Skip to main content

On the other side of the six-foot fence with the sign on the gate of a dog baring its fangs and the camera eyeing anyone who approaches it, beyond the six German shepherds patrolling the yard, inside the stone mansion electronically protected by two alarm systems—one that screams if any door or window is touched, another of invisible beams that detects any movement inside the house—is a 26-year-old Czechoslovakian living the American dream.

To achieve this he has traveled 4,000 miles from mother and motherland and spent so much time playing and thinking about tennis that he conquered the other 1,500 professionals in his business. Now he has freedom. Now he has control. "You see," he says. "Nothing bothers me here."

One day the invisible beams in the house were broken, the alarm system shrieked, the six dogs barked wildly and chaos came to the house of Ivan Lendl. A small bird had come in through the chimney.

In Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, an industrial city 10 miles from the Polish border, it was dinner time at the Lendls.

"Jez mrkev. Jez hrach," snapped Olga Lendlova. "Eat your peas. Eat your carrots."

Ivan bowed his head. The peas and carrots grew cold. Olga looked furiously at her husband, shoved back her chair and reached for the timer. What was it with this only child of hers? Why did almost everything between them become a struggle for control? When she tried to coach him on the tennis court, they argued, and she stomped away. When he played poorly he often burst into tears or stopped running down shots, and she told him to leave the court. Once, when he wouldn't eat just before she was about to play for the Czech national title, she accused him of trying to upset her so she would lose.

She set the timer for 10 minutes, and both parents left the room. How had it come to this, the same scene over and over at the dinner table, the cold vegetables and the anger and the ticking timer, and the little boy sitting alone, trying to decide whether to eat the vegetables and appease her or assert his freedom and be punished?

"Did you eat all of them?" she called from the other room. "Ivan, you have to eat all of them." She used to hit him with her left hand when he talked back, until her watch broke. Then she always remembered to hit him with her right.

Stand back. Don't touch me. Don't raise your arm," the world's best tennis player is telling the first journalist ever allowed on his property. "Don't make any sudden move. And don't stare at him in the eyes. He will take that as a challenge. Now stand against the house and stay there."

Gripped in both of Lendl's hands is a leather leash. At the end of the leash is a 105-pound German shepherd named Viky, the prize of his pack, capable of attacking on command. Lendl leads the animal to the obstacle course in his backyard, watching proudly as it responds to his commands to climb the ladder, walk the plank and spring over a wooden barrier three times its height.

"If he did not do all those things correctly he would stay out there until he did," Lendl says fiercely. "There can be no loopholes. He must know that when he receives a command from me, he has to do it."

In the eighth year of Lendl's life, a breeze blew across his country. Bold books and newspaper articles were published. Economic reform and personal freedom were on the lips of politicians, street sweepers and cabdrivers. Entertainers muzzled for years by the Communist party gave free performances to the giddy applause of the people.

On the eastern border, the Soviet Union became uneasy. Didn't the Czechs know there were no loopholes? In the summer of 1968, the Czech government was ordered to control its writers and artists, to reconsider its reforms.

The timer was set now, the seconds ticking. The directives sat on the table, growing cold. Should the Czechs assert themselves and be punished or appease the Soviets and give in?

The reformers kept pushing, the breeze blew stronger. During the blackness of early morning on Aug. 21, like cockroaches moving on a dark kitchen, 275,000 Warsaw Pact troops and thousands of tanks crawled across Czechoslovakia. They ringed the houses of the Czech leaders. "You have to do what we command," they said.

Riding a train home from his grandparents' house that day, Ivan saw the tanks. He looked to his mother's face to understand how to feel. Very few feelings were ever written there. He rode home in silent confusion.

Last fall, Ivan Lendl became the dominant player in tennis. By the end of 1986, his ninth year on the circuit, he will exceed $9 million in prize money and probably replace John McEnroe as the greatest moneymaker in the history of men's tennis. He owned the 15,000-square-foot house in Greenwich, Conn., a nearby 45-acre lot, where he would soon build a new estate, a $4.5 million estate and a condominium in Florida, an apartment in Manhattan, two Mercedes and a Porsche. He seemed to have such complete control of his life that he needed one way to risk it, to test its submission, to remind himself how good that control truly felt. Down thrust his right foot, pinning the accelerator to the rug while his eyes flitted from the red needle to the road to the twitches of the person next to him. He has been stopped by police for traveling 130 mph on a 55 mph road.

