The time is the present. The subject is the future. The place is a tennis court somewhere in the world. The cast, part of it, has been on stage since the drama began; in order of appearance: Austin, McEnroe and Jaeger—i.e., the Yanks. Now the second act is under way, and the Czechs have made their entrance. The man is Ivan Lendl of Ostrava, 20 years old, 6'2" and still filling out. She's Hana Mandlikova of Prague, 18, 5'8" and just right. He's a baseliner with a forehand that's second only to Bjorn Borg's and a volley that's better. She's an attacker, a serve-and-volleyer in the mold of her countrywoman, Martina Navratilova, with the athletic grace of Evonne Goolagong. A year ago, unless you were a follower of international junior tennis, you probably hadn't heard of either of them. Today he's the sixth-ranked man in the world and she's the fifth-ranked woman.
Lendl has beaten Borg twice this past year, and in December he led Czechoslovakia to its first Davis Cup victory, the first Davis Cup ever won by an Eastern-bloc country. Mandlikova has beaten Chris Evert Lloyd once, Navratilova twice and Andrea Jaeger three times. The two young Czechs haven't conquered McEnroe, Connors and Austin as yet, but it's only a matter of time, and each has plenty of that.
The question—to be resolved in the third act—is: How long will the old folks of tennis hang around? Borg is 24 now and married. He has won five straight Wimbledons, and last year, according to a conservative but informed estimate, he made between $6 million and $7 million. It's possible, even probable, that he'll be running short of motivation before long. He played only 14 tournaments in 1980. Lendl, by contrast, at 20 still very hungry, played 32, plus three Davis Cup rounds.
Evert Lloyd, 26, seems also to be on the brink of change. She regained her No. 1 world ranking in 1980, taking revenge on the upstart Tracy Austin, who'd beaten her three times in 11 days last winter. But having done that and also now being happily married, where does she go next? What can she possibly do for her 11th encore?
Last January, Borg was asked to cite the most promising newcomers in tennis. He named Lendl, Johan Kriek, the expatriate South African, and Yannick Noah of France. Now, a year later, Noah is No. 23, Kriek is No. 18 and Lendl is No. 6. Asked if he was surprised that Lendl had progressed so rapidly, Borg said, "No, absolutely not. I predicted it." In a Grand Prix tournament in Basel, Switzerland last October, Lendl beat Borg in five sets in the final. Afterward Borg said, "Ivan played very, very well. He was steadier than I was at the backcourt."
Steadier than Borg from the back-court? Can it be?
"You can count on one hand the players who can make points from the back-court," says Corrado Barazzutti, the No. 2 singles man on the Italian Davis Cup team. "Borg, Connors, Vilas. Now add Lendl to that list. He has such great strength in his strokes, he anticipates so intelligently the reactions of his opponents, that he puts the game at the baseline and keeps it there."
In early October, Lendl launched a winning streak that made all the flattering predictions seem conservative. In the space of six weeks he won five Volvo Grand Prix tournaments, beating Guillermo Vilas in Barcelona, getting that victory over Borg in Basel and defeating Eliot Teltscher in Tokyo, as well as winning back-to-back tournaments over Brian Teacher in Taipei and Hong Kong. "At Barcelona I played well," says Adriano Panatta of Italy. "But I was beaten [6-1, 6-1] by Lendl in the semifinal. What do you want me to say? He played perfectly. I had the feeling I was hitting against a wall."
"When I am serving well, I can do anything," Lendl has said. "When I'm not, I get into trouble." The same can be said of his passing shots. If his awesome forehand is at its best and he is serving well, he is unbeatable, as Harold Solomon discovered in the fourth round of the U.S. Open in September. Lendl lost the first game of the first set and that was it. He beat Solomon 6-1, 6-0, 6-0.
Lendl is a prudent, professional player. On the other hand, Mandlikova (pronounced mand-LEEK-o-va in Czechoslovakia, but mand-lee-KO-va in the U.S. by fiat of Hana's advisers here who feel the real pronounciation may be too tough for Americans to handle), lives flamboyantly at the other end of the spectrum, sometimes to her disadvantage. British tennis writer Rex Bellamy wrote in World Tennis, "Mandlikova walks tightropes. Lendl builds bridges." Mandlikova has all the strokes, great speed, agility, natural athleticism. "She has probably the best serve of anyone I've ever played," said Jaeger after losing to her in the final of the Volvo Women's Cup in August. "Virginia Wade and Martina, if it's deuce or close, just try to get the serve in. Hana will go for the ace. Usually, she'll get it."
Hana's record for the last half of 1980 was just as extraordinary as Lendl's. In 14 tournaments, beginning with the WTA Championship at Amelia Island, Fla. in April, when she lost to Navratilova in the final, she won six times, reached the final four other times and the semis three times.
Since June, Mandlikova has traveled the world with veteran Betty Stove as her coach and confidante. Stove, a Wimbledon finalist in singles, doubles and mixed doubles in 1977 and U.S. Open doubles champion with Wendy Turnbull in 1979, is 35 now. Her playing career had reached the point of diminishing returns, and she was considering coaching offers when she was approached by Mandlikova. "I don't like to be alone," Mandlikova says. "So I ask her if she will be my coach. I know she is a good person and she understands tennis. Now we can talk about technique before a match and it helps me very much. I am more patient than before. Last year I just hit the ball and see how nice it was."
Stove speaks several languages in addition to her native Dutch, but Czech isn't one of them, so she and Mandlikova communicate in English. "If she wants to talk," says Stove, "she's going to have to know English." Stove also sits in on the press conferences that become more frequent as a player grows more successful. She helps out with an English word here and there, and she comes to Mandlikova's aid when the questions begin getting sticky, as when a young Dutch reporter blurted out, "What do you do with your money?" When Mandlikova looked startled at the tactlessness of the question. Stove grinned and said, "Most of it she gives to me." When the reporter persisted, Stove threw the question back at him. "What do you do with your money? Put it in a bank, right?"
A favorite question has to do with defection, a very delicate subject in Czechoslovakian tennis circles. "Are you angry with Martina for defecting? Would you do it, too?" the Dutch reporter asked. Stove left this question to Mandlikova to answer, but she watched her face closely for a sign, an S O S perhaps.
"That is Martina's decision," Mandlikova answered smoothly. "Why do I have to be angry? It is her life. Would I do it? No. I have no reason." End of press conference.
"She has been very down to earth," says Stove, "but everything came so quickly. Now she's at a temporary halt. She hasn't beaten Tracy, and she has beaten Chris only once. She doesn't have the consistency yet to be No. 1. She's above Jaeger right now; she has better strokes. The question is: where will they be in five years? It's a learning process. You can have every stroke, but you have to use the right one at the right time."
Mandlikova, says Stove, "listens to music all day like any 18-year-old," but she's also in a much lonelier position than most 18-year-olds will ever know. She has risen out of the pack but still hasn't reached the top. While she pursues those above her, she must also fight off those who are nipping at her heels. Her world of airports and hotels and tennis courts is populated with adversaries, and that is where Stove comes in. They talk about tennis and about life; they take their meals together; they play casino and dominoes; they watch the matches of other players; they sometimes play doubles together; and they practice.
In preparation before Mandlikova's match last November against lefthander Barbara Potter in Amsterdam, Stove enlisted a top-ranked Dutch player, Theo Gorter, who's also a lefthander. After 45 minutes of hitting with Gorter and returning his powerful serve, a wide V of sweat had appeared on Mandlikova's back, reaching from her shoulders almost to the waist of her warmup pants. A faded green cotton bandana, worn Apache style, held her brown bangs in place; the red one that has become her trademark, the lucky one she bought at the Orange Bowl Juniors two years ago, she saves for real matches. At one point Gorter hit a blazer down the backhand line. Mandlikova lunged at the ball, missed, slipped, fell and lay prone, forehead on the court, her rib cage quaking with silent laughter. Stove was not amused. Later, when Mandlikova missed overhead, Stove shouted. "That's the one." Mandlikova shook her head, smiling. "Bad lights, bad lights." she shouted back. "No.!" roared Stove.
"We're not like Tracy and her mother," says Stove. "They're always separate from the rest. Hana goes out with the other kids when she feels like it. But she knows her duties in regard to eating and sleeping and hours. She wants to win. It's funny to see the change in the other players. They watch her matches now to see what she does different than they do."
