While no champion has a more obscure persona than Ivan Lendl, the unusual shirt patterns that he exhibits on court have made his attire more familiar than the clothes worn by more famous players. Fans who have strong opinions about, say, Martina Navratilova or John McEnroe can't tell you what they wear when they play. Lendl's shirts, however, always attract comment. In a sport in which clothing endorsements are worth millions, in which many of the fans play the game themselves—and like to dress like the stars—at least Lendl wears well.
Earlier this year Adidas signed Lendl to a new contract that will run through 1995, and then it introduced the latest Lendl line at the Open. Before his first match, Lendl walked across the stadium court in his new outfit, sat down and bent over to tie his shoes. Not exactly Calvin Klein and klieg lights, but it works in tennis fashion. "The best thing Ivan can do for Adidas," says Jerry Solomon, his agent, "is win matches."
Because the unflappable champion plays well on all surfaces on six continents, he is the ideal mannequin. Last year, when Lendl became No. 1, Adidas sold more than $20 million worth of Lendl clothing (shirts, sweaters, shorts, warmups), shoes and rackets. Only 20% of those sales are in the U.S., but Flushing Meadow provides a global audience. Clothing ordered now, in response to his win, will arrive in the shops in time for spring.
Because tennis is an international sport, the design of the Lendl shirts ($35 in the States) must appeal as much to Latin Americans, say, as to Northern Europeans. Lendl might wear white with contrasting blues in Europe, while in this country he wraps himself in the flag. Says Adidas designer Michael Lewis, "In the United States, if it's red, white and blue, it doesn't matter if it's a piece of garbage. It sells."
The first Lendl line, brought out in 1983, combined traditional argyle with bold colors. Its '85 successor featured geometric patterns on the front and back. "We had done all the machine looks we could do," says Lewis. For the new collection, Adidas had 10 designers from France, West Germany and the U.S. submit ideas. The company was looking for a softer pattern to help improve Lendl's harsh image. "Before, the clothes reinforced his personality," Solomon admits.
The winner was a French design that looks to be part surfing shirt, part Rorschach test. Adidas already has manufactured about 150,000 of the new Lendl garments for sale in the U.S. Evidently, exposure counts more than popularity.