Friday 21 July 2017

Paul Kimmage: Fires remain undimmed as bitter rivals take divergent paths in quest for contentment

Ivan Lendl (p) and John McEnroe continue their on-court rivalry during a Hong Kong exhibition in 2013 Photo: Getty
Ivan Lendl (p) and John McEnroe continue their on-court rivalry during a Hong Kong exhibition in 2013 Photo: Getty
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Read Paul Kimmage every week in the Sunday Independent.

I'm not sure what it was about Ivan Lendl that brought out an allergic reaction in me. But I do know we were polar opposites; about the only thing we had in common was being members of the human race.

John McEnroe, 'But Seriously'

I was living in Paris that summer and bought the paper that day - Saturday, June 9 - as I did every day, to follow the cycling, and the titanic battle between Laurent Fignon and Francesco Moser at the Giro d'Italia. It was the cartoon that drew me to the tennis.

John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl had reached the final of the French Open and 'Dero', the L'Equipe cartoonist, had sketched a brash and confident McEnroe pointing a gun across the net at a cowering, sweating and petrified Lendl, who was playing in his fourth Grand Slam final and had yet to register a win.

I didn't know much about his chances; I didn't know much about anything other than plumbing and racing a bike, and if you'd told me I would end up writing for a living, and would spend time with both men, I'd have laughed: "You cannot be fucking serious!"

But it's a funny old game.

McEnroe came first. The month was November 2007, the morning after a Masters event in Belgium, and we had arranged to meet at a plush hotel in Durbuy, the self-styled smallest city in the world. He was jet-lagged, his back ached, his eyes were slightly blood-shot, and his skin was pockmarked with an anger rash from a bad-tempered loss to the Frenchman, Henri Leconte.

But I knew he liked art so I decided to paint him a portrait.

"The date is October 1, 1984 and John McEnroe is about to board a flight from Portland to Los Angeles. He is 25 years old, a multi-millionaire, and has won practically everything in tennis. He is also deeply unhappy. He's thinking: 'I'm the greatest player who ever lived. Why do I feel so empty inside?'

Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe (p) continue their on-court rivalry during a Hong Kong exhibition in 2013 Photo: Getty
Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe (p) continue their on-court rivalry during a Hong Kong exhibition in 2013 Photo: Getty

"He boards the plane and takes his seat and the guy sitting alongside hands him a portable video player: 'John, if you think that's bad, watch this.' The clip is a vision from the future - a Masters event in Belgium in the year 2007. McEnroe is still playing tennis. He is swearing and throwing his racket and fighting with his opponent, Henri Leconte. He looks absolutely miserable."

McEnroe fixed me with a gaze and an uneasy pause ensued: "Is there a question?" he asked.

"The question is 'why?'" I replied.

"Why am I doing pretty much everything I said I wouldn't? Well, some of it is due to some level of maturation and some of it is just a recognition of practicality. At 25, you think you have a world of options, but later you realise that they aren't all necessarily available, and as I got older it [playing] seemed to be a good option financially and in terms of keeping fit."

"How much [money] is enough?" I asked.

"That's a great question; I don't know the answer to that," he replied, "but I'm sure you have also heard the line, 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth'. And to some extent, while I'm still wandering, for want of a better word, and trying to find something that will really fulfil me in a genuine way, why should I throw that away?"

Ivan Lendl wasn't wandering. And seemed pretty fulfilled. We met on a sweltering afternoon in May 2009 at a sandwich shop in Florida - he had spent the morning watching his daughters playing golf - and I started by quoting an old passage from Greg Garber that captured him brilliantly: "In the perfect world of Ivan Lendl there is no subjectivity. There are no politicians, no newspaper columnists, no grey areas. There are facts, box scores, black and white . . . his vision of a sports daily is something along the lines of France's L'Equipe.

"He merely wants to read that in the second minute of the third period a guy was penalised, the other team scored and it might have turned the hockey game. Please, no opinions. 'I'm not interested in a psychological profile of the guy who took the penalty and what motivated him,' he says."

"So, no opinions?" I suggested.

"No," he replied. "I am very happy to read question and answer. I am very happy to watch question and answer. I am not going to read or watch somebody's opinion of something."

"You are mistrustful of writers?"

"I don't think it's mistrustful, it's just a fact of life. If somebody writes a piece and it's question and answer, I trust that they will quote the answers they were given. I do not trust their judgment on the person."

"You don't?"

"No because . . . Okay, so we're talking here, and then you're going to go away and write a judgement of me or an assessment of me. How can you do that in an hour and a half? (The time allotted for the interview). That's totally unfair to me and totally unfair to you and totally unfair to the readers."

"I can't argue with that," I smiled.

"So that's where I stand."

"But that doesn't mean you're not interested in the psychological profiles of other athletes?"

"No, you're right, it doesn't. I am interested but not necessarily from that source, and it depends also on what sort of psychological profile you want to look at. I see enough golf and tennis to make my own assessment."

"Did you read the John McEnroe autobiography? The Jimmy Connors biography?"

"No, I didn't read any of them."

"Why not?"

"Well, John, Jimmy and I - and I think you can go three ways with this - didn't see eye to eye. But having said that, I know the guys well enough to make my own assessment of them, and I'm not interested in their ex-wives or kids or whatever, I'm just not. I happen to like Stefan Edberg a lot but if he wrote a book I wouldn't read it either. So it's not personal, I'm just not interested."

"The context of your relationship with Jimmy and John was . . . "

"Is that what you call it?" he laughs.

"You were competitors, rivals, so it was almost a given you weren't going to get on. But when you step back from it now - and it's almost 15 years since you retired - aren't you interested in McEnroe's perspective on the rivalry? What he was thinking on the opposite side of the net during those key moments of your battles?'

"No, because it's totally irrelevant," he says. "That was a totally different life, a totally different lifetime. Okay, so maybe John was scared [of me] and maybe he wasn't. Maybe he had respect [for me] and maybe he didn't. It makes no difference . . . and again, that's not to knock him because if it was [Mats] Wilander or Edberg writing, I still wouldn't be interested."

Eight years later, Lendl still hasn't penned an autobiography ("I never will," he says) but he features prominently in McEnroe's second - But Seriously - which has just been published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. In the prologue, set in June 2015, McEnroe is in Paris for the French Open and is awoken in the early hours by a recurrently nasty dream:

"I wake up in a sweat. My pillow's damp and I don't know what day it is. Did I miss the match? Am I playing later? For a few seconds I don't even know where I am. Then it hits me. I already played the match. I already lost it. Jesus, it was back in 1984 and I'm still haunted by it. Even now, more than 30 years later, I'm as hot as I was in the fifth set and I can taste the red clay on my tongue. It was a match I should have won and it turned into the worst loss of my career."

(Confession: I blew €20 on this muck.)

The two men are at Wimbledon this week, McEnroe as an analyst for the BBC and Lendl as a coach for Andy Murray, and both seem pretty happy in their skin. Mac is still playing the King and dealing in gift horses. And Ivan is still playing Ivan and dealing with himself.

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