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Interview with Ivan Lendl

Aired March 22, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET


MONITA RAJPAL, HOST: It's a rivalry that's lasted more than three decades -- two tennis greats have come face-to-face once again to kick start World Tennis Day in an exhibition match in Hong Kong. And for Ivan Lendl, this would be his first showdown in the city since 1992. Since fierce opponent McEnroe, Lendl held the world number one spot for 270 consecutive weeks during his pro career, a record only beaten by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

Since strength and (INAUDIBLE) also helped the Czech native win eight grand slams, from the U.S. to France and Australia. But despite reaching the final (INAUDIBLE), he never won Wimbledon.

LENDL: There was such a short period between the French Open and Wimbledon and getting used to the ground.

RAJPAL: Asinka's (ph) current protege and global tennis star, Andy Murray, is yet to conquer himself, too. But Lendl's (INAUDIBLE) end of his 17-