On the surface, the similarities between Hana Mandlikova and Ivan Lendl are striking. Both are Czechoslovakian citizens who spend much of their time living in the United States. Both are major talents whose ability to live up to their potential has been questioned in the past. Both play tennis right-handed and golf left-handed.
And today, both are U.S. Open champions, the products of a small country that has produced some of the great tennis talents of this century: Jaroslav Drobny and Martina Navratilova, Lendl and Mandlikova.
But one man who has had a tremendous influence on tennis in Czechoslovakia in the last 15 years often is overlooked: Jan Kodes. He was a Wimbledon champion (1973), but that was during the professional players' boycott. He also was a two-time U.S. Open finalist and a French Open champion. It was his success, as much as anything, that inspired such young players as Lendl and Mandlikova.
"He was the big hero because of what he did," Mandlikova said this morning, her liquid-blue eyes a bit bleary after a 6:30 a.m. wakeup for an appearance on "Good Morning America." She went on, "He helped make tennis very popular in our country. It was always popular before, but much more after Kodes. People knew of Drobny but he defected, so it was different. It was Kodes that people always talked about."
Now, it will be Mandlikova and Lendl people talk about. For each, the road to this title was a difficult one. Mandlikova was supposed to take over the tennis world when she won two Grand Slam tournaments (French and Australian opens) before she was 20. Lendl, 25, was in the top three in the world by 21. Yet, before now, he had never been a clear No. 1.
"I think I appreciate this championship much more than the French," Mandlikova said. "Then, I won just on talent. It seemed so easy, I was just out there free as a bird playing. For this one, I had to suffer and put in a lot of hard work.
"It's hard for people to understand that, for someone like me, coming on tour was completely different than if I was an American. When I first played here in 1978, I was 16 and I beat JoAnne Russell, who was a very good player. But I still had to go home to play in juniors because if I didn't win, I couldn't travel outside the country. It was hard for me because I didn't speak the language and I couldn't just play all the time the way an American girl could if she was good. But I learned from it."
Mandlikova, 23, is almost six years younger than Navratilova. She remembers being a 12-year-old ball girl for her and admiring Navratilova's attacking style. But, unlike Navratilova, she and Lendl have not defected.
"Martina is an American," Mandlikova said. "If you read her book, you know that. She thinks now as an American and I think that is okay, it is good for her. I am a Czech; I love my country. I love being able to go home to see my family. But I know there is more in the world. I couldn't live there now because I have seen other places. I have my freedom to travel and to do what I want. I do not think they (the government) want me to have a problem with that."
The Czech government, according to people in tennis, has an arrangement with Mandlikova and Lendl: they are free to live where they want, play where they want and make as much money as they want. In return, they don't defect and they agree to play on national teams.
Mandlikova says she feels intensely Czech when she watches her country compete in sports. "This summer, I was watching the ice hockey team play in the World Cup against the Russians," she said. "I was going crazy, partly because I love hockey but also because it was the Russians. When we won, all I could do was jump and say, 'Yay!' "
When Lendl speaks about his new home -- he lives in Connecticut, Mandlikova in Florida -- he gets emotional. Mandlikova is not the same way.
"Ivan is different than I am," she said. "I like it here, I like the people very much, but I also love Europe. There are things there you cannot find here. But Ivan really loves it here. He loves everything about it. I'm a little more old-fashioned. I like small restaurants and quiet places like I can find in Europe."
Both have matured here. Since her emergence in 1981, Mandlikova has been pressured to challenge Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd for the No. 1 spot in women's tennis. At times, she says, the pressure was almost unbearable. Now, feeling more comfortable with herself, with other players and with tennis, this title may be a first major step toward No. 1.
"I feel like all the work paid off for me this weekend," she said. "When I first played tennis (at age 9), I always thought I would never play it past age 16. But I started winning championships and my father kept telling me I could be the best. That always kept me going."
Was there a turning point?
"My brother (William, who is 27) told me at Wimbledon it was time to get a haircut and get rid of the headband, that it was old-fashioned," she said. "I just decided he was right. It was time."
Surely it was coincidence, but with her new cut, she has found new consistency.
"At this point in my life, I don't play tennis for the money," she said today. "When I had the 6-0 lead in the last tie breaker (against Navratilova), people were cheering so loud I had to remind myself the match wasn't over. Then, I choked on the (forehand) volley at 6-1. I just choked, very simply. But when I hit the next volley and won, I was lying on the floor and all I could think was, 'I won the U.S. Open, I did it, I really did it.' "