Mismatched– Ivan The Underdog & The Ugly American: The 1984 French Open Men’s Final

When I think back to how my fascination with Eastern Europe began my memory gets hazy. There is no single moment that served to stimulate my interest. It was more an accretion of events, newspaper articles, television programs and school classes that eventually brought about a lifelong fascination. Many of my earliest memories came from sporting events. A touchstone among these was the 1984 French Open final between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. The contrast between the two men was reflective of the differences between West and East. McEnroe was the explosively temperamental and insanely talented American. He was individualistic to the point of being iconoclastic, both his game and behavior were anything ever seen in tennis.  A deeply flawed genius, in 1984 McEnroe was enjoying one of the greatest seasons in tennis history. His main rival at this time was Ivan Lendl, a taciturn Czechoslovakian who had an air about him that was colder than a Russian winter.

The power and the glory - Ivan Lendl won three French Open titles

The power and the glory – Ivan Lendl won three French Open titles

The Artists Versus The Automaton – A Rivalry Of Contrasts
Lendl’s game was the polar opposite of McEnroe’s. He bludgeoned opponents with a deadly forehand and laser like serves. Whereas McEnroe’s game was a display of artistry, Lendl’s was mechanistic. He seemed robotic and rigid, reflective of a cold and brusque ideology sequestered behind the Iron Curtain. In truth, Lendl had a canny, dry sense of humor, while McEnroe could be a first class jerk. It hardly mattered to the public since on the court Lendl was stereotyped, as a taciturn Eastern Bloc automaton. This colored my opinion of him. I did not care for Lendl because his game lacked imagination, but I was fascinated with what he seemed to represent. There was something scary and alluring about the man. For someone who was said to be cold and emotionless, men’s professional tennis’ equivalent of a human backboard, he was remarkably fragile in high stakes matches, tending to crack under extreme pressure.

Lendl had lost four Grand Slam finals while notoriously falling apart in the latter stages of these matches. There were questions of whether he would ever win a Grand Slam title. The 1984 French Open Final did not look promising for Lendl’s title hopes. He would face McEnroe, who was well on his way to possibly the greatest season in tennis history. The American had won his first forty-two matches that year, with five of those victories coming over Lendl. Traditionally McEnroe’s weakest surface had been clay, but he trounced Lendl twice on the surface prior to the French. As for Lendl, each of his losses in the first half of 1984, save one, were to McEnroe. He could beat anyone, except for his greatest nemesis, much like the fact that he could win any tournament other than a Grand Slam event.

Just out of reach - John McEnroe never won the French Open

Just out of reach – John McEnroe never won the French Open

Getting Personal – Johnny Mac & Ivan The Underdog                                            
Then again I was not quite for Lendl either. His personality and demeanor induced more fear than reverence. There was one thing that made me favor Lendl in this match, he was a decided underdog. A little over an hour into the match he was looking less like an underdog and more like an abject failure. McEnroe dominated the first two sets, allowing Lendl a total of five games and breaking his serve thrice. Lendl looked out of his element, McEnroe was on fire. That was until the second game of the third set. At this juncture, the score was 1-1 with McEnroe up 0 -30 on Lendl’s serve.  If McEnroe broke here, he would be well on his way to becoming the first American man in 30 years to win the French Open. At this critical juncture what ended up breaking was McEnroe’s temper. He took it upon himself to explode at a courtside cameraman in a bizarre show of nervous tension. McEnroe followed this up by losing the game. He would then go on to lose the third set.

In the fourth set McEnroe once again forged ahead. He broke Lendl’s serve to take a 4-2 lead. He was now a mere two games away from the coveted title. The seventh game would end up being the turning point of the match. The crucial moment came with McEnroe serving at game point, 40-30. He came in to the net behind a serve to Lendl’s backhand. The Czech hit a slice that dipped low causing McEnroe to hit his backhand volley from a difficult position. McEnroe pushed the volley a bit too much. It ended up going just long. After winning that point, Lendl dominated the rest of the set, winning five of the last six games. McEnroe made one last push in the fifth set, getting a couple of break points on Lendl’s serve, which he failed to convert. Lendl finally wore McEnroe out, breaking the American’s serve in the twelfth game to win the match the score of 3–6, 2–6, 6–4, 7–5, 7–5. Lendl became just the fourth player to come back from two sets to love down and win the French Open final.

Ivan Lendl Triumphant - 1984 French Open Champion

Ivan Lendl Triumphant – 1984 French Open Champion

Lendl Has The Last Word – His Game Does The Talking
The match altered the Lendl-McEnroe rivalry. They would play seventeen more times after that French Open final with Lendl winning twelve of those matches. McEnroe would make it to three more Grand Slam finals, winning two of them. His career would go into perpetual decline while Lendl continued to excel. The Czechoslovak played in twelve more Grand Slam finals and won seven of them, becoming the world’s top player during the latter half of the 1980’s. During this time he also became Americanized. After moving to the United States in 1986 he was declared an “illegal defector” by the government of Czechoslovakia. He was effectively banished from his homeland. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 Lendl was a permanent American resident and also a three time French Open champion. Lendl slowly grew on me. I respected his superhuman work ethic, intense focus and competitive play. Lendl’s values were not eastern or western, but universal. In any country or ideology this translated well.


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