Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Ivan Lendl: From 'the champion that nobody cared about' to super coach

By Monita Rajpal, CNN
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Fri March 22, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ivan Lendl spent 270 weeks as the world's top tennis player in the 1980s
  • "A lot of work, a lot of talent, a lot of luck" is what's needed to be the best, he says
  • Lendl is now coach of Andy Murray, current world number 3
  • Admits he still gets nervous when competing in tennis or golf, his other passion

(CNN) -- When I was a teenager in Toronto, I would spend time with my father watching tennis on television. This is how we bonded. We weren't a sporty family but tennis was a sport my dad loved to watch. He still does.

It was through my dad's enthusiasm that I started to recognize the players he would paint as personalities, not just athletes. And there was always one that stood out for my dad: Ivan Lendl.

On the court, Ivan Lendl was a quiet but immense force, a counterpoint to John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, the all-American tennis heroes. Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia he appeared to be the opposite of these talented but at times histrionic players. So different in demeanor and background that that it lead Sports Illustrated in 1987 to describe him as "the champion that nobody cares about."

Lendl was happy for McEnroe and Connors to take the spotlight choosing instead to let his game do the talking. My father would point this out and say "look at him always keeping his cool, that's what makes him great."

Lendl's lesson for greatness

For this man from Ostrava, a city near the Czech-Polish border, focusing on the game was all he knew.

Ivan Lendl on managing Murray

Both his parents were successful players; his mother was ranked 2nd in the country, his father 15th.

"I just hung around the older kids and snuck onto the court and that's how I got into it," he told me. "There was not much hope in Czechoslovakia growing up without doing great at sports so I think that was a motivation for a lot of the tennis players at the time."

When he was 21 he moved to the U.S. and just three years later he won his first Grand Slam title at the 1984 French Open where he defeated McEnroe in five sets.

"I don't remember much of it," he said during our interview. "I was very tired. We both were. I just know that throughout the fifth set I felt I should take advantage of it because with John you could never underestimate him because of his strength."

And that was just the beginning. In his career, Lendl would go on to win 94 career singles titles including 8 Grand Slam tournaments, and would spend 270 weeks as No.1. Only Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have beaten that record.

Today the 53-year-old is best known for being the coach of the current World No. 3, Andy Murray.

The main thing he imparts to the British player is preparation. Win or lose, if you're prepared and you do your best no one can take that away from you.

"You just train and through training and repetition you hit the shot and execute it so many times that all of a sudden you can do it under pressure and that's where the confidence comes from," he said.

I asked him if a champion or greatness is something that can be taught. He said it all just comes down to "a lot of work, a lot of talent, a lot of luck."

Before winning the Olympic gold medal and U.S. Open title last year many had questioned Murray's self-confidence.

But Lendl believes that while mental strength is key, so are stamina and physical strength.

"These days if the top guys don't play their best in the early rounds they can lose," he said.

Away from the tennis court and coaching, this father of five spends time with his other love: golf.

Believe it or not when it comes to competing Lendl says he still feels nervous.

"It's because I care. If you don't get nervous, you don't care about how you do," he said.

Two of his daughters also play golf -- choosing it over tennis partly because of the pressure of having to live up to the Lendl name.

His advice to them is the same advice his gives 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. Don't get too high or too low."

Similar words my father often told me. Meeting Lendl became more than an interview. It was an opportunity to bring to life a man my father always loved watching and in doing so reliving a time I treasure today.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
The beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by ISIS militants brings into focus the risks faced by reporters in conflict zones.
updated 8:19 AM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
In an exclusive CNN interview, Lance Armstrong admits to having a "f**k you" attitude.
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Summer isn't over yet. These new hotels are keeping it alive and fresh.
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
You've seen her turn on the catwalk, but her income might make your head spin.
updated 8:36 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
The pain that Michael Brown's parents are going through is something Sybrina Fulton can relate to. She, too, lost a son in a controversial shooting.
updated 5:04 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
19-year-old Udi Segal explains why he won't join the country's military.
updated 1:58 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
The sights couldn't be sadder: Animals killed or suffering through war in Gaza.
updated 9:14 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
They are the faces of a community on the run. Photographer Warzer Jaff documents the plight of the Yazidis.
updated 7:50 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A cameraman films a massive New York City subway rat charging at him and attacking him. WPIX reports.
Drinkers guzzled an incredible 10.3 billion liters of this brand in 2013, making it the world's No.1 beer. And you may have never heard of it.
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT