Ivan the terribly nice guy
Lendl, once the most feared player in the world, is now enjoying success as coach of grand slam winner Andy Murray
"No need for apologies," says Ivan Lendl over the phone. The Sunday Morning Post has been offering them profusely since picking up his call. The previous day, the eight-time grand slam champion and one of the game's most dominant players in the 1980s, had rung for an arranged interview only to find us at a dinner engagement and unable to take the call. A champion and a gentleman, he simply said, "No worries", and called back the next day.
Not many sportspeople, let alone superstars, would be so gracious.
Miscommunication from the PR team of the BNP Paribas Showdown at the Asia-World Expo on March 4 led to the embarrassing situation on Monday night. The following day, Lendl is driving back after an early-morning training session in Florida with Andy Murray, who is in the front passenger seat.
We don't know if he is on the car's speakerphone but we ask what he thinks of Roger Federer's assertion that Murray is a bigger threat now that he is a grand slam winner thanks to Lendl's guidance. "Thank you for the compliment Roger," quips Lendl. "But Andy was dangerous even before I got involved with him. But it is still nice to hear that he has become even more dangerous under me."
The former world No 1 became Murray's coach just over a year ago. In that time he has instilled in the Scot the iron discipline that marked his own illustrious career and it has led to a marked improvement, especially in results at major events. Murray won his first grand slam title at the US Open last September, becoming the first Briton to do so in 76 years, as well as Olympic gold a few weeks earlier in London.
Federer was commenting before their semi-final clash at the opening grand slam this year, last month's Australian Open. Murray, who beat Federer in the Olympics final, beat the Swiss master again to reach the final against Novak Djokovic, which he lost in a thrilling five-setter.
"I was both pleased as well as disappointed at the Australian Open," says Lendl. "When you enter a tournament you want to win it. That is the ultimate goal but at the same time you have to realise that you cannot win every time.
"It was disappointing Andy couldn't quite finish it off but what was pleasing was that he played well throughout the tournament. In particular, his match against Federer was very good."
The relationship between guru and pupil is going well. Lendl puts it down to the work ethic of the Scot. "He is a hard worker, just like me. It is working for both of us and it is pretty simple. We both want to do it," Lendl says.
We wonder what Murray must be thinking, hearing this one-sided conversation.
Lendl will meet longtime rival John McEnroe in a pro-set match at next month's exhibition, which will coincide with the International Tennis Federation's inaugural World Tennis Day on March 4. China's first grand slam winner, Li Na, and former world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki will also feature in a best-of-three-sets match.
Lendl is looking forward to coming back to Hong Kong for more than one reason. Of course, he would like to get the better of McEnroe. "We played against each other three times last October and he won that 2-1", but he is also looking forward to returning to the city where it all began for him.
"Hong Kong is where I won one of my first ATP tournaments in my career, back in 1980, and I have very fond memories. Perhaps what I remember most was coming in to land at the airport, it looked very dangerous. I heard there is a new airport now."
Lendl, who was then still representing Czechoslovakia (he became a US citizen in 1992), defeated American Brian Teacher in the final of a US$75,000 tournament at Victoria Park. He continued coming to Hong Kong regularly but his last visit was in 1992 at the Marlboro Tennis Championship.
"Hong Kong was still under British rule then. It has been a long time, more than 20 years, since I last came and I'm looking forward to seeing all the changes. I heard it is quite different today."
The world is indeed different today. In his day, there was hardly a whiff of drug use in tennis. Now, there is growing belief that it is widespread in the sport. Does he agree?
"There is no evidence that is the case. I think a lot of the panic stems from what has been happening in other sports, and especially the Lance Armstrong case. This is affecting all other sports, too," says Lendl.
He remembers that in 1994, the year he retired, at 34, drug testing was just being introduced.
"I was tested twice out of competition. I know that there have been calls for more out-of-competition testing to be done these days and that Roger Federer has called for biological passports, but I really don't know what is the best way to catch the cheats. But it is always good to ensure that the sport is clean."
Born: March 7, 1960 (52), Ostrava
Turned pro: 1978
Retired: December 20, 1994
Prize money: US$21,262,417 (9th all-time)
Played: right-handed (one-handed backhand)
Highest world ranking: 1
Career ATP singles finals: 146
ATP Singles titles: 94
Win-loss record: 1,071-239
Grand slam record:
Eight grand slam titles
Win-loss record: 222-49
Australian Open: runner-up 1983, winner 1989, 1990
French Open: runner-up 1981, 1985, winner 1984, 1986, 1987
Wimbledon: runner-up 1986, 1987
US Open: runner-up 1982, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1989 winner 1985, 1986, 1987
1 Davis Cup title (Czechoslovakia, 1980)
Inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame 2001
Mother Olga a top-10 player in Czechoslovakia. Father Jiri ranked as high as 15, became president of Czechoslovakia Tennis Federation in 1990. Jiri also a lawyer, a chess master, and junior chess champ of Bohemia and Moravia.
Married: September 16, 1989 to Samantha Frankel
Five daughters - Marika, Isabelle, Caroline, Daniela, Nikola