Monday, February 26, 2007

Enfant Terrible vs. Mean Machine

Kunal Diwan

Sport is a microcosm where laws of nature are intensified manifold and put on display for the benefit of lesser gifted individuals. The Darwinian theory of Natural Selection is even more vividly exhibited in individual sports which are a tussle of skill, strength, endurance, perseverance and personalities. Tennis is perhaps a sport which tests all quarters of human physicality – hand - eye coordination, power, speed, athleticism, and stamina. Through the 1980’s, professional men’s tennis was dominated by two contrasting players who mesmerised the world with their paradoxically opposing routes to sporting immortality. One was a tempestuous sorcerer blessed with sublime skills. The other was a cold-blooded robot with a maniacal work-ethic from across the Iron Curtain.

John McEnroe stormed into limelight in 1977, when he made the Wimbledon semi final as an amateur, after having glided through the qualifiers. It was the start of a very special career. McEnroe reached his first Championships final in 1980 setting up a title clash with the icy Bjorn Bjorg. In a match often called one of the greatest sporting events in history, McEnroe saved five match points in the fourth set tie-breaker and won it 18-16. Unable to break the Swede’s serve, McEnroe went down 8-6 in the deciding fifth and gave Borg his fifth successive Wimbledon title. The next year saw the American at his tempestuous and artistic best. Wielding the racket like a Stradivarius he conjured magic at the net and exacted revenge on Borg in the final to win the first of his three Wimbledons. Adding ignominy to success was the fact that he became the only first-time champion not to have been given an honorary membership of the All England Club. This was an attempt to chastise McEnroe’s unpardonable behaviour in the earlier rounds where his retorts to officials and umpires reached iconic status. Disputed line calls saw McEnroe, hands on his hips, mouthing infamous lines like – “You cannot be serious” and “You are the pits”. Later, this is what the American told the press -

“I wanted to spend (the evening) with my family and friends and the people who had supported me, not a bunch of stiffs who are 70-80 years old, telling you that you're acting like a jerk.”

Being branded a ‘Super brat’ and ‘Motor-mouth’ only seemed to spur the man to exalted levels on the court. Deft volleys and soaring lobs had opponents and viewers hypnotised with their other-worldly beauty. His shot-making ability and sharp reflexes made him one of the great returners of serve the game had seen. Crowds flocked to see him play even though they booed him most of the time for his un-sporty behaviour. In direct contract to the natural ability and abhorrence of training and practice that McEnroe brought to the game, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a work horse was trying his utmost to extract maximum yield out of god-given ability.

Ivan Lendl would forever be known as the ultimate professional tennis player. He was the thinking and planning man’s tennis player. Lendl raised baseline-tennis to an exalted level, refashioning it from a defensive, plodding exercise into a display of massive power unleashed along the flanks. He was the pioneer of the inside-out forehand from the ad-court. Lendl’s backhand was like the lash of a whip – a single handed recoil of power with the entire body perfectly positioned – no longer would the backhand be an instrument to merely topple the ball into the opposing court and keep it in play.

“I did not invite you to the net”, he is rumoured to have hissed to hapless opponents as he sent the green ball whooshing past them.

His obsession with preparation and practice compelled him to lift weights for strength, use scientific methods to gain power and endurance, keep notes of the strengths and weaknesses of other players, and carry multiple sets of polythene wrapped rackets to court. Ivan was the ultimate professional. He once said, - “If I don't practice the way I should, then I won't play the way that I know I can”.

Having lost his first four Grand Slam finals had led Lendl to be branded a choker. All this changed in the 1984 French Open final where he played McEnroe. McEnroe led by two sets to love but proceeded to lose his cool, the next three sets and the trophy to Lendl who put on a show of amazing resilience and determination. It was like a change of guard. McEnroe was soon enamoured by the guiles of Hollywood and drugs while Lendl went from strength to strength.

Lendl reached 19 grand slam finals, winning eight of them. But the most coveted trophy in tennis continued to elude him as despite several single minded attempts, he could never go all the way on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon. Early in his career Lendl had by-passed Wimbledon on a number of occasions saying – “Grass is for cows”. Destiny has a way of making people eat their words, and the emotion-less Czech spent most of his playing days striving to win at the All England Club. Following a typically planned approach, he skipped the French open twice to concentrate on playing on grass. He hired Tony Roche in an attempt to learn the nuances of serve and volley. Unfortunately, for a man of his athletic skill, Lendl was surprisingly stone-footed and frozen in his approach to the net. His efforts yielded two Wimbledon final appearances but never the title.

More than a decade after their retirement from professional tennis, both Lendl’s and McEnroe’s post-retirement activities seem to reflect their personalities. Lendl has taken to golf and boasts a ‘0’ handicap. He also takes time to teach golf to his daughters and is an avid art collector. McEnroe has dabbled in hosting a talk-show, singing and playing the guitar for his band, and commentating at tennis tournaments. Can one imagine Lendl crooning over a mic while strumming a Fender? For that matter, can one visualise McEnroe gracing the fairways with his genial presence. You cannot be serious.

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