Just because Ivan Lendl likes to drive fast -- "I speed in Germany where there is no speed limit"--doesn't mean he likes living in the fast lane. The fast lane leaves tracks and Lendl does not like being tailed.
Fast cars and fast food are one thing. Fast talk is another. Lendl speaks with caution. There are limits on what he will divulge about himself. The roads are open in a way he is not.
Lendl, the No. 4-ranked tennis player in the world, who called all sorts of attention to himself by winning 45 straight matches and nine tournaments (including the Volvo Grand Prix Masters) this year, decided long ago "the less you say the better."
"I would like to change it," he said, "but I'm not willing to change it in a way that would hurt my tennis."
Relations with the American press frequently have been testy. Donald Dell, chairman of the board of ProServ, which represents Lendl, said, "He has an extremely high I.Q., coupled with an unusual sense of humor. The press sees neither of those two sides largely because of the way Lendl has chosen to deal with the press. He wants desperately to keep his private life private--more than most. He feels more apprehensive in an American environment as a non-American than many athletes we represent."
Dell says that the criticism has not yet cost Lendl commercially. "I think the reason is he is so young (22) and he has had such a phenomenal record. He had won 92 of 96 matches until the French Open . . . My point to Ivan is, 'Don't rely on it in the future. It won't carry you along indefinitely.' "
Lendl has been described as curt, aloof, condescending. He was none of those things as he spoke about himself this week at the D.C. National Bank Tennis Classic. He was not effusively open in the way Americans weaned on People magazine have come to expect, but it seemed he was trying.
"It's bad if they don't know who you are," Lendl said. "It's worse if they describe who you are and it is not right. I don't know what's worse."
"The press made it (seem) I never smile," he added later. "I think it's exactly the other way. Since they saw me just on the court, and I never smile on the court, they made it seem this was all-around. That's not too right."
Friends say he is misunderstood. "I don't think East Europeans are generally taught to be open and relaxed," Dell said. When someone observed that he does not give himself away emotionally in interviews, Lendl said wryly, "In other words, I'm doing a very good job hiding. Thank you."
Nothing in his childhood in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, prepared him for this kind of celebrity. "No matter where you go, people recognize you," Lendl said. "It takes a while to get used to it."
Is he used to it now? "I don't think so."
He has been traveling alone since he was 10. He learned not to trust people "from the very beginning because of some bad experiences when I was younger. Meeting good people and bad people. I start getting a good relationship (with the press) and then they come out with a misquote and I get in trouble for saying something about another player. It looks like I'm on the back of the player when I'm not, and then I'm careful again."
There are other reasons to be careful. Jerry Solomon, his agent at ProServ, says Lendl first became defensive two years ago in Houston when reporters began probing too deeply, Lendl thought, about defecting. Solomon says that while it is not an issue for Lendl, the questions "put him in a tough position."
"He's quoted all the time in the American press," Dell said. "He's concerned about what he says and how it's going to be interpreted by the reader in Czechoslovakia . . . I think it's more than the government; it's what the family thinks, the masses, the high officials."
Lendl cherishes his privacy because, he says, without it, "There is no where to go" when you need to get away. "You play three weeks in a row and you take one off to completely relax. If you can do it, fine. If you can't, you're in trouble. Instead, you are working four weeks. I don't know if I need it more than other players. But I think I did it better than others and that's why I could keep playing better the first half."
The first half of the tennis year, he set a record for earnings ($1,108,550), was conspicuously missing at Wimbledon and lost to Mats Wilander at the French Open. Lendl, who has never won any of the four majors, says he thinks he will play Wimbledon next year and will cut down his first-half schedule--perhaps by five or six tournaments--in order to do so.
Lendl, who says he has been playing badly the last two weeks (since returning from a five-week vacation) lost to Mel Purcell in Boston in 100-degree heat. Purcell, who likes him and plays golf with him, says, "He can be cold a lot; everybody can be cold . . . If you want to be great, you can't be Mr. Nice Guy to every Jack and Jill. If you want to be great, you have to keep your life private . . . He doesn't want anyone to know what he does, which is good. Look at Howard Hughes; he was an eccentric. He's in the same boat."
Raul Ramirez says, "He's very nice, friendly, joking . . . I have a philosophy. A top player is a top player. He's not a normal person. He's not going to be in the locker room like the 100th person."
Purcell says, "He doesn't hang out, so you can't say he's popular. They look up to him and they don't want to play him."
Yannick Noah, who ended Lendl's streak in February and defeated him (and the Czechoslovakian team) in the Davis Cup, became angry during that match. "I was serving and he just stayed like this and let the ball go by three times," he said. "It means, 'I don't need to try against you.' I know he's a little bit like this. I was very vexed . . . The great players don't do that kind of thing."
Ask Lendl what Noah has over him and he says, "He's taller than me."
Fellow Czech Stanislav Birner remembers Lendl when he was 15. "He never wanted to lose any games--cross-country skiing, chess, soccer, especially tennis," Birner said. "If he lost, he practiced three or four days and then he beat you."
"He's like a mental machine," Purcell said. "He got lubed."
Lendl remembers the day he beat each of his parents for the first time; both were highly ranked players (he beat his father at age 13, his mother a year later). "I tried for so long," he said. "They were always leading, always outsmarting me. Once I did it, I never lost again."
Lendl makes no attempt to hide his desire to win, the proverbial killer instinct. "I think it would be naive for me to try to hide it," he said. "It would be like having a racket in my hand and saying I don't have it."
It doesn't matter how much he wins, he says, "I want to win more." Once, Lendl said, he was watching friends play, when one left and he offered to play--on roller skates. "I picked up the racket and played," he said. "I won. Love and love."