SI Vault
Gary Smith
April 28, 1986
Protected by trained dogs and propelled by an iron will, Ivan Lendl has ascended to the top of men's tennis
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April 28, 1986

On Guard And Quite In Control

Protected by trained dogs and propelled by an iron will, Ivan Lendl has ascended to the top of men's tennis

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On the other side of the six-foot fence with the sign on the gate of a dog baring its fangs and the camera eyeing anyone who approaches it, beyond the six German shepherds patrolling the yard, inside the stone mansion electronically protected by two alarm systems—one that screams if any door or window is touched, another of invisible beams that detects any movement inside the house—is a 26-year-old Czechoslovakian living the American dream.

To achieve this he has traveled 4,000 miles from mother and motherland and spent so much time playing and thinking about tennis that he conquered the other 1,500 professionals in his business. Now he has freedom. Now he has control. "You see," he says. "Nothing bothers me here."

One day the invisible beams in the house were broken, the alarm system shrieked, the six dogs barked wildly and chaos came to the house of Ivan Lendl. A small bird had come in through the chimney.

In Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, an industrial city 10 miles from the Polish border, it was dinner time at the Lendls.

"Jez mrkev. Jez hrach," snapped Olga Lendlova. "Eat your peas. Eat your carrots."

Ivan bowed his head. The peas and carrots grew cold. Olga looked furiously at her husband, shoved back her chair and reached for the timer. What was it with this only child of hers? Why did almost everything between them become a struggle for control? When she tried to coach him on the tennis court, they argued, and she stomped away. When he played poorly he often burst into tears or stopped running down shots, and she told him to leave the court. Once, when he wouldn't eat just before she was about to play for the Czech national title, she accused him of trying to upset her so she would lose.

She set the timer for 10 minutes, and both parents left the room. How had it come to this, the same scene over and over at the dinner table, the cold vegetables and the anger and the ticking timer, and the little boy sitting alone, trying to decide whether to eat the vegetables and appease her or assert his freedom and be punished?

"Did you eat all of them?" she called from the other room. "Ivan, you have to eat all of them." She used to hit him with her left hand when he talked back, until her watch broke. Then she always remembered to hit him with her right.

"Stand back. Don't touch me. Don't raise your arm," the world's best tennis player is telling the first journalist ever allowed on his property. "Don't make any sudden move. And don't stare at him in the eyes. He will take that as a challenge. Now stand against the house and stay there."

Gripped in both of Lendl's hands is a leather leash. At the end of the leash is a 105-pound German shepherd named Viky, the prize of his pack, capable of attacking on command. Lendl leads the animal to the obstacle course in his backyard, watching proudly as it responds to his commands to climb the ladder, walk the plank and spring over a wooden barrier three times its height.

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