"Slow down," his passengers beg. "Please."

"What's the matter?" he says with an impish grin. "I only go 120—the car has 40 more miles per hour to go." Chuckle. "Don't worry. I have it under control."

One day two years ago, a squirrel scampered across a country road near Greenwich, a golden retriever dashed after it and a platinum Porsche skidded on the wet leaves. Lendl hadn't expected that. The car smashed into a tree—totaled—and Lendl's head was hurled into the steering wheel. He staggered away with a deep gash on his chin, so shaken he called his agent three times and repeated what had happened.

One day, just after the Russians thought they had restored control in Czechoslovakia, they were surprised to find their supply trains delayed by railroad workers, street signs torn down, thousands of young people sitting in front of their tanks, and 100,000 of the brightest and strongest minds in the country forever gone.

One day when Lendl's chiropractor—a 29-year-old Long Island woman named Deborah Kleinman-Cindrich—was adjusting his ribs, his prize German shepherd began growling at her. "Ne, Viky!" said Lendl. "Don't worry. He is under control." All at once Kleinman-Cindrich was screaming, the dog was upon her, snapping at her belly, shredding the top of her pants, and Lendl was leaping from the massage table, shouting and yanking at the gnashing dog, his eyes wide with disbelief.

And one day when he was 14, Lendl and his mother were tied at 4-4. She wasn't worried—it was her serve, and he had never beaten her before. She was in command. "It was a weekend," he remembers. "It was Court Number Four. It was before lunch. She was serving, and all of a sudden I blew it by her four straight times, I just overpowered her, then I held my serve to win. She said nothing. I couldn't wait to get home to tell my father. I was grinning from ear to ear."

Twelve years later, as he is telling the story, he is still grinning from ear to ear.

The public never saw Lendl grin. In a sport that had exploded in the 1970s on the gunpowder of personality, Lendl had none. For most of his career he parked himself on the baseline, hammered those air-singeing forehands until his opponent buckled, collected his prize money, exchanged a few sarcastic volleys with the media and disappeared behind the six-foot fence.

In some human beings containment creates mystique, the unstated draws us in. In Lendl's case, neither happened. He confirmed our Communist caricature of the gray, stiff automaton. In neither the movement of his muscles nor the flicker of his eyes could one sense any imagination, any playfulness, any reason to want to pry into him further.

One thing haunted him and comforted those whom he chilled. Lendl couldn't win the big one. Squirrels dart in front of Porsches, teenagers sit in front of tanks, dogs attack when they are ordered to sit. In the finals of the four major tournaments each year, the moment the tide turned against him, the tennis player so in control lost all grip on himself. Lonely and stiff he stood, an alien in a rainstorm with all the street signs torn down, as more instinctive players threw back their heads and let their feet lead them home. Many accused him of sport's darkest sin: He gave up.

In the U.S. Open final during last September something changed. Trailing in the first set, he didn't stiffen. He let go. He ventured off the baseline, he pumped his fist after hitting cross-court winners, he overwhelmed McEnroe and the crowd. He went on a 54-wins-in-56-matches tear, became acknowledged as the king of tennis and permitted himself now and then to smile and make small talk. The gate on his life opened, just a crack, and a little of the breeze wafted in.

One of the major things missing from the childhood of Ivan Lendl was a childhood. Logic and order ruled his home. His father, Jiri, was a lawyer for the government, a chess master and once ranked 15th in the country in tennis. He would listen to his son, look at the boy's scrap-book filled with pictures of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall and tell him stories during dinner. If his son stopped chewing his food, the stories would stop in mid-sentence.

His mother was No. 2 among Czech women, with a burn to be No. I. She played tennis and kept house with an equally grim resolve. "Ivan's father was ready to bow when he was met by a stronger opponent, but I never did," says Olga Lendlova. "My adversary had to exhaust me totally and win." Once, unable to walk just before entering the hospital for surgery on torn cartilage in her knee, she bit back the pain and cleaned the apartment on her knees.

