Being Ivan Lendl

Every morning, I drop my daughters off at school and then drive by the brick wall where I spent countless hours dreaming of becoming a professional tennis player. I gave up on my baseball dreams when I was 13 or 14 years old and realized that I was still afraid of inside fastballs. I bizarrely held on to tennis aspirations much longer.

The wall is on the outside of a supermarket -- a Harris Teeter, if you want specifics -- and it faces a parking lot that was almost never filled with cars. It’s a huge brick wall, maybe 30 or 40 yards long and 15 or more feet high, and tennis balls bounce off it unpredictably. I saw this as a good thing when I was 15 or 16 and hitting tennis balls against it pretty much every day. It’s almost like that wall is alive.

I think about that wall now because on Thursday -- thanks to a glorious wife who knows me in a deeper way than I know myself -- I will be playing tennis with (against?) John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pat Cash and, my childhood tennis hero, Ivan Lendl. They are coming to town to play in a senior tennis event and, for my birthday, Margo bought me a chance to play in their prematch clinics. I’m sure it will be me and 50 other people. But that doesn’t matter. I’ll be on the court with them.

I cannot even begin to count how many times I faced that brick wall -- whacking tennis balls turned fuzzy from the brick and concrete -- and imagined I was facing Mac, Connors or, especially, Ivan Lendl. Well, that’s not exactly right. I never faced Ivan Lendl. That’s because I WAS Ivan Lendl. The childhood hero stuff is so powerful. The other day, while working on an upcoming story on Stephen Curry, I spent a joyous few minutes talking with Jerry West. What a thrill. I cannot think of a single living athlete who is more iconic than Jerry West. In my years as a sportswriter, I’ve been absurdly lucky enough to spend some extended time with, among many other legends, Oscar Robertson, Jim Brown, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Bart Starr, Bob Feller, Rod Laver and Jerry West, and it is humbling and thrilling and intimidating ... but different from what I’m feeling now. I have no memory of seeing them play when I was young. They are just before my time and so my overwhelming admiration of them has passed through a filter.

This is why, deep down, I’ve felt a twinge of nervousness when going to to talk to Buddy Bell or Ozzie Newsome or Austin Carr that I did not feel with those other legends. They are tied more closely to my heart. I once pretended to be them.

And the two people I spent most of childhood pretending to be were former Cleveland indians second baseman Duane Kuiper and the former No. 1 tennis player in the world Ivan Lendl. I’ve told my Kuiper stories countless times and will tell it at length again in April surrounding “Duane Kuiper Bobblehead Day” in San Francisco, an event I still plan to attend. Ivan Lendl is trickier.

When I was entering high school, my Dad got a new job as a mechanic in a sweater factory and our family moved from Cleveland to an apartment complex in Charlotte -- the apartment complex I drive through every morning after dropping off my girls at school. Moving just before high school is a rotten thing, and for months I felt pretty rotten about it. But in the center of our complex, there were three tennis courts. I had never played tennis -- I can’t even visualize a tennis court in Cleveland -- but it looked interesting. I needed something.

There was an old guy in the neighborhood named George who gave tennis lessons for something like five bucks per half hour. When I say George was old, I mean OLD. He might have been 90. He couldn’t move at all, but he was pretty enthusiastic about tennis and, in my memory, he could really volley. I somehow got an $7.99 wood racket from K-Mart and began to take lessons from George. I don’t remember a single thing he told me or lesson he taught me but I still have that vision of him standing across the net, looking more or less mid-coronary, and hitting ball after ball to my forehand and then to my backhand. He must have taught me the basics of the game because I don’t know where else I would have picked them up. As it turned out, I had a decent knack for the game. I hit my first ground stroke not long before I turned 15. By 16, I was better than most people I knew -- not that most people I knew liked tennis much -- and I was ready to try out for high school tennis team. I was dreaming of turning pro someday.

