstein, Arias would follow in that mold.
After years of success, Lendl had but one obsession in tennis, and it consumed him. Winning Wimbledon. He reached the finals twice, and semifinals numerous times. This for a man who claimed at the beginning of his career that Wimbledon was only fit for cows. He hired serve-and-volleyer Aussie, Tony Roche, to coach him, and learned to volley after a fashion.
No one I can recall has ever made a similar commitment. Lendl was not a natural serve and volleyer. He never became one. Yet, his effort did pay dividends. He looked much better as a volleyer after years of practice. What eventually hurt him, ironically enough, was that he didn't try it out often enough. He reserved his serve and volley play to grass tournaments which he might play three times a year.
He needed to serve and volley on the hard courts too, yet, due to the need to keep his rankings up, he went and played baseline tennis. Had he truly committed to playing serve and volley year-round, he may have made the most complete transformation of any player, ever.
Look at a player like Venus. She's tall. She serves hard. She even plays doubles. But she rarely serves and volleys. She's like most modern players of today. Hits from the baseline, and comes in as necessary.
Fans should have respected Lendl more. He did as much as he could with the talent he had. He wasn't untalented, but he tried to control as many elements as he could, from diet to workout to training to travel schedule. Most fans are like that. They'll never be great at tennis. But they could have learned a thing or two from Lendl, who did the best he could with what he could do.
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