Lendl first came to the tennis world’s attention as an outstanding junior player. In 1978, he won the boys’ singles titles at both the French Open and Wimbledon and was ranked the world no. 1 junior player.
Lendl made an almost immediate impact on the game after turning professional. After reaching his first top-level singles final in 1979, he won seven singles titles in 1980, including three tournament wins in three consecutive weeks on three different surfaces. The success continued in 1981, as he won 10 titles, including his first season-ending Masters Grand Prix tour title, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis in five sets.
In 1982, he won 15 of the 23 singles tournaments he entered and had a 44-match winning streak.
He competed on the separate World Championship Tennis (WCT) tour, where he won all 10 WCT tournaments he entered, including winning his first WCT Finals, where he defeated John McEnroe in straight sets. He met McEnroe again in the Masters Grand Prix final and won in straight sets to claim his second season-ending championship of that particular tour. In an era when tournament prize money was rising sharply due to the competition between two circuits (Grand Prix and WCT), Lendl’s haul of titles quickly made him the highest-earning tennis player of all time.
He won another seven tournaments in 1983, however, Grand Slam titles eluded Lendl in the early years of his career. He reached his first Grand Slam final at the French Open in 1981, where he lost in five sets to Björn Borg. His second came at the US Open in 1982, where he was defeated by Jimmy Connors. In 1983, he was the runner-up at both the Australian Open and the US Open.
Lendl’s first Grand Slam title came at the 1984 French Open, where he defeated John McEnroe in a long final to claim what was arguably his best victory. Down two sets to love and later trailing 4–2 in the fourth set, Lendl battled back to claim the title 3–6, 2–6, 6–4, 7–5, 7–5. McEnroe gained a measure of revenge by beating Lendl in straight sets in both finals of the US Open 1984 and Volvo Masters 1984 (played in January 1985).
Lendl lost in the final of the 1985 French Open to Mats Wilander. He then faced McEnroe again in the final of the US Open, and this time it was Lendl who emerged victorious in a straight-sets win. It was the first of three consecutive US Open titles for Lendl and part of a run of eight consecutive US Open finals. He reached the WCT Finals for the second and last time, defeating Tim Mayotte in three sets. Success continued when he also took the Masters Grand Prix title for the third time, defeating Boris Becker in straight sets.
In 1986 and 1987, he added wins in the French Open to his U.S Open victories, including the season-ending 1986 and 1987 Masters Grand Prix championship titles, where he defeated Boris Becker (86) in straight sets and Mats Wilander (87) in three sets. This took him to his fifth and last Grand Prix year-end tour title.
During each of the years from 1985 through 1987, Lendl’s match winning percentage was greater than 90%. This record was equalled by Roger Federer in 2006. Lendl, however, remains the only male tennis player with at least 90% match wins in five different years (1982 was the first, 1989 the last). From the 1985 US Open through the 1988 Australian Open, Lendl reached ten consecutive Grand Slam singles semifinals—a record that was broken by Federer at the 2006 US Open.
1989 was another very strong year for Lendl. He started the year by capturing his first Australian Open title with a straight sets final victory over Miloslav Mečíř and went on to claim 10 titles out of 17 tournaments he entered. Lendl successfully defended his Australian Open title in 1990.
The only Grand Slam singles title Lendl never managed to win was Wimbledon. After reaching the semifinals in 1983 and 1984, he reached the final there twice, losing in straight sets to Boris Becker in 1986 and Pat Cash in 1987. In the years that followed, Lendl put in intensive efforts to train and hone his game on grass courts. However, despite reaching the Wimbledon semifinals again in 1988, 1989, and 1990, he never again reached the final.
Lendl was part of the team that won Czechoslovakia’s Davis Cup title in 1980. He was the driving force behind the country’s team in the first half of the 1980s, but stopped playing in the event after he moved to the United States in 1986 because, in the eyes of communist Czechoslovakia’s Tennis Association, he was an “illegal defector” from their country.
Lendl was also part of the Czechoslovakian team that won the World Team Cup in 1981 and was runner-up in 1984 and 1985.
Lendl’s success in the game was due in large part to his meticulous and intensive training and physical conditioning regime, his scientific approach to preparing for and playing the game, and a strong desire to put in whatever it took to be successful. It is believed that a contributing factor to his run of eight successive US Open finals and long record of success at that tournament was that he hired the same workers who laid the hardcourt surfaces at Flushing Meadows each year to install an exact copy in the grounds of his home in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Lendl announced his retirement from professional tennis on December 21, 1994, due to chronic back pain. Although he did not play any official match following his defeat in the second round of the US Open in 1994, Lendl’s final decision to retire came only three and a half months later.
Lendl won a total of 94 career singles titles listed by the ATP (plus 49 other non-ATP tournaments, thus making a total of 144 singles titles) and 6 doubles titles, and his career prize money of U.S. $21,262,417 was a record at the time. In 2001, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
After finishing his tennis career, Lendl took up golf, earning a handicap of 0 and organizing a charity competition in 2004 called the “Ivan Lendl Celebrity Golf Tournament”.
Lendl’s professional attitude, modern playing style, scientific training methods, and unprecedented long-term success have had a considerable impact on today’s tennis world. A typical Lendl quote is: “If I don’t practice the way I should, then I won’t play the way that I know I can.”
On April 10, 2010, Ivan Lendl returned to play his first tournament since his 1994 retirement from tennis. He played in the Caesars Tennis Classic exhibition match in Atlantic City, New Jersey, against his rival from the late 1980s, Mats Wilander. He lost the one-set match 3-6.
On February 28, 2011, Lendl returned to the court again in an exhibition match with John McEnroe at Madison Square Garden. It was planned to be a one-set, first-to-eight event. However, McEnroe, leading 6–3, injured his ankle and had to retire from the match.
Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday …salutes Ivan Lendl.