Lendl, by contrast, is a loner. He travels without a coach or a companion. Often his only company is a Japanese-made pocket cassette player with earphones. He makes his own travel and hotel arrangements and rents a car wherever he goes, and he knows what he's talking about when he discusses his business affairs with his advisers. His only good friend on the tour is Wojtek Fibak, the 28-year-old Pole with whom he sometimes plays doubles. During the Davis Cup final in Prague in December, when Lendl, the expectations of 15 million Czechs on his young shoulders, was trying to maintain his concentration, Fibak came to town for a few days to practice with him and to help lighten the pressure. Fibak's silver Porsche, parked every day just outside the players' entrance to Prague's Sportovni Hala, was almost as great an attraction as Lendl, there being fewer Porsches in Prague than up-and-coming tennis players.
"For me it is difficult to play in Czechoslovakia," said Lendl after the Davis Cup was settled, 4-1 in favor of the Czechs, after he had beaten Barazzutti and Panatta in singles and teamed with Tomas Smid, the No. 2 Czech, to defeat Panatta and Paolo Bertolucci in the doubles. "All the people know I am No. 6 in the world and that Barazzutti is No. 21, and they expect me to beat him easily, 1, 1 and 1, and I cannot do it. I want to play my best and I cannot. It's nice that people like you and cheer for you, but it is more and more difficult."
Lendl's schedule seems suicidal. John McEnroe said earlier this year, "He's a good player, a very good player, but he plays too much. He's crazy." Lendl told a British journalist, "I know I can't go on like this." after he'd beaten Borg in Basel, then flown directly to Tokyo and played the first match of the Japan Open fewer than 24 hours later. "But I thought it would be good for my game. I need experience, and you don't get that by sitting on your backside in Prague."
Money isn't what drives Lendl to the next airport and the next country and the next opponent. He earned approximately half a million dollars last year and will probably make $2 million or more a year from now on. Eventually he may be the richest man in Czechoslovakia, but as he points out, "Once you have enough money to pay for the air tickets, winning titles becomes more important. It's the satisfaction of doing something no one else can do."
Pavel Korda, coach of the Czech Davis Cup team since 1970 and of Czechoslovakia's 1973 Wimbledon champion, Jan Kodes, for 16 years, agrees with Lendl's approach. "If you want to stay great, you keep at it," he says. "No holidays. I can tell you that Kodes had his first holiday with his family at the age of 32."
While everyone outside Czechoslovakia wonders why a tiny country (about the size of Louisiana) should be producing top-drawer tennis players with such amazing frequency, everyone inside Czechoslovakia has a theory to explain the phenomenon.
"We have a tradition of good tennis players," Kodes says. "We have a good history and good examples."
The Czech tennis tradition is hundreds of years older than the Czech nation. The Czechoslovakian Republic was stitched together out of bits and pieces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, but tennis existed there in medieval times at the courts of the nobility, just as it did in England, France and elsewhere. Hardly had Major Walter Wingfield devised the modern or "lawn" version of tennis in England in 1874 than the Czechs were following suit. The first modern Czech competition was held in 1879, two years after the inaugural tournament at Wimbledon.
Karel Kozeluh (1895-1950) was the first great Czech player. He was a professional ball boy as a child and a celebrated teacher of the game by the age of 14. He was a professional and therefore ineligible for the great amateur tournaments of the 1920s and 1930s, but he was recognized as one of the very best players, amateur or professional, in the world. Jaroslav Drobny emerged soon after World War II and remained among the world's top players for more than a decade, reaching the final at Wimbledon twice before winning in 1954 at the age of 32. Vera Sukova was the first Czech woman to make her mark abroad when she played in the Wimbledon final in 1962; Kodes became a Czech national hero in 1973 when he won at Wimbledon and attained the final at Forest Hills; Navratilova, with two Wimbledon wins, is the most successful Czech player to date, but she, like Drobny, who defected in 1949, achieved non-person status in her homeland when she departed in 1975.
