Ivan Lendl smiled and laughed and joked with the crowd at Rock Creek Tennis Center yesterday afternoon, but, as he stalled for time, he was also clearly perplexed. What should he do? Was he going to make himself look like an ogre again? These have always been the nasty little moments for Lendl, when he has to chose between expressing his humanity and hitting a perfect shot.
Across the net from him was Greg Yocum, a sophomore tennis player at Shippensburg (Pa.) University. The youngster, a miniature ringer for Lendl, right down to his haircut and outfit, was part of a network TV stunt. Live Out a Fantasy. Pretend you lead the No. 1 player in the world, 5-0, in a fifth-set tie breaker. Can you win two points before he gets seven to beat you?
So, with the crowd in on the gimmick and cheering, Lendl won six straight points, efficiently but not brutally. He would let the nervous kid (whose first serve bounced before it got to the net) hit a few balls back in play, if he could. One rally was a beauty, with Yocum nearly putting away three volleys. Not a bad little small-college player. Lendl wouldn't even let him win that one point.
Now, suddenly, Lendl was on the verge of ending the teen-ager's dream. Should he give away a point and prolong the fun? "Foot fault," called out a fan to Lendl, suggesting a playful ploy.
Who knows what Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker or even John McEnroe would've done with the moment and its network TV potential? What a perfect setup to make yourself look like a sweetheart. Certainly you could undermine the image that you're cold, surly, impersonal, boring, a choker or a quitter -- all words frequently used to make The Case Against Lendl in recent years.
So, Lendl, who wants desperately to be understood and liked, tried his very best to do the right thing. After all, as Lendl explained afterward, he still has fantasies of his own in the sports he plays as hobbies -- like winning the Tour de France (cycling), the U.S. Open (golf) or playing goalie in the NHL.
Yet, with only seconds to figure out how to react to the moment, Lendl probably did exactly the wrong, uptight thing. The towering Czech crunched a 130-mph lightning-bolt serve in the back corner. Yocum may have had time to blink. He sure never moved his racket. The crowd gasped.
Have a nice fantasy, kid.
When Lendl puts some of us off a bit, we should remember that he's come a long way. One of the most winsome sights in sports is watching how badly he wants to come much further. Once, he was as walled up as any athlete in sports -- cynical, scared of both public and press, enormously suspicious, in a hurry to make millions to protect himself even more. Perhaps a commentary on the society that raised him. Now, he says he wants to become an American citizen immediately so he can play Davis Cup for the United States in her hour of international tennis humiliation.
"Normal procedure takes five years," Lendl said yesterday when asked about legislation that his U.S. senator from Connecticut, Lowell Weicker, has proposed to expedite his citizenship. "I would like to help out a little bit. And the way I can do that is to play tennis for the United States. If it takes five years, I will be 32 then. I think now is the time, when the help is needed the most . . . In five years, I won't be any good. Well, I may be, but it will be five years later."
Across the board, Lendl has been making arduous progress in every part of his life, from learning to volley to learning to party. Every time you look, he's slightly different. Less grumpy on court. Less tense in big matches. Less morose when he fails, as he did once again at Wimbledon, losing the final to Pat Cash.
Above all, there's that new smile. Maybe Lendl's done it with gum Nautilus and lip steroids, so to speak, but it's a winner. Just the kind good ol' America loves.
These days, Lendl is busy enjoying the best days of his sports life and showing it. "I think being No. 1 is something to enjoy, not to put pressure on yourself. They say, 'Everybody is trying to beat you.' Well, everybody is trying to beat you if you are No. 2 or 3, anyhow. It would still probably be the best win of their career."
Levels of pressure are usually just levels of self-acclimation. Twice, Lendl really did collapse, then come close to quitting, in U.S. Open finals. But, the last two years he's come back to be champion of Flushing. He grows in the job.
Bit by bit, he's even learning the vaporous but vital charm techniques by which Americans perhaps lay several times too much store in judging the famous. Asked what it was like to be back in Washington after five years, Lendl said of the 90-degree day, "a little bit cold, compared to what I expected." Give that man a Johnny Carson rim shot.
Someday it may seem strange to remember that Lendl is the man of whom McEnroe said dismissively, "Nobody gives a damn about Lendl, and that's the bottom line. I could have no personality and be more popular than him."
If Lendl wanted to brush up his image this week, he could do it in his odd hours with a visit to Primi Piatti to exchange fettuccine recipes with Ralph Lauren. Chic is the easiest act for tennis stars to fake. But, just as Lendl can't throw away a point, he also can't pretend he's a transformed fun-loving western extrovert.
"This week, I'm going to stick to my tennis," he said. "I know my game will come around and be there for the U.S. Open in five weeks, but I want it to come around as soon as possible. If I don't focus on it, it'll take longer.
"It would be silly to go play golf every day. If something comes up and I have done my work, I will go and have some fun. But I mainly came to work."
For being himself -- which was never a bad self, and now a better one all the time -- why shouldn't we assume that Ivan Lendl has finally been forgiven?