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Kagan Mcleod for The National
Kagan Mcleod for The National

Newsmaker: Return of the Iceman, Ivan Lendl

The inscrutable tennis champ who never conquered Wimbledon is back in the spotlight as the force behind Andy Murray's toughness and focus, which translated to one of Britain's proudest moments, writes Jonathan Gornall.

A sporting phenomenon as remarkable as a British player triumphing at Wimbledon passed almost unnoticed amid the celebrations on Sunday as Andy Murray finally sated a nation's 77-year hunger for men's victory on the hallowed Centre Court.

Ivan Lendl, Murray's famously poker-faced coach and fellow three-time Wimbledon semi-finalist, very nearly smiled.

Murray had just played the match of his life, defeating a resilient Novak Djokovic in a nail-biting, athletic showdown and restoring a nation's faith in a game it invented but had somehow lost control of in the intervening 150 years.

The stadium exploded - friends, family and the faithful on their feet as one, cheering and applauding wildly. With the exception, of course, of Lendl, who remained seated, clapped politely and - commentators remain divided on this - may or may not have smiled.

Murray, who took on Lendl as his coach in December 2011 in a bid to shatter his personal glass ceiling of Grand Slam semi-final defeats, was clearly in no doubt as to who should take the credit for his breakthrough. Ignoring his girlfriend, mother and every other member of his team, he made a beeline for Lendl and grabbed him in a bear hug.

"Ideally, he would have won it himself," Murray said afterwards, "but I think this was the next best thing for him ... I'm just happy I managed to do it for him."

No one at Wimbledon on Sunday could have understood better what Murray was going through than Lendl - an eight-time Grand Slam winner who failed to crack Wimbledon, the biggest of the big four titles. Equally, none could have gifted Murray the type of ruthless mental toughness he so badly needed.

Boris Becker, who defeated Lendl in the Wimbledon final in 1986, wrote last year that Murray was struggling with the same demons Lendl had faced 30 years ago.

"When [Lendl] first came on the scene ... he clearly had a lot of ability and yet he could not translate it into major titles," wrote the six-time Grand Slam winner for The Telegraph. "When he got to the final of a Grand Slam tournament, his nerves would overwhelm him."

Lendl responded by paying close attention to every detail of his game, and succeeded, adds Becker, "not because he was the most naturally gifted player; it was because he was the most professional. He led the way on every front: he was the first to have his own personal trainer, the first to have a personalised diet, the first to have his own racket-stringer. Everything he could control, he did control."

Now Lendl has bequeathed that self-control to Murray.

Between 2008 and last year, Britain's best player made it to four Grand Slam finals. After three semi-final places at Wimbledon, Murray did one better last year under Lendl's supervision, edging into the final, and journalists at a post-match press conference wanted to know what the inscrutable Iceman had said to him upon winning.

"It was: 'Good job, you did really well, what time do you want to practise tomorrow?'" said Murray. "That was it. There's no time for anything else."

This was the steely focus that saw Murray go on to break his Grand Slam duck last year, beating defending champion Djokovic in five sets in the longest final ever played at the US Open.

Gone was the impetuous, easily distracted, angry young man, ranting at perceived unfairness. The Iceman had cooled Murray down.

In his heyday, Lendl was No 1 in the world for 270 weeks between 1980 and 1992, a record beaten only by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Lendl was never a favourite with the media. It was the British press that dubbed him the Iceman. And when he won his second US Open in 1986, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover with the headline "The champion nobody cares about".

He didn't care. His game was tennis, not sucking up to the media. Unlike his US contemporaries, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, Lendl refused to play the crowd-pleasing clown and remained focused.

Besides, off court, says Becker, Lendl was something of a joker in the locker room, " a guy who loves to laugh, although I have to admit that his idea of a practical joke isn't everybody's cup of tea. He would enjoy making you suffer mentally or physically, though it was all done in good humour".

Lendl never showed this side on the court "because tennis is his profession", Wojtek Fibak, a Polish tennis player who guided Lendl when he first moved to the United States, told The New York Times in 1982. "He wants to be cool because that's his protection ... By being hard and cruel, he's not asking the public to like him, just to respect him."

Ironman would have been a better nickname for the player who grew up in a grimy steel town deep behind the Iron Curtain, and whose background could not have been more different to that of his pampered American rivals.

Lendl was born into a sporting family in Ostrava, a large, industrial city in what was then Czechoslovakia. His parents were both tennis players. His mother, Olga Lendlova, was ranked second in the country and his father, Jiri Lendl, 15th - and his ability to conceal and control his feelings was partly the product of a forceful, driven mother who, according to a quote attributed to Lendl in an unauthorised 1986 biography, "was always snapping at me to eat my peas and carrots".

The more she yelled, "the more I resisted her ... I forced myself not to cry. If I had, she would have known that she had got to me and I couldn't let that happen".

In addition to tough love, communism played a part in forging the future star. At the age of eight, Lendl saw the Russian tanks roll into Prague and learnt to keep his thoughts to himself.

"My parents were very upset and I was warned not to use words like 'occupants' or to laugh or spit or say anything against them," he said in an interview in 2009. "People went to jail for using words like that."

For Lendl, tennis became the magic carpet that would carry him out of that world.

He went to the US for the first time at age 15 to play in Miami Beach in the Junior Orange Bowl, a competition he would win a year later.

"At home, I was able to play a maximum of two hours indoors a week," he recalled in 2009. "Well, how much better are you going to get? But I came here and played six hours a day for two months."

And his concentration blossomed in the Florida sun: "It didn't matter to me that the stores had all the fruit you wanted to eat," he said. "I just wanted to get fed so I could go and play again. That was what I cared about and tennis became a great vehicle for a better life."

Lendl turned professional in 1978 and, although unlike his fellow Czech Martina Navratilova he never defected, he began living in the US in 1981, buying his own home in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1984.

By then, he was world No 1, beating McEnroe in the final of that year's French Open to take the first of his eight Grand Slam titles.

In 1988, hoping to represent the US at the Seoul Olympics, Lendl tried to speed up processing of his US citizenship, but under Olympic rules the attempt was thwarted by the Czech tennis federation. The veto was possible because Lendl had played for the nation in 1980, when he had led Czechoslovakia to its first victory in the Davis Cup.

"I would have thought that [after] all I've done for them, they wouldn't object," Lendl said at the time. "But the way they treat people, it doesn't surprise me.''

Lendl was finally sworn in as a US citizen on July 8, 1992.

His top-level playing career ended during the 1994 US Open, when the bad back that had increasingly plagued him forced him to default. He retired at age 34, shortly afterwards, ending a 17-year career with 94 singles titles, winnings of more than US$21 million and a win-lose ratio of 1,279 to 274 - a record bettered only by Jimmy Connors.

Since turning 50 in 2010, Lendl has qualified for the ATP Champions Tour but has only occasionally picked up a tennis racket since retiring. His love now is his family, art - he collects the Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha - and golf. Lendl's own game is impressive enough - he plays off scratch - but three of his five daughters have serious professional aspirations.

Why not tennis?

"I led them into sports," he told USA Today in 2006. "They chose golf. I'm trying to support them."

His advice to them, he told CNN in March this year, is pretty much the same as he gives to Murray: "When it's going good, take it and be humble, and when it's not going good, accept it as well and just keep training. Stay level-headed either way." And, surprisingly, not to take it all too seriously.

Every Saturday, Lendl teams up with one of his daughters to take on the other two on the course, and the competition is fierce. Once, he told The New York Times last year, he challenged his then 10-year-old daughter Isabelle to her place on the club ladderand beat her ruthlessly.

"My wife finds these stories upsetting," Lendl said. "I think they're funny."

Maybe Mrs Lendl, like a generation of tennis fans and fellow players before her, doesn't get the joke - but when it comes to exorcising the ghost of Wimbledon, the Iceman has had the last laugh.

 

THE BIOG

1960 Born March 7 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia

1978 Turned pro

1980 Leads Czechoslovakia to Davis Cup victory

1981 Moves to the US

1984 Wins first Grand Slam at French open

1989 Marries Samantha Frankel

1990 Wins last of his eight Grand Slams at the Australian Open

1992 Becomes US citizen

1993 Fails in last attempt to win Wimbledon

1994 Back injury forces retirement at age 34

2011 Agrees to coach Andy Murray

2012 Murray wins first Grand Slam at US Open

2013 Murray wins Wimbledon

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