A Victory For A Nation That No Longer Exists – Ivan Lendl & Czechoslovakia’s 1980 Davis Cup Title

The pressure must have been immense. A one party state was relying on a not quite one man team to win the Davis Cup, men’s tennis most prized team competition. The nation was Czechoslovakia and the year was 1980. The Czechoslovaks had come close to winning the Cup just five years earlier when they were defeated by the brilliance of Bjorn Borg who led Sweden to a 3-2 victory in the 1975 final. Now they were back in the final playing against a veteran Italian squad. The final was in Prague, but the Czechoslovak number two singles player, Tomas Smid, got off to a poor start against the uber-talented and temperamental Adriano Panatta, losing the first two sets. He then began to claw his way back into the match. At the same time a small, but vocal group of three hundred Italian fans cheered on their side.

As the match grew closer, tempers flared in the stands. The Czechoslovak police warned the Italians to behave themselves. A ruckus ensued in which a fan bit one of the police. In true communist fashion, the fan was taken away for what was likely to be a good beating behind closed doors. At this point the match took a wild turn. Panatta stopped playing as a form of protest. While the officials were trying to decide what to do next a call came in from Rome. It seemed that the fan who had been taken off was a member of the Italian Communist Party. This was no way to treat a fellow comrade. He was soon led back to his seat and play resumed. Unfortunately for Panatta the tide had turned. Smid came roaring back to win the match in five sets. Czechoslovakia now led 1-0 with the man who had carried the team through to the final due to play the second match. Ivan Lendl was just beginning to realize his immense talent. The 1980 Davis Cup was the start of even greater things to come for him.

Czechoslovakia's 1980 Davis Cup team

Czechoslovakia’s 1980 Davis Cup team

Advent Of The Modern Game – The Rise Of Lendl
Ivan Lendl was a man born to play tennis, coming from a family steeped in the game. Both his parents were excellent players. At one time his mother was the number two female player in Czechoslovakia. Lendl’s game matured at an early age. With his tall, lean frame he could generate a massive amount of power, especially off the forehand side. Coupled with a heavy first serve, the hatchet faced Czech would pound opponents into submission. The advent of power tennis in the modern game really started with Lendl. Add to this the fact that he was a workhorse who loved to play tournaments and Lendl’s ascendance to the upper echelons of the sport was assured.  He played an incredible number of matches. In 1980 he went 105-25 in singles and 39-19 in doubles. That means Lendl played 188 matches in a single year, on average one professional level match every two days. Ten of those matches were in the 1980 Davis Cup and all ten were victories.

Lendl was the linchpin of Czechoslovakia’s 1980 team. This was a strange turn of events, since his record in Davis Cup prior to that year was a desultory 3-5. He began this Davis Cup with a bit of luck. In the first two ties, the Czechoslovaks faced France and Romania, neither of which had their top players available. Yannick Noah was injured and Ilie Nastase was serving one of his recurrent suspensions for bad behavior. Lendl breezed through these first two ties, winning all nine sets he played. In the semifinals, Argentina offered a much stiffer test since the tie would be played in Buenos Aires on slow red clay. The Argentines sported two of the world’s top players in Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc. Lendl had never defeated either of them. He had already played Vilas three times on red clay earlier in the year, failing to win a single set. With Czechoslovakia losing the first match, it was critical that Lendl prevail. Surprisingly he did, winning three long, tough sets. The next day he teamed with Smid for another straight sets victory over Vilas and Clerc in doubles. Then on the last day Lendl faced Clerc, who he had also lost to three times without taking a set. He managed to overcome the past, silencing a raucous Argentinian crowd as he beat Clerc in four sets. Lendl’s game soared in the aftermath of this upset victory. He won five tournaments in October and November before taking several weeks off to prepare for the Final against Italy.

The personification of power tennis - Ivan Lendl in the 1980 Davis Cup Final

The personification of power tennis – Ivan Lendl in the 1980 Davis Cup Final

The Weight Of A Nation On His Shoulders – For Nation & Ideology
Once again Lendl would come face to face with his recent past. A year earlier, Czechoslovakia had played Italy in the 1979 semifinals on red clay at the Foro Italico in Rome. After Smid eked out a five set victory in the first match, Lendl split the first two sets with Adriano Panatta. Then the Italian star ran off twelve straight games, a double bagel to win the match. In the fourth match, Lendl blew a one set lead and lost an excruciatingly close battle to Corrado Barrazzuti 7-5 in the fifth set. It had been a harsh lesson in failing to deal with the pressure of Davis Cup play. There were several favorable circumstances for Lendl coming into the 1980 final. The tie would be played before a home crowd in Prague. The Czechoslovaks chose a fast indoor carpet which favored Lendl’s brand of power tennis. Despite the antics and drama of the first match Smid had given the home side a 1-0 lead. Now Lendl took the court with the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

To the communist government of Czechoslovakia, the Davis Cup was a far more important event than any other tennis tournament. This was a team event, a communal competition which they could use to showcase the superiority of the communist system. At least that was what the powers that be in Czechoslovakia wanted the world to believe. Lendl’s performance did not disappoint them. After losing the first set against Barrazutti he put on a devastating display of powerful baseline tennis. Over the last three sets he allowed the Italian only five games. He then teamed with Smid in doubles. They overcame a two sets to one deficit against Panatta and Paolo Bertolucci. The Czechoslovak duo prevailed 6-4 in the fifth set. For the first and what would turn out to be only time, Czechoslovakia were Davis Cup champions.

The 1980 Davis Cup Champions - Czechoslovakia

The 1980 Davis Cup Champions – Czechoslovakia (Credit: Interlaken)

Forget About It – A Czechoslovakian Championship
The government was satisfied, Lendl was a rising star and Eastern European tennis was second to none, at least in 1980. Oddly Lendl would revert back to lackluster performances in the ensuing years of Davis Cup. He stopped playing in Cup competition altogether after 1985 and moved to the United States. He would become an American citizen in 1992. Czechoslovakia was dissolved a year later and memories of their 1980 Davis Cup title largely forgotten.  At the time, the victory was a huge breakthrough for Lendl and his nation, but from today’s perspective it seems more like an aberration, a victory for a nation that no longer exists.

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