If you like winning, you've got to love Ivan Lendl. Skip the personality and just tabulate the tournament victories. Tennis is a results game—the stock market of sports, with Top 10s and computerized rankings—and this blue chipper keeps moving higher and higher. With nary a shuck or a jive, a snarl or a gross-out but with all kinds of bludgeoning tennis, Lendl already has taken home more than a million dollars in prize money this year.
True, he has yet to win the U.S. Open, the French or Wimbledon, and until he does, followers of the game won't crown him champion. But with Bjorn Borg all muddled up and John McEnroe complaining alternately of aches in his ankle and pains in his psyche, Lendl no longer is a contender. He's No. 1 in the world. Book it.
Just how prepotent he is was underscored on the HarTru courts at last week's WCT Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills. There Lendl dominated the opposition the way Julius Caesar did back when Big Julie had his winning streak against the Gauls. It was veni, vidi, vici, and off Lendl would go to play golf or tour the Connecticut countryside with his current Cleopatra, the demure and blonde Taryn Smith of Dallas.
Finally, on Sunday, Lendl gave unto himself what everybody already figured was rightfully his: By blitzing the seasoned street fighter and defending champion, Eddie Dibbs, 6-1, 6-1, Lendl won the $100,000 first-place check as well as a fur coat for his mother, Olga, back home in Czechoslovakia. Lendl had wanted to make short work of Dibbs. "Let's make it quick," he had told a WCT official before the 1 p.m. match. "I have a three o'clock tee-off time." And Lendl was right on schedule. After losing the match's first game, he ran off the next 11 "playing like a maniac," as Dibbs would say later.
Besides the check and the coat, Lendl also collected $288,250 in WCT bonus money, his payout for running roughshod over the WCT circuit this year. With his Tournament of Champions victory, Lendl had won 89 of 92 matches since Vitas Gerulaitis beat him at the U.S. Open last September. Over that span he had made the finals of all 18 tournaments he had entered. His only losses had been to Yannick Noah in Palm Springs and a resurgent Guillermo Vilas in Monte Carlo and Madrid.
Furthermore, because Lendl has been winning on different surfaces, indoors and out, in a bunch of time zones and in tournaments where every top player was entered, his hot streak has to be regarded as perhaps the hottest ever. "He just seems able to overpower people," says McEnroe. "Maybe that's why he's able to win more consecutive matches than I did when I was hot."
When you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, you're not. At Forest Hills McEnroe spent nearly as much time explaining what was wrong as Lendl did talking about what was right. The press was most interested in Mac's tender left ankle, which he hurt during a practice session in Brussels almost two months ago. "It's worse than he lets on," says his friend and fellow pro, Peter Rennert.
Then there was the subject of tennis burnout, also called Borg's song. McEnroe lately has seemed listless on the court, only a shadow of his usual contentious self. In losing 7-6, 6-3 in the semifinals to Dibbs last week, he sprayed 36 unforced errors around the stadium. McEnroe's friends say, "Mac's head's not in it" right now, meaning that with a bum ankle and misplaced motivation he has no taste for the fight.
Still, according to the ATP computer, McEnroe technically remains No. 1. The reason is that the computer factors in results from the past 12 months and doesn't include events on the black sheep WCT tour. But two weeks ago in Dallas, after Lendl had beaten him in four sets in the championship match of the WCT Finals, even McEnroe admitted the obvious: Lendl is playing the best tennis, no matter what the ATP's software says.
Certainly none of Lendl's victims at the Tournament of Champions would give McEnroe an argument. Mel Purcell, the country waif who lost 6-2, 6-2 to Lendl in the quarterfinals last week, summed up what it was like to face him by saying, "He makes you want to go home." The day before, Lendl defeated Peru's Hans Gildemeister 6-2, 6-0 in only 40 minutes. During the second set, Pablo Arraya, also of Peru, took pity on Gildemeister and sent an oversized racquet to the court. Gildemeister accepted it and smiled, like a condemned man offered a blindfold. Lendl played the next game without humor, bouncing overheads into the stands, ripping serves, clipping lines. Afterward he said, "I don't like to lose points, much less games."
Lendl's killer attitude is reminiscent of the Jimmy Connors of the early '70s, when Jimbo came out fearing nobody and blew everybody off the court. In his six matches at Forest Hills, Lendl lost a total of only 21 games. On the rare occasions that he missed a shot, he showed no emotion. He just whirled around and headed back to the baseline, as if to say, "You'll pay for that one."
No two rivals could be more dissimilar than McEnroe and Lendl. Mac normally is a powder keg on the court—rebel without a pause—but he has little taste for practice. Last week he went through the motions during workouts, grimacing, moaning, slamming balls into the fence, a man seemingly in agony. Lendl is the stoic when wielding his racquet—a stiff, metal composite weapon that its manufacturer, Adidas, doesn't sell to the public. Practicing, Lendl is a horse who doesn't need a jockey. When a reporter asked him at Forest Hills whether he had decided to play Wimbledon, Lendl said he would "guarantee" it if he were assured five hours' practice daily on the grass at the nearby New Zealand Club. One of Lendl's many objections to the tournament is that it allows players to work out there only a half hour a day. During the Tournament of Champions Lendl drilled with his close friend Wojtek Fibak at a club near Fibak's home in Greenwich, Conn.
McEnroe and Lendl also generate quite different types of publicity, which probably accounts for Lendl's slow acceptance by the public. Whereas McEnroe's press conferences often spark headlines, Lendl is ever cautious with the media. This colloquy last week was typical:
"Are you Number One?"
"I don't answer."
"Do you expect to win tomorrow?"
"We shall see."
"Whom would you like to play in the finals?"
"Whoever is the winner."
Shrug. Raised eyebrows. End of press conference. Then it was a quick retreat to the parking lot, with Taryn Smith strolling alongside through the autograph seekers. Almost before the paint recording his last victory was dry on the scoreboard, the two of them were on their way to Greenwich in his Mercedes.
Lendl even has reduced to a simmer the most controversial episode of his career: the ATP's recommended $10,000 fine and indefinite suspension from the union two weeks ago because he pulled out of the World Team Cup in D√ºsseldorf, an ATP-sanctioned event, to play the Tournament of Champions. "I know nothing about it," Lendl kept saying early last week, meaning he hadn't been formally notified of the ATP's prospective penalties. By the time he had, on Friday, by letter, the press had tired of asking him about the matter. What the dispute came down to was money. If Lendl had skipped Forest Hills, he would have had to forfeit his $288,250 bonus. When that was made clear to him, he had little difficulty deciding in which tournament he would compete.
Lendl's only challenge last week came in the semifinals against Jose-Luis Clerc, who last summer won four straight tournaments on clay, beating Lendl in two of them. But since then Lendl has developed the confidence to hit hard whenever the situation warrants. On Saturday, with a 3-2 lead in the first set, Lendl escaped a break point when Clerc hit a careless backhand wide. Lendl followed with an ace. Boom! Then a wicked forehand winner. Bam! Turnaround and a 4-2 lead. The umpire could have called out: "Game, set, match."
As Clerc, the world's No. 5 player, walked away from a 6-2, 7-5 defeat and a second set in which he had rallied to 5-5, to win only two points the rest of the way, he was asked to describe the Lendl method. He grimaced.
"You close your eyes," said Clerc. "You hit the ball so hard, and you win." It sounded simple. No shuck, no jive, just results—and already more than a million in the bank.