I was obsessive about hitting tennis balls against that supermarket wall. I would say that up to that point in my life, I had never worked that relentlessly on anything -- not school, not baseball, no my various jobs, certainly not reading or writing. Every day, though, I’d hit tennis balls against the wall, sometimes by day, other times under the spotty glow of street lights. In retrospect, I’m not even sure what all those hours cracking worn tennis balls at a wall did for my ACTUAL tennis game; that’s certainly not the best way to develop tennis talents. But I did it anyway, hour after hour, and all the while I would pretend to be Ivan Lendl.

There aren’t many huge Ivan Lendl fans in this world -- I’ve only met one. That’s understandable. Lendl was (is?) this morose and colorless guy who was born in Czechoslovakia, relocated to American and played a power baseline tennis that was viewed skeptically by pretty much everybody (though it is now the basis for most of the best players). David Foster Wallace in his classic “Roger Federer As Religious Experience” pretty neatly summed up the way people felt about Lendl’s game.

“Ivan Lendl was the first top pro whose strokes and tactics appeared to be designed around the special capacities of the composite racket. His goal was to win points from the baseline, via either passing shots or outright winners. His weapon was his groundstrokes, especially his forehand, which he could hit with overwhelming pace because of the amount of topspin he put on the ball. ... It wasn’t that Ivan Lendl was an immortally great tennis player. He was simply the first top pro to demonstrate what heavy topspin and raw power could achieve from the baseline. And, most important, the achievement was replicable, just like the composite racket.”

I don’t agree with DFW on all this, by the way. I think Lendl’s game was not quite replicable; it had its own individual genius that he never quite got credit for. He reached eight straight U.S. Open finals, came back from two sets down to beat McEnroe at the French and twice reached the final at Wimbledon despite his aversion to the surface (he was literally allergic to grass). I think he didn’t get much acclaim or love because he was so sullen and private and because he was surrounded by all these huge personalities with big and bold tennis games -- McEnroe and Connors and Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker at the head of the class. There were numerous stories (I read them all) that insisted Lendl was privately a funny and thoughtful guy who had significantly more charm and enthusiasm for life than the brooding figure who whipped heavy topspin forehands and backhands past rushing volleyers.

I blandly believed those stories and still do but personality had little to do with why I loved Lendl. His game was my North Star. I looped my forehand because he did. I hit a one-handed topspin backhand because he did. For a while I had this ridiculously high toss on my serve because he did. I wanted to carry around sawdust in my pocket the way he did and spread it on the handle of the racket when it became slippery from sweat. Like he did. I used to memorize quotes of his and repeat them in my mind when I was hitting the ball against the wall -- and this was somewhat challenging because Lendl didn’t have many memorable quotes. I remember he once had a lesson in Tennis Magazine that had to do lifting the racket after contact on the backhand. I worked on that for days even though i didn’t quite know what he meant.

And, of course, I pretended to be him in matches. On the wall, I could see Johnny Mac coming in on his cutting backhand approach, and to pass him I needed to hit that slightly discolored brick right there. Oh. Missed it. Here comes Mac again. Hit the brick. Oh. Missed it. In my head Ivan Lendl raged. Come on! What is wrong with you? Loop that forehand! Here’s Jimmy Connors hitting that flat two-handed backhand that clears the net by one-tenth of an inch -- bend your knees, lift that backhand, get it over the net, hit it deeper, harder ...

Looking back on all that. .. I didn’t become an especially good tennis player. I failed miserably in high school. I can still hit a big serve that will hit triple digits on the radar gun (getting it in is another matter), and I can still hit heavy topspin forehands that eat up players at my level, and I am still so wildly inconsistent that I can lose to more or less anybody. And of course I’m in terrible shape so my best trait as a younger player -- my ability to move on the court -- is completely gone. If I gained anything out of those days hitting the ball against the wall it is that, if you see me practice against a ball machine or something, you might think I’m a really good player. I’m not. But I practice well.

Thursday morning, I’m going to drive by the wall where I dropped so many dreams and then, a few hours later, I will hit tennis balls against McEnroe and Connors for real along with other dreamers. And I’m nervous, actually nervous, the kind of nervous I never am even when talking to legends like Jerry West. Ivan Lendl is going to be there. I wonder if he will see any of his game in me. I doubt it. But you never know.