Many years later, her son still couldn't understand that she could give him only the one gift she had. "I knew she was different from other kids' mothers," he says. "Sometimes I wished I had brothers and sisters so she had someone else to pick on besides me. Even if I was only coming home for an hour, I had to change from my street clothes to my home clothes, hang everything up and then change again. I wanted her to be softer to me. Sometimes I'd try to clean the apartment or wash the dishes on my own, but she still didn't show it."

Maybe, just maybe, on a tennis court. At 1 p.m., his mother came home from her job as a secretary and after lunch they walked the five minutes to the NHKG Ostrava Tennis Club. When he was very young she tied a cord around his waist, lashed him to the tennis post and practiced until the sun wouldn't let her. Vlasta Vopickova, sister of Czech tennis star Jan Kodes and ranked No. 1 among the women, was more talented. But surely hard work and repetition, surely order and willpower, could overcome nature.

Learning to sit, to stand, to walk—all of them—took her son longer to do than other children. Relentlessly he began to bang an old ball off a wall with a wooden paddle. A question grew inside him, far too dark and confusing then for him to assemble into words: "I'm sure she had to think, 'I could have been great if not for this baby,' " he says.

He got his first racket at six and spent every spare moment on a court, struggling to understand why the same piece of stringed wood that obeyed his command on the forehand could suddenly, on the backhand, rebel. His mother would try to show him, and he too would mutiny. "She'd say, 'I said to do it this way,' " he recalls. "I'd say, 'But I did! She'd start screaming. She'd punish me by walking away."

His temper shocked his parents. "Emotions don't help you," his father, Jiri, lectured. "Never show your opponent that you are upset."

"If you're going to cry," said his mother, "go home."

"But I hated when I lost," says Lendl. "Even playing table soccer against my father, I cried and threw my player on the table when I lost, and he wouldn't play with me for a long time. I cried so much when I lost points in tennis I couldn't see the ball. Sometimes I dragged my feet. My mother, she fought like a dog on a tennis court, she never gave up. Never. Ever. To her, the worst thing I could do was give up."

She could punish him by kicking him off the court or stomping away. He could punish her by not trying. Neither, perhaps, was conscious of the weapons they chose. The next day he'd be back, grimly taming his racket, glancing now and then at his parents' faces for a hint of a smile.

"During a match," says his father, "we taught him not to look our way. If he did, we turned, showing no reaction whatsoever." At the end of the match, sure as sweat, came his parents' analysis of his play. There had to be a reason for every failure, something you could put your finger on and control. Don't rush the net so often, they told their overanxious son. Don't make yourself so vulnerable.

By age nine he was traveling in trains and cars to tournaments in other towns, his parents usually unable to come because of their jobs. The feeling intoxicated him. "I could order steak or pancakes as often as I wanted," he remembers. "I didn't have to eat any vegetables at all."

He was the national champion of his age group by his 12th year. The trips away from home increased, and so did the need for them. He had become a skinny, shy teenager—Nit, the boys called him, the Czech word for thread—whose skin was sprinkled with rashes in the spring. His feet weren't quick enough for soccer, his head flinched from the puck when he played hockey. Girls frightened him. In a high school dance class, he took an awkward step, caught his foot in his partner's dress and watched in horror as it ripped. He didn't dance again.

His mind was sharp and logical—English would one day become his sixth language—and his teachers permitted him to skip classes so he could practice six hours a day. At 15, the Czechoslovak Tennis Federation sent him to Florida for six weeks of tennis. The gleam of the supermarkets, the size of the buildings and cars, the haste and independence of the people—everything about America frightened and attracted him. In Ostrava in winter it was virtually impossible to steal an hour on the city's one indoor court. In Florida the days were all warm, the courts were all over, the bounces all true and the future all Ivan Lendl's.

Back in Czechoslovakia, the national coach was trying to change his forehand. His mother was still trying to change his socks. His father was trying to change his mind about not going to college. An angry ground stroke that kicked up white chalk was the only way he knew to overcome all of them.

