One day, just after the Russians thought they had restored control in Czechoslovakia, they were surprised to find their supply trains delayed by railroad workers, street signs torn down, thousands of young people sitting in front of their tanks, and 100,000 of the brightest and strongest minds in the country forever gone.
One day when Lendl's chiropractor—a 29-year-old Long Island woman named Deborah Kleinman-Cindrich—was adjusting his ribs, his prize German shepherd began growling at her. "Ne, Viky!" said Lendl. "Don't worry. He is under control." All at once Kleinman-Cindrich was screaming, the dog was upon her, snapping at her belly, shredding the top of her pants, and Lendl was leaping from the massage table, shouting and yanking at the gnashing dog, his eyes wide with disbelief.
And one day when he was 14, Lendl and his mother were tied at 4-4. She wasn't worried—it was her serve, and he had never beaten her before. She was in command. "It was a weekend," he remembers. "It was Court Number Four. It was before lunch. She was serving, and all of a sudden I blew it by her four straight times, I just overpowered her, then I held my serve to win. She said nothing. I couldn't wait to get home to tell my father. I was grinning from ear to ear."
Twelve years later, as he is telling the story, he is still grinning from ear to ear.
The public never saw Lendl grin. In a sport that had exploded in the 1970s on the gunpowder of personality, Lendl had none. For most of his career he parked himself on the baseline, hammered those air-singeing forehands until his opponent buckled, collected his prize money, exchanged a few sarcastic volleys with the media and disappeared behind the six-foot fence.
In some human beings containment creates mystique, the unstated draws us in. In Lendl's case, neither happened. He confirmed our Communist caricature of the gray, stiff automaton. In neither the movement of his muscles nor the flicker of his eyes could one sense any imagination, any playfulness, any reason to want to pry into him further.
One thing haunted him and comforted those whom he chilled. Lendl couldn't win the big one. Squirrels dart in front of Porsches, teenagers sit in front of tanks, dogs attack when they are ordered to sit. In the finals of the four major tournaments each year, the moment the tide turned against him, the tennis player so in control lost all grip on himself. Lonely and stiff he stood, an alien in a rainstorm with all the street signs torn down, as more instinctive players threw back their heads and let their feet lead them home. Many accused him of sport's darkest sin: He gave up.
In the U.S. Open final during last September something changed. Trailing in the first set, he didn't stiffen. He let go. He ventured off the baseline, he pumped his fist after hitting cross-court winners, he overwhelmed McEnroe and the crowd. He went on a 54-wins-in-56-matches tear, became acknowledged as the king of tennis and permitted himself now and then to smile and make small talk. The gate on his life opened, just a crack, and a little of the breeze wafted in.
One of the major things missing from the childhood of Ivan Lendl was a childhood. Logic and order ruled his home. His father, Jiri, was a lawyer for the government, a chess master and once ranked 15th in the country in tennis. He would listen to his son, look at the boy's scrap-book filled with pictures of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall and tell him stories during dinner. If his son stopped chewing his food, the stories would stop in mid-sentence.
His mother was No. 2 among Czech women, with a burn to be No. I. She played tennis and kept house with an equally grim resolve. "Ivan's father was ready to bow when he was met by a stronger opponent, but I never did," says Olga Lendlova. "My adversary had to exhaust me totally and win." Once, unable to walk just before entering the hospital for surgery on torn cartilage in her knee, she bit back the pain and cleaned the apartment on her knees.