Korda, the Davis Cup coach, concedes that tradition is significant, and he also curtsies politely, and wisely, in the direction of the state and the various sports federations, but he quickly gets down to what he considers the grit—motivation. The No. 1 motivational force, he says, has been the success of Kodes, Navratilova, Renata Tomanova, Regina Marsikova, Mandlikova and Lendl. "They're heroes for children. Now in new housing estates in the summer you see little children imitating Lendl and Mandlikova and Kodes. Another very strong motivation is the desire to see the world with the help of tennis. We're a cultural nation. Our children know a lot about what's going on outside Czechoslovakia. In Australia I found people who hardly knew where Europe was. But our children know the world and they want to see it." And there is the money. "If you play very well you earn a lot of money. Everybody in this society knows that these people [tennis players] make lots of money, but people agree that it's right."
Such was not always the case. Lendl and Mandlikova are the beneficiaries of a new governmental leniency. Since the permanent departure of Navratilova to the U.S. and the subsequent defection to Switzerland of another player, Hana Strachanova, the Czechoslovak Tennis Federation has adopted a modified hands-off policy. Now players can keep 80% of what they earn, returning only 20% to the government as a form of tax and paying a relatively small sum, $3,000 or $4,000 a year, to the tennis federation for the education of new talent. Furthermore, they are free to come and go very much as they like. The approval of the federation, though still required, is now more or less automatic. And finally, the federation, having observed that harassment leads to frustration, which leads to defection, which leads to public embarrassment, now averts its bureaucratic eyes even when the racket head of a bright young product of Czech socialism suddenly blooms with the insignia of a giant of American capitalism. As long as the young entrepreneurs remain tactful in their public pronouncements and discreet in their financial dealings, and as long as they come home a few times a year to compete on national teams for Davis and Federation and other such cups, they are free to be as rich as the promoters in the U.S. and elsewhere can make them.
Drobny, observing the Czech tennis scene from London, says, "You have a choice. A job in a factory or the privileges given recognized sportsmen. Because of the Czechoslovakian political situation, to achieve a high standard of living you either become a good sportsman or an artist, such as a singer or actor. And it's only these people, apart from the Communist leaders themselves, who are able to achieve a standard of living substantially better than normal people. People like doctors and engineers, people like that, they don't make much. They all earn standard wages. But when young people see someone like Kodes—by Czechoslovakian standards, he now lives like a king—they want to improve their lives, too. Thousands of Czechoslovakian children want to be a Kodes. They dream of winning Wimbledon the moment they're presented with their first tennis racket."
Mandlikova's first racket was a wooden paddle made for her by her father, Vilem Mandlik, who was a sprinter on the Czechoslovak track team at the Melbourne and Rome Olympics. Mandlik, a fit 45, was trained as a lawyer, but he works as a sports journalist for the Czech army newspaper in Prague. He has the same occasionally mischievous sense of humor that sets his daughter apart from most of her fellows and delights the crowds who watch her play.
Mandlik believes that Czechs are naturally disposed toward tennis. "We're always good at games that require coordination of movements and thought," he says. "Ice hockey, soccer and tennis require not just power but quick wits." Aside from that, he attributes Czech tennis success to good coaches, good basic techniques and "fanatic parents," such as himself, who are willing to travel from town to town every week all summer long, delivering their offspring to one or another of dozens of tournaments run for children by the tennis federation. "Nowhere during my travels have I seen things for children so well organized as here," he says.
At the heart of the Czech system are the 650 sports clubs scattered throughout the country. Mandlik enrolled Hana at Sparta in Prague, one of the largest and most famous clubs in the country, when she was nine years old. Lendl was taken by his tennis-playing parents to their club, NHKG Ostrava, when he was only three. Of Czechslovakia's 70,000 tennis players, 50,000 belong to one or another of the 650 clubs. Through the clubs, 30.000 Czechs from the age of eight to 70 and more compete regularly in tournaments run by the federation.
"Some clubs are very small," says Kodes, who played at Sparta, "but that's where everything begins. There's some old coach in every club who teaches kids the grip and how to hit against a wall, basic things. They may not be the best coaches, but they start you off. Then, when you begin to get good, the system is well organized."
The major clubs, like Sparta and Slavia and Ducla Praha, the Army club, support as many as 15 or 20 sports, and inter-club competition in such games as soccer and ice hockey are followed closely by fans and press. In large cities the important clubs have sponsoring industries. The NHKG in NHKG Ostrava, for instance, stands for, in translation, Klement Gottwald New Foundry, which makes trucks, trams and railroad cars. The Sparta club's sponsor is CKD Praha, a manufacturer of locomotives, transformers and compressors.