Lendl entered the Czech army but was permitted to fulfill his two-year obligation clutching a racket instead of a rifle. He decided in his 18th year to enter a pro tournament in Austria. In his country that was not a decision a young man could make on his own. The Czech Tennis Federation voted that he must play in the amateur Galea Cup in France instead, with the deciding vote cast by one of the board's most logical and respected members—Ivan Lendl's father.

Now father and fatherland were blurring—why did everyone have such a need to tell him what to do? He played and promptly lost to a forgettable French player named Pascal Portes. The next year, when he was asked to play in the Galea Cup again, he withdrew with an ankle injury just before the match.

"My father said I pulled out because I was afraid to play Yannick Noah," he says. "I will never forgive him for that. I know that mentality. That's Czech mentality."

In Czechoslovakia you are one of 15 million heads of cattle," says Anton Cermak. "All you think about is how to survive, how to be a little more comfortable. Once you cross the border, you are an absolute individual."

Cermak, a free-lance photographer in Australia, one of the 100,000 bright and strong minds that fled Czechoslovakia, understands his friend Ivan Lendl. "The problem for people who migrate from East to West is they bring ties," he adds. "Their ties tie their hands and their brains. There can be no nostalgia."

No nostalgia, no regret, no emotion. The more a man was controlled, the more he must control in order to break free. Years later, Lendl's friends in America would be surprised at how little he talked about the old country and the old life. Why should he? he wondered. A careful man might be able to influence the minute in front of him, but he could never influence the one behind.

During his first few years on the pro tour, the Czech Tennis Federation kept calling him back to play in club matches before 20 or 30 people, and his parents kept calling him to come home. Back there, he could only feel the guilt that a lifted head feels amid bowed ones. He needed to break cleanly with the past, and yet the new world in the West made him feel almost as helpless as a day spent at home. He needed a master, someone else who had closed his eyes for a moment, drew in his breath and made the leap. Wojtek Fibak, a Polish-born player eight years older, who had recently bought a stone mansion in Greenwich, Conn., saw a gangly, sad-faced boy from the tour sitting in the stands at all of Fibak's matches. They became friends. "I began to plan his schedule," says Fibak. "I began to practice with him. I told him he couldn't be like me. I was too soft. I worried if other people were happy. You can't be that way if you want to be great. He ended up taking it too far. He listened blindly to everything I said."

In Czechoslovakia, children live in their parents' home until they marry, and often until they die. "It's too inconvenient to get to the tournaments from there," he told his mother and father just before moving into Fibak's Greenwich home—and what he said was true.

The leap shook him at first. Who more than a lonely man in a strange land feels vulnerability, and who more than Ivan Lendl was bent on feeling none? Slowly, cautiously, the building of the bubble began. With Fibak to screen the outside world—to meet the press, to negotiate with promoters, to explain tax laws and table manners, Lendl could stay very still, watching and duplicating, making sure he did everything correctly before he risked it in public. The unexpected became his enemy. He left a 1981 tournament in Houston, crimson and shaking, when the interviewer's first question was "Are you going to defect?" and an older player screamed at him for not knowing to tip the locker room attendant.

Very little came naturally to him—he had to subdue it by repetition and logic. No detail could be overlooked. To lose might mean returning to his mother and motherland's glare. He found out which balls were going to be used a few weeks before major tournaments and practiced only with them. He bought a house and had his private tennis court surfaced by the same company that did the U.S. Open courts, so he could duplicate every bounce without ever having to venture beyond the six-foot fence. He invited practice partners to his home who played with the same hand and style as the player he feared most in the next tournament. He collected videotapes of his opponents' matches, kept a file on each and charted the frequency of their shots.

He experimented until he knew that if he felt nervous he should switch from a racket strung at 72.5 pounds of tension to one at 73.5 for better control. After each rally, like a violinist tuning his instrument, he fingered the strings until every little square was perfect.

