Lendl vs McEnroe: icy rivalry replaced by mutual respect

Ivan Lendl in 1984

Theirs was one of the greatest tennis rivalries in the open era: John McEnroe versus Ivan Lendl. McEnroe, best-known for his legendary temper and exceptional serve-and-volley, and Lendl, famous for his ice-cold expression and heavy baseline hits, faced each other on dozens of occasions and the rivalry was intense. Today, though, as the veteran players prepare to meet in Bratislava, both say they are on far better terms than some might expect.

Ivan Lendl in 1984 | Photo: Anefo / Croes,  R.C.,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0 NL
In the 1980s, there was no love lost between tennis greats John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, who faced each other countless times in key matches. A contrast in styles, McEnroe was unbridled emotion while Lendl kept a grim poker-face. Their most famous match-up was in 1984 at the French Open where Lendl came back from two sets down to win his first grand slam title. That particular match came down the wire:

“Ivan Lendl has finally won a grand slam championship! He showed great courage in rallying from two sets down to accomplish it. For John McEnroe… an American once again leaves empty from Paris.”

While Lendl smiled when it was over, McEnroe did not wait for the mic to congratulate his opponent but instead walked off the court. The rivalry was nothing if not bitter.

Flash forward to today, the two tennis legends have long since put mutual differences behind them. Ahead of an exhibition match in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Wednesday, McEnroe even addressed the story of a less than charitable comment once attributed to him.

John McEnroe,  photo: Pruneau,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Ivan and I certainly had our moments where we weren’t the best of friends or getting along very well. But to me he is one of the very best players in the history of our sport, so… that comment that he was the ‘worst No.1’ definitely didn’t come from me. I played him too many times and lost to him too many times for that to be true.”

The Czech-born Lendl, who has lived in the US since the 1980s, also told reporters the relationship had improved.

“It’s a lot better than back then when there was a lot at stake. We both know we’ve got a few years behind us now and that what’s most important is for the visitors to enjoy the match.”

At the same time, Lendl does not think there was anything wrong with the rivalry when their careers were at their peak:

“That’s the way it is with big rivals: the situation is tense because both want to win and both want to show they are better. That’s normal.”

Ivan Lendl,  photo: Tomáš Novák
Rivalries are something witnessed often – and indeed relished - by sports fans – one doesn’t have to look far, from the days of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier to the Montreal Canadiens versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. Most would argue that a healthy rivalry, and even the occasional flare-up, is all a regular part of sport: all part of a legend upon which both fans and players one day look back. Such as this McEnroe moment from the past versus Tom Gullikson:

“You can’t be serious, man!...You cannot be serious!!... That ball was on the line!”