Ivan Lendl once remarked that grass was for golf, so foreign was the surface when he first arrived in the main draw at Wimbledon in 1979. When he skipped the Championships in 1982, he quipped it was because he was allergic to grass. But no one in the history of the game tried harder to win the sport’s biggest title. That his quest failed should not take away from the immense effort he put in.
In the 1980s, Wimbledon was dominated by John McEnroe, Boris Becker and then Stefan Edberg, a trio who won eight titles between them and whose serve and volley games were perfectly suited to grass.
Playing their natural game on the slick courts of the All England Club, they made life hell for the baseliners, the grinders and the scramblers who would rather build a point from the back than make regular forays to the net. Lendl was swamped by the net rushers. “He did everything he could to give himself the best chance of winning Wimbledon,” said Andy Murray, now coached by the Czech. “Ivan skipped the French Open because he’d won all of the other slams and he wanted to try to win all four. “He played very well at Wimbledon but sometimes the final isn’t good enough for a lot of people. He did everything in his powers to win it but wasn’t quite good enough. He was still a great grass-court player.”
Indeed he was, at least if we deal in statistics. Lendl reached two Wimbledon finals, in 1986 and 1987 and was a semi-finalist on five other occasions. In 1989, he led Becker by two sets to one in their semi-final only to lose in a deciding set and the people he lost to read like a Wimbledon Who’s Who: three times he lost to Becker, while McEnroe, Connors, Edberg and Pat Cash all stopped him in his tracks. His overall win-percentage on grass is in the top 20 all-time list and is better than that of Cash, Andre Agassi and Stan Smith, all of whom won the title.
No one tried more ways to win than Lendl, at the time the world’s best player on every other surface – he reached eight straight US Open finals – but for whom grass levelled the playing field and even pushed it in others’ favour. It seems hard to believe now but twice he even chose to skip the French Open – a tournament he had won three times – to prepare for Wimbledon. In 1990, he won the then Stella Artois Championships at London’s Queen’s Club, beating McEnroe and Becker in the process and went in to Wimbledon as the favourite.
Lendl hired Tony Roche as his coach to improve his net play and although the movement was never quite second nature, he became a fine volleyer. Failing in his quest to win Wimbledon was “his one regret”, Lendl said, but he gave it is all. “I do the best I can, and that is the most you can ask for,” he once said. “I think it’s nice to win, but if you give it all you have and you don’t win, that’s just tough.”
Should Murray win the title under his tutelage this summer, perhaps it would be some consolation.