He'd be sure not to call for the balls most recently played—those balls might still be larger from being hit, and he wanted the smallest possible bullet to load into the rifle barrel of his first serve. Before serving, his ritual never varied. He rotated two balls in his left hand again and again, with an almost Queegish compulsion, stopped to study them, rotated them and studied them once more. Then he tucked the larger one in his left pocket for the second serve, wiped his forehead with his wide wristbands, took a handful of sawdust from his pocket, swiped it twice across his suede grip, positioned his feet two inches behind the baseline, bounced the ball four times for first serve, three times for second (twice and once at Wimbledon, because of the moisture of the grass), tossed the ball 6½ feet over his head, cocked his racket and pulled the trigger.

Outdoors, losses came more often. Indoors, where there were no such nuisances of nature as breeze, chill, moisture, fickle light and odd bounce, he once won 66 straight matches.

Traveling teemed with the germ of chance, but soon he found a way to disinfect that, too. After tournaments in Europe, still wearing tennis clothes and dried sweat, he would rush to a plane that would connect him with the Concorde. "Even though it is Lendl, I'd hate to be the guy paying $2,000 to ride the Concorde in the seat next to him after he played five sets with Becker," says George Vyborny, a Czech-born businessman who moved from Toronto to Greenwich to be near his good friend Lendl. Lendl's agent, Jerry Solomon, called ahead to organize everything and usually accompanied him to run clearance. Limo drivers waited at airports to whisk him to his hotel, Avis delivered his car to the hotel so he wouldn't have to stand in line. It was only that frontier between the first-class airline seat and the crushed-velvet limo seat that he had to risk.

One day he walked off a plane in Los Angeles into an ambush of six photographers. They strafed him with flashbulb pops and begged him to pose. His walk became a weave, his eyes rolled from ceiling to floor, his face became a dim, distant planet.

"I guess that's the price of fame, Mr. Lendl," the limo driver said cheerily.

"No, that is the price of someone making a mistake," he snapped. "Someone will pay for this. Jerry will pay for this."

"But the photographers didn't know anything about you coming," said the driver. "Diana Ross was on your plane, and you just happened to be there."

Just happened? At the hotel he kept a DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door the entire week of a tournament, fed movie and tennis videos into his specially ordered VCR and often ate every meal in his room. If Fibak wasn't there, he called him and recreated every point from that day's match. Every piece of clothing he took off remained on the floor for the rest of the week, as if in defiance of an old enemy. The curtains often remained drawn all day and night. Who knew what surprises could sneak in on a sunbeam, what the breeze might blow into the bubble?

He scanned restaurants and hotel lobbies for Czech eavesdroppers and worried when he heard clicking noises on his phone. He refused alcohol for fear of losing his grip, like the time in 1980, when he drank one glass of Scotch soon after boarding the flight home from a Davis Cup victory over Argentina. He remembers absolutely nothing of the 19-hour trip, including two stops and a change of planes in Madrid.

At home, of course, the deck was even more carefully stacked. He laid out his daily schedule each dawn and obeyed it like a wooden bird in a Swiss clock. "If the Pope was in his living room at bedtime, he'd say, 'It was nice meeting you,' give you that blank smile of his and disappear into his bedroom," says Vyborny. "Underneath, he's a good man with a good sense of humor. But you need time to like Ivan, and he doesn't allow you a lot of time."

One evening in 1981 he looked out the window of his new house and saw someone walking on the grounds. Soon the fence was ordered, and two German shepherds prowled the yard. Soon there were three dogs, then four, then five, then six. His dogs made everyone who entered his house cower, his driving made all who entered his car squirm. He had the power to stop the dogs (they understood no English) and release the accelerator. Odd, how he would always insist on driving, how rarely he would leave his house except to play tennis.

During his 25th birthday at his house, a friend secretly arranged to have someone posing as a policeman come and arrest Lendl for failing to pay a speeding ticket. "He yelled, 'Get my lawyer!' " recalls the schemer, Ron Leichtner. "Sweat was pouring off him; he was stuttering. We had to tell him it was a joke. We were afraid he was going to break down."

"I knew it was a joke," Lendl immediately claimed. Then he called in one of his guard dogs, watched everyone shrink and with a sly smile said to the policeman, "Do you still want to take me away?"

His dogs gave him more than protection. "You find out who your friends are when you lose," he says. "The dogs are always there. They are like children, except you can kick them out when you get mad."

No one saw him roll on his rugs with Vasik and Misa, or roller-skate on his private court. No one saw him sob or drive his foot through two rackets in anguish when his injured hip and topspin backhand kept betraying him during practice just before Wimbledon in '83. All they saw was the man with the long, angular face and sunken eyes, looking dolefully to Fibak when play stopped, walking everywhere as if he had been there before. "A chilly, self-centered, condescending, mean-spirited, arrogant man with a nice forehand," TIME called him. "Ivan the Terrible," tennis writers nicknamed him. "I'd sit in the stands and couldn't believe how much people hated him, especially the men," says Kleinman-Cindrich. "He was something very threatening to American men—someone that much in control."

He preferred women who were very young, very pretty and very unlikely to challenge him. If a woman interested him, he sent someone he knew to risk the opening line. He didn't trust his English, his face or his crooked teeth. "He thinks he looks like Frankenstein," Solomon once said.

His anxiety over the language and the unexpected made him sullen with the press, and the press had no time to let him conquer his conjugations or his craft. At a 1983 tournament in North Conway, N.H., Lendl evaded a post-match press conference, hopped in his Porsche and began backing out, a Grand Prix p.r. man leaning in one window and Solomon leaning in the other, begging him to come back. Lendl's Porsche stalled as he shifted gears—a group of players watching cheered lustily.

"At some point you have to make a choice: to be a jerk and play well or be a nice guy and play badly," says Noah, now ranked No. 8. "You must forget about feelings and do everything your way. Ivan is good at that, he has the strength. Nine out of 10 of the players are jealous of that. Perhaps when he is 45 or 50 he'll say, 'What did I do?' Because deep inside he's not a jerk. I believe once he's finished he can relax."

The players disliked him because he was aloof, because, even at 6-1, 5-0, he was still drilling aces past them and line drives at them when they came to the net. Many became bitter in 1982 when he entered and won virtually every tournament on the WCT circuit, a tour of small fields and big money that many felt discriminated against the lesser players on the Grand Prix tour. A veteran player, Eddie Dibbs, screamed "You Communist son of a bitch" at him between points. Connors shot the finger at him, made jokes about Lendl's pre-match nervous bladder and called him "a chicken" when he purposely lost to Connors at midnight in a 1981 round-robin Masters match, thereby gaining an afternoon semifinal against Gene Mayer instead of a match against Bjorn Borg.

To lunge and sweat and pant once a player began to beat him badly was a vulnerability Lendl couldn't show; nonchalance made even defeat appear in his control. When unseeded Henri Leconte began to overwhelm Lendl last summer at Wimbledon, all the struggle went out of him. The players watching the locker-room TV smiled at each other and clutched their throats. They knew. Who would need to show that much control outside unless he felt that much chaos inside?

The greatest humiliations seemed to come at the U.S. Open, as his mother and father watched during their annual trip to America. Lendl wouldn't permit them to sit in the courtside players' box. "I didn't want to see her eyes roll when I made a mistake," he says. "She still tries to coach me, she still criticizes everything."

In the '83 Open final, serving at set point for a 2-1 lead against Connors, Lendl double-faulted. Inside him, everything snapped. The frustration had risen with each mistake, found no drainage and finally flooded him with the old helpless rage, two decades old and never resolved. Somebody would have to pay for this. The worst thing you could do to her was quit. He quickly lost that set and then barely budged as Connors won the final set 6-0.

In the past-champions' box, old warriors from Lendl's childhood scrapbook were grumbling. "Players like Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver and Vic Seixas," recalls Arthur Ashe, "were saying, 'This is embarrassing, he should be suspended or fined. He has just given up.' It was inexcusable, in front of 20,000 people and on worldwide TV. It gave the entire sport a bad name. In the ethos of competition, you always bust your ass."

The crowd hooted and whooped. A New York Post headline called him CHOKE-OSLOVAKIAN. No one mentioned, he says, that he was splayed on the hood of his car after the match from the lingering agony of a stomach cramp that struck him during the match. "I didn't want to make excuses," he says. "The press should have known something was wrong; they didn't try to find out. Maybe if it was for the Ostrava club championship [you would give up], but there would have to be something terribly wrong with your brain to give up in the fourth set of the U.S. Open final."