One of the greatest players of all time is back.

After a sixteen-year lay-off from tennis, Ivan Lendl has recently returned to the Champions (senior) Tour. He’s back to competition and he'll be coaching, too.

He has opened the Ivan Lendl IJTA (Ivan Lendl International Junior Tennis Academy) http://champacademy.com/homepage.html to promising young juniors with the intent of guiding them to greatness.

So what can we expect from Mr. Lendl? And what can his protégés learn from this sporting legend?

Well now, let’s see.
Lendl has been described over the years by many a sports writer and many a critic as: Obsessive, dull, boring, machine-like, void of humour, robotic even. In fact, in September 1986, Sports Illustrated went as far to say that he was ‘the champion that nobody cares about.’ Even some of the greats around him at the time, such as Connors and McEnroe, seemed to have a distinct disdain for him. Mind you, they seemed to hate everybody.
My own memories, as I first became interested in tennis in the mid 80s, were my family’s less-than-complimentary reaction to him as they watched Wimbledon.
‘He looks like a deranged chicken,’ my mum used to say as he jutted his head back and forth celebrating those bullet-like winners. ‘I don’t like him very much,’ she continued, as if being liked should be a considered factor to be on her television screen.

I remember feeling sorry for him as he appeared to eternally fall at the final hurdles at Wimbledon. But I also remember his unfaltering work ethic and how incredibly fit he was, even though he wasn’t on my 10-year-old boy's favourites' list. Little did I know that I was watching one of the greats in the making.

Those with more insight and his genuine fans saw something very different. They saw his intensity, his professionalism, his attention to detail, his meticulous preparation and his will to be a champion; his will to be truly great.

Lendl was often dubbed ‘the man with the iron mask,’ but those who knew him, knew the fallacy of that mask. They knew of his up-bringing, his tough mother, (who was a top-2 national player), who forced him to eat what he found unpalatable and who would no longer play against him after he defeated her; he was just 13 years old. They knew of the ruthless treatment by the Czechoslovakian Tennis Federation who classed him as a defector, as he sought liberty and citizenship in the U.S. They knew that the Federation banned him from representing his country and even from having his name published in the Czech media; even though he helped them to their only Davis Cup victory in 1980. Then playing an exhibition match in South Africa, in the apartheid era, he was fined a hefty $150,000 by the Czech authorities. A punishment that surely only enhanced his hatred towards the communist system.

His fans will also know his true passion and dedication to the game of tennis and to competitive sporting philosophy in general.

What maybe less well-known and documented is his sharp wit, his unwavering loyalty, his sensitivity, warmth and his love for the things that truly matter; like his wife Samantha, his dogs and now his 5 daughters; two of whom, Marika and Isabelle, are attempting to make it as great golf pros themselves.


Lendl with his golfing daughters from left to right Marika, Isabelle and Daniela

In fact, Lendl happens to be pretty handy with the clubs and putter himself. He plays off scratch and has even played in European professional tour events and attempted to qualify for golfs’ prestigious US Open. He has won celebrity tour events and even has a golf tournament in his own name. He now continues to be the driving force behind his two daughters' careers and is with them at every opportunity.

Late last year, Lendl re-ignited his tennis rivalry with his old adversary, McEnroe, as he returned after that sixteen-year lay-off.  This time it seems, they are showing a distinct respect, or dare I say liking, for each other.

In Adelaide, Australia in January of this year the hosting MC of the WTC (World Tennis Challenge), Mark Woodforde, asked them if either of them could remember the head-to-head between them.

McEnroe was first to reply with his typical attacking style, "Unfortunately yes."

But Lendl, who has clearly been in training, or more likely never out of it, was sharp enough to counter punch, "Well, I don’t understand what’s unfortunate about it, but, ok."

It seems once a competitor, always a competitor.  The 8-time Grand Slam champion, Ivan Lendl, clearly has not lost that edge, and probably never will. He admitted in a mini-press conference that winning is much less important to him now, and that he is actually having fun on the court. However, the steeliness is still there in competition, and the quality of heavy serve, blistering forehands and quality passing shots has not changed much. It is mostly the inevitable movement loss and agility that separates the ‘has-beens’ from the ‘here-and-nows.' Still at the tender age of 51, we can forgive him.

Lendl has shown that he is not one to shy away from hard work, possibly the biggest understatement of all time, and his approach is to be hands-on whenever possible. So what will it be like at the Lendl Academy? What would be his archetypal philosophy? To answer those questions the following quotes from the man himself may give us a distinct flavour:

“If I don’t practice the way I should, then I don’t play the way I know I can.”

And more humorously:

“I was between number 2 and 3 in the world for two, three years. That’s not exactly where I wanted to be.”

For a full description of Academy philosophy please click on the following link: http://champacademy.com/ivanlendl/ilcaphilosophy.html

But just in case you think it might be all work and no play, making Jack a dull boy, I include two short anecdotes, courtesy of ‘New York Magazine’ to emphasise that life with Lendl is not always as you may expect.

Lendl was playing in a golf foursome against Bob Miller, (a friend and business colleague) and a partner whom Miller had brought along. Lendl's team trounced Miller's and won a few dollars for the effort. At the end of the round, Lendl went off to a pay phone and dialled Miller's wife.
"Bob just asked me to call," Lendl told her, totally deadpan.
"He's on his way home, but he just lost a lot of money playing golf with us. He didn't have the cash to pay up for today, and he wants to play with us again tomorrow, so he asked if you would go to the bank before it closes and take out a couple thousand dollars for him." When Miller got home, his wife gave him hell. Lendl couldn't have been more tickled.

Lendl was visiting Warren Bosworth (his tennis racquet supplier/designer), and Bosworth's lawyer, Stanley Cohen, a car collector, showed up in a Ferrari GTO worth $2.5 million. Cohen asked Lendl if he wanted to drive it.
"No way," said Lendl. So they all sat around and talked for a while. As he was leaving, Cohen asked Lendl to autograph a racquet cover. Lendl obliged.
"To Stanley," he wrote.
"F--- you and your Ferrari."
Far from offended, Cohen framed the cover and hung it on his wall. Men act like awed boys in Lendl's presence. Pleased just to be around him, they are only too happy to be on the receiving end of his jokes.

The Ivan Lendl International Junior Academy, also known as Lendl’s Champions Academy, is based in the beautiful setting of Hilton Head Island, just off the South Carolina coast. The Island is well-known locally for being eco-friendly and its high amount of tree cover relative to development. Sporting greats such as NBA superstar Michael Jordan and Wimbledon champion Stan Smith have been notable residents.

The Academy is now looking for promising junior players for the fall of 2011.