The clubs provide enough tennis courts to meet everyone's needs in the warm half of the year. But there are only 40 indoor courts in the country, and 20 of them serve a split function—tennis and basketball most often. With a winter that begins in earnest in November and doesn't let up until April, the indoor court time available for even the most talented players is extremely limited. Children under the age of 12, no matter who they are, rarely have more than an hour a week allotted them in the winter, and strictly recreational players have no rights at all except when no one else is around. The top players have top priority: first the national teams, then the first-division teams, then the promising children, then the other children and adults who play in tournaments and then, and only then, plain old weekend players. In other words, a prime motive for being good and getting better is the chance to play more tennis, especially during the winter.
"The lack of indoor courts is a situation we must improve," says tennis federation president Cyril Suk, a big rumpled man with enormous feet, a noble nose and a bristling gray crew cut. "Tennis is so popular there aren't enough courts. In 1974 we had 34 tournaments for children from 10 to 18. For the last few years we've had 150."
Clearly, physical facilities aren't the hinge on which the Czech system swings. Sparta, the club from which the careers of Mandlikova, Kodes, Navratilova and Renata Tomanova were launched and perhaps the most celebrated tennis factory in the world these days, looks, under an inch or two of snow, like a fallow truck garden. Its 14 unadorned red-clay courts are located on a nameless and only recently paved two-lane road at the edge of a grim industrial section of Prague. The grounds, three acres perhaps, are surrounded by a metal fence topped with a strand or two of barbed wire. Here and there a vine has volunteered to climb the fence, softening the surroundings slightly, and a few bare trees that look as if they might be willows grow alongside the outbuildings. Until recently, when a new two-story, utilitarian red-brick building was constructed to house locker rooms, offices, a cafeteria and, most important, the club's one indoor court, the only structures on the premises were four small dilapidated frame cottages that once upon a time were painted green. The smallest cottage, which looks as if it might once have been a hen house, was briefly the home of the Mandlik family a few years ago. "Hana was 13 then," says her father, "and she wanted more time to play, so my wife and I worked additionally at the club and lived there."
Across the road from Sparta is the equally unprepossessing Red Star club. A soot-stained bubble containing an indoor court dominates the premises, which include a wooden fence and a jumble of buildings of indeterminate age and function. Red Star is the club for which Lendl will play for the next two years while he is performing his compulsory military service. He conspicuously wore an army uniform during the week of the Davis Cup final whenever he faced the press or a television camera. The uniform was obviously only for show, because the jacket was several sizes too large for his bony frame and the trousers hadn't yet been tailored.
Lendl's military tour is expected to interfere little, if at all, with his tennis schedule. Apparently there is a Czech equivalent of U.S. Army Special Services. As one Praguer said, "The uniform will be put on a shelf at the Red Star club and there it will remain for two years." And then he added, "But I did not say it."
The Czech tennis federation is particularly proud of a relatively recent refinement of its system—a network of training centers for especially gifted young players scattered across the country. The centers are housed in existing clubs and are actually more a state of mind than a physical facility. While a player is associated with a center, he gets coaching, increased court time, equipment and housing nearby if his home is in another town. Twenty-two such centers have been set up for players from 11 to 16. Six others, located in the major cities—Prague, Pilsen, Brno, Prerov, Ostrava and Bratislava—accommodate approximately 60 top players from ages 16 to 20 under the supervision of professional coaches.
Kodes drew a diagram of the system on a paper napkin during the Davis Cup final: the schools and clubs feed the training centers; the 22 centers for 11-to-16-year-olds feed the six for 16-to-20-year-olds; and the 16-to-20 centers feed the national teams, junior and senior.
A system that is not only successful but can also be diagramed on a paper napkin obviously is based on clear thinking. However, the most striking characteristic of the Czech tennis program, considering the rigid political system in which it exists, is its emphasis on the individual. "It is up to the parents and the child to decide whether the child pursues tennis," says Kodes. "They're not obliged to be tennis players. Not like East Germany. We work on a completely different basis."
A clue to that basis may be the humane note that crops up in the words of Czech tennis people. Vera Sukova, the coach of the national women's team for 15 years, says of the young players, "It is very important not to make mistakes at this level. Each age is different. They must be treated individually." Jiri Lendl, Ivan's father, says, "Without trainers of juniors who are nice people, for whom working with youth is work of the heart, it would be impossible to get such results and such success." Vilem Mandlik says, "My own father was a hard person. He never said, 'You're great.' I discovered it was good to act the opposite, to say, 'You're great, you can be the best in the world,' to always support her, not to press her down."
Another clue may lie in the fact that every topflight Czech tennis player is also skilled at other games. Building healthy mental and physical balance seems to be inherent in the system. Lifelong specialization of the sort that has produced top American players such as Austin and Connors and Evert Lloyd is unknown in Czechoslovakia. Korda says, "I don't know a tennis player who is not able to play soccer. Lendl is terrific at both soccer and basketball. Hana can play soccer like a boy, with both feet. This is a very important part of the Czech method, to play another kind of ball game." Navratilova played soccer in Revnice, the town near Prague where she grew up. Marsikova was the third-ranked figure skater in the country. Sukova played basketball until a broken left arm turned her to tennis instead. Kodes played more soccer than tennis as a child and continued to play center forward on the Czech tennis players' team after he'd become an international tennis star. Drobny was a member of the Czech Olympic hockey team that won the silver medal at the St. Moritz Winter Olympics of 1948. Kozeluh also played soccer for Sparta Praha and scored the decisive goal in the ice hockey match that made Czechoslovakia European champion in 1924.
Tomas Dvorak, a burly, sleepy-eyed 46-year-old blond who heads the tennis program at Sparta, became Mandlikova's coach when she was 12. From the beginning he knew that she would be good. "She had perfect basic strokes and fast legs and a very good temperament for individual sport," he says. "She'd be very good at any individual sport."
If you ask Dvorak why the Czech system is productive, he smiles and says, "Everybody is wondering." Then he adds, "In fact, it's all due to fanatics and fools able to hit a million balls. You can't teach tennis sitting at a table. And, of course, the help of the parents."
Navratilova agrees: "All of us—Marsikova, Tomanova, Mandlikova, Lendl, me—had tennis-playing parents. My father taught me all but three years, from nine to 12, when I had a coach. I beat him first when I was 15."
Navratilova's parents played tennis three or four times a week at Slavog, a club in Revnice with four clay courts and a wall. They took Martina with them when they went there, and, using a racket that had belonged to her grandmother, she would hit against the wall. She initially set foot on a court when she was seven. "When I first played in the 12-and-unders there would be only five or 10 of us in a tournament," she says. "We had to play round robin. I would play the same kids 10 times a year."
At 16 Navratilova began to play for Sparta. By that time Mandlikova was 10 years old and one of dozens of children enrolled in Sparta's tennis school. Tomanova played for Sparta then, too, but it was Navratilova who was Mandlikova's heroine. She copied Navratilova's aggressive style of play, and when Martina took part in an interclub tournament Hana insisted on being her ball girl.
Mandlikova had been at Sparta for only a year at that time, but she and her older brother, now a first-division hockey player, had been playing the game with their father for some time. "He never pushed me to play tennis," says Mandlikova. "He said, 'Go play and have fun,' not 'You will practice two hours a day.' I think it is very important that parents are not pushing you all the time. In the beginning I didn't like tennis very much. I preferred to have fun with the girls and boys, but when I got older I began to like tennis."
Vilem Mandlik may not have been pushing tennis at his daughter, but he was certainly making it available. When she was still quite young and, like everyone else her age, entitled to only two hours of court time a week, he transformed the family dining room into a kind of indoor tennis court. "We moved all the furniture out and painted a circle on the wall," he says, somewhat sheepishly. "That is why Hana now must play everything in front of her." Did the neighbors complain? "I am choleric. Maybe they were afraid to complain."
"My father made everything a game," says Mandlikova. "Once we were on holiday on the beach in Buglaria, and we volleyed for money, two leva [a little less than $2], I think. I remember that it was very hot and that I won and that I bought ice cream."
Mandlik fills in the details: "We went by car and lived in a tent near the beach. Hana and her brother were very young, and they wanted to play on the beach and go swimming. I wanted her to play tennis, so I proposed that we volley for half a lev. I consciously played badly to prolong the game." Then he smiles, mock-mournfully. "Those were the last beautiful holidays. Then tennis came and it was all over."
Lendl grew up in Ostrava, an industrial city of 320,000 near the Polish border, 170 miles east of Prague. Ostrava is the Manchester, the Pittsburgh, the Essen of Czechoslovakia. It's sometimes called the Black City. "There is so much smoke," says Lendl, "that if a good wind is blowing you cannot play. Or, you can play, but you cannot breathe. And it smells so bad."
His father, Jiri, 56, a lawyer, and his mother, Olga, 45, a secretary, were and are very good tennis players. Olga was once ranked No. 2 nationally in women's singles, and she's still a good doubles player. When Jiri was younger, he was among the top 15 or 20 in singles. Jiri and Olga played every day during the outdoor season, and they took Ivan along with them to NHKG Ostrava when he was only three. Ivan literally cannot remember when he first played tennis. He does know that he began with a paddle and a ball against a wall.
"There was no swimming pool at Ostrava, just tennis courts, and nothing else to do," says Lendl, "but it was always fun. If I started feeling it was work during practice, I just stopped."
When school was out Lendl hung around the tennis courts every day until dark and played whoever showed up. When he had no one to play with he played against a wall. "I did not like to, but I had to," he says. "I did not like it because I could not beat the wall."
Winning has mattered a great deal to Lendl for as long as he can remember. "I never played many sets with my mother because she was still competing at that time," he says. "But I played with my father every week. I measured myself against him. I had to beat him first." Lendl also battled his father in a table soccer game, a competition that predated their tennis matches but was no less intense. "He didn't like to be defeated in anything," says Jiri. "After a loss he starts to work very hard."
While Ivan's mother and father were his first teachers, Oldrich Lerch, whom Jiri describes as "a very experienced old coach" at NHKG Ostrava, soon took over. "He was a good person to begin with," says Ivan. "He taught me I have to jump on the ball, hit it on the top, not let it drop, to move on the ball. I think that is why I am able to hit the ball so hard."
Lendl played his first tournament match when he was eight and lost 6-0, 6-1. "I behaved so bad when I was losing," he recalls. "No matter who I lost to, mother or father, anyone. Terrible. TERR-ible! In the soccer game with my father I was suspended a couple of times when I threw things. He would say, 'If you do not behave nicely we will not play for a week.' So we do not play for a week, because I lost."
As he talks of his youthful misdeeds, Lendl's bony face, which is completely void of animation or humor when he plays or discusses tennis, suddenly breaks apart in a big, toothy, homely, lovable grin. After Lendl attains a few more of his goals and has learned to enjoy the world around him a bit more, that grin will appear more often. It's going to make him a lot of friends.
No one can recall exactly when Lendl finally beat his father in a table-soccer match, but he was 13 when he took him at tennis. At 14 he beat his mother. At 17 or 18, he says, he finally learned to control his temper. Now, Borg says, "I have a high regard for Lendl as a human being. He is not a braggart or an extrovert like Nastase or Gerulaitis. He is a sportsman and a gentleman on the court and beyond."
The world is going to become much more familiar with this sportsman and gentleman in the next few years. Korda thinks Lendl will win the U.S. Open this year. In any case, the hard-hitting rivalry developing between Lendl and McEnroe will surely be the most interesting story in men's tennis for several years to come.
Mandlikova's development may take a little longer, but she, too, is learning to harness her talent, to be patient, to make the right choices on the court. Her daring style of play is a welcome alternative to the conservative baseline games of Evert Lloyd, Austin and Jaeger, and her personality, on and off court, provides a bright spot of color wherever she goes. As for the supporting cast back home, "the fools and fanatics" who created the environment in which Lendl and Mandlikova grew, the people for whom tennis is "a work of the heart," the parents who share their sport with their children, who paint circles on the dining-room wall, who make sure the game is always fun, in them lies the real secret of the Czech success. Harsh winters, scarce facilities and limited funds are obstacles of small consequence against a spirit such as theirs.