Commentary

Tennis still imbued in Lendl's blood

Updated: April 9, 2010, 11:27 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Ivan Lendl walks onto the court at Boardwalk Hall with a familiar controlled energy, a big saber-toothed cat risen from the record books and ready to prowl. He maps out his surroundings during the warm-up. The bounce is high; there's less space behind one baseline than the other; a sign is in his line of vision and needs to be moved. His voice, his presence and his drive fill the empty, echoing space.

Lendl limbers up visibly as the practice proceeds, hitting with more relish and pace. After smacking one winner, he grins and regards the man across the net from him, a young coach from Philadelphia named Lance Lee. "I'm not sorry, and I'm not going to say I am," Lendl declares.

Rivalry Renewed

Former world No. 1s Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, who will meet in Saturday's Caesars Tennis Classic in Atlantic City, N.J. -- Lendl's first match in 16 years -- played one another 22 times between 1982 and 1994, including five Grand Slam event finals. Lendl holds the overall career edge 15-7, but Wilander prevailed in major championships, 3-2.

The two baseliners typically waged battles of attrition won or lost in long, end-to-end exchanges. Wilander defeated Lendl in straight sets on grass at Kooyong in the 1983 Australian Open final to win the first of their title clashes, but buried even in that routine scoreline was at least one 36-shot rally. One man or the other or both reached the final at Roland Garros from 1982 through 1988, and account for six of seven French Open championships during that time. Wilander beat Lendl in a four-set final in 1985 and Lendl avenged the loss two years later.

American fans may best remember the rivals for back-to-back marathon U.S. Open finals in 1987 and 1988. Both matches lasted nearly five hours. Lendl emerged victorious in '87 in four sets. In 1988, the Swede won a five-set endurance contest, breaking a six-match losing streak to Lendl. The win interrupted Lendl's three-year reign as world No. 1, vaulting Wilander into the top slot for the first and only time in his career. He occupied the position for the next 20 weeks until Lendl wrestled it back again.

His longtime agent Jerry Solomon materializes on the sideline. Lendl calls out to him: "See how much better the backhand pass is just in one week?" Then he lashes one to demonstrate. "Remember those?" he asks.

Boardwalk Hall has seen it all, from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra to the Rolling Stones, from figure skating to bowling to hockey. Within a three-day span in the summer of 1964, the Beatles played here in concert and Lyndon Baines Johnson accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for President of the United States. Dozens of Miss Americas were crowned here. Saturday, the grand old edifice will be the site of Lendl's first tennis match before a paying audience in 16 years.

Lendl's encounter with his 1980s rival Mats Wilander will kick off the Caesars Tennis Classic, co-staged by the casino and Solomon's management company, StarGames. Venus Williams will serve as host and Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin will be featured in subsequent matches.

There's a touch of mystique to Lendl's return. No one would have doubted that he could acquit himself honorably on the court at any age if his bad back had healed enough to allow that. But he seemed so contented without the game that as the years went by, the possibility of a return appeared increasingly remote.

In a courtside interview Thursday, Lendl clarifies his motivations with typical bluntness. He says he picked up a racket again simply because he could, not out of some deep longing or regret about a career he didn't end on his own terms.

Was it emotional to be able to play again? "I never thought about it,'' he says. He enjoyed it, "but there are a lot of things I enjoy. I try to avoid things I don't enjoy." That pleasure evolved. He'll play in front of a crowd Saturday, and maybe a couple of more times this year. He'll see how it goes.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Lendl says. "I'm going to make some bad decisions and I'm going to hit some poor shots. What will be essential is my decision-making and my determination to go after the shot when it's there, after I've missed a few. That will be the hardest part, how my mind will react to that instinctive thing."

Lendl, who turned 50 last month, was forced to retire by back pain that prevented him even from participating in hit-and-giggles, as casual exhibitions are known in the trade. He moved on, devoting himself to his family and his golf game. Two of his five daughters play for the University of Florida golf team, and Lendl is a scratch golfer who has won numerous club championships.

Two years ago, Lendl's back issues worsened to the point where they were impeding everyday activities, and he was eventually diagnosed with a ligament tear. He had two cortisone shots that seemed to remedy not only that condition but calm down the facet joint and disc problems that had been ailing him for years.

Lendl began to hit tennis balls again in late 2008, first with Tom Fish, father of ATP veteran Mardy Fish and a teaching pro in Vero Beach, Fla., where Lendl spends about half the year. He has a tennis and golf academy now, and started to think about what it might be like to "show the kids how to hit the ball rather than tell them how to hit it, and feel the shots they're hitting at me, and so on." He tore a tendon in his foot last summer and had to shut down for a couple of months, then resumed.

Last fall, Lendl got serious about getting back into tennis shape. Under the supervision of his trainer of many years, Gary Kitchell, he dropped 35 pounds and gradually ratcheted up his workouts. He's not quite the beanstalk he was in his youth, but the architecture of his jaw and cheekbones has surfaced again and his frame has reclaimed some of its former angularity.

Lendl looks surprisingly flexible, and has maintained his stamina over the years with cycling and, more recently, in-line skating. He isn't totally pain-free and can't play hard two days in a row. The biggest drawback may be that tennis is cutting into his golf time and hurting his follow-through. "Trying to make up for it with my short game," Lendl says. He plans to play in as many senior open golf events within reach of his Connecticut home as he can this summer.

Asked if he and Wilander might reprise one of their trademark 30- or 40-shot rallies in their single-set encounter Saturday, Lendl smiles but doesn't treat the notion as a joke. "I don't know," he says. "I don't mind it. I feel good."

Good is good enough right now, even for an eight-time Grand Slam event winner who was world No. 1 for 270 weeks. Lendl says he feels detached from his former self, which makes it easier for him to feel he's not competing with his own legacy. "The guy who played a long time ago, to me it's like somebody else," he says. "I'm so far removed from that. I went to such a different lifestyle immediately afterwards."

His daughters never saw him play competitively, and they're curious. Lendl told them -- and his wife -- not to come this weekend, partly because of pride and nerves, partly because he thinks they might be more enthralled by something else. "They want to see me play John [McEnroe]," he says with a mischievous expression. Suddenly, implausibly, it seems like he has a match on his racket again.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.