It almost seemed scripted: the tempestuous, innately-talented American net-rusher taking on the stoic, methodical Czech baseliner. The contrasts between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl made the two players perfect foils. For a dozen years, totaling 36 matches, they battled each other for Slams and most importantly: bragging rights. The stakes were high, the tennis was exceptional, and the scene very ’80s. The two developed a mutual distaste as juniors which grew into healthy, and open, animosity as professionals. Unlike the top players of today, who harbor little resentment toward one another, these two would rather take a bullet than leave one of their matches the loser (check out above video). As much as the quality of their play, or the intensity of their encounters, that disdain was what made the rivalry so riveting. Everybody applauds sportsmanship, but they want to see bad blood.
McEnroe and Lendl have since buried the hatchet (in a very shallow grave). Time has a way of softening old grudges; as does the cash the two will make serving as the undercard for Sampras-Agassi at the BNP Paribas Showdown Monday night at MSG. Tennis, more than most sports, likes to honor its past greats with curtain calls well past their primes. Upon retiring Lendl hung up his racquets for 15 years; McEnroe never left. For Baby Boomers and the nostalgia set, watching the 50-somethings return to the stage will be a special event, even if they struggle to deliver their lines.
During the pair’s playing days their feud was unusual in that neither guy could wear the white hat. McEnroe’s unapologetic tirades and outsized ego earned him the “brat” label; Lendl’s cold, ruthless precision made it seem as though there was a microchip in his head. While fans took sides, and in the U.S. it was mostly McEnroe’s, there was no clear-cut good guy. It was like a Tarantino film – minus the potential for gunfire, sword play, or obscure ’70s music.
Here’s a look at the tale-of-the-tape:
Handedness: Lefty Righty
Preferred tactic: Serve-and-volley Bludgeoning ground strokes
Influences: Rod Laver Ivan Drago
Training regimen: Doubles and Studio 54 Monkish dedication
Best friend on tour: Vitas Gerulaitis Whoever cuts the winner’s check
On-court habit: Eviscerating linesmen Picking sawdust from his eyelashes
Favorite quote: “You cannot be serious.” “I must break you.”
Dating habits: Hollywood actresses Teenagers
Supporters call him: Tormented genius The Terminator
Detractors call him: A New Yorker Binary code
Enduring legacy: Wood racquet advocate Big serve-big forehand combo
Karmic payback: More famous as announcer Five daughters
By winning five Slams before Lendl won his first, McEnroe had the better opening act to his career. He famously bragged that he had more talent in his pinkie than Lendl had in his whole body. But it was Lendl who would eventually own the head-to-head with McEnroe (21-15) and the superior resume. The sea-change in the rivalry came in the 1984 Roland Garros finals when McEnroe choked a two-set lead, gifting Lendl his first Slam title. McEnroe got his revenge that summer at the US Open, but that was his last season on top; going forward it was Lendl’s world. In an Esquire interview in 1987, McEnroe let everyone know how he felt about it:
“The guy hasn’t been good for tennis. He’s been so selfish. And he’s certainly not the kind of guy who brings out the best in others. He’s hurt the popularity of the game so much…Do you like a robot being No.1?”
That same year Lendl said this to USA Today:
“I think Connors believes he has to hate everybody he plays [in order] to play better, and McEnroe hates just about everyone who can beat him. He used to hate Jimmy Connors and me. Now he has to hate the top 50.”
Ah, the good old days. That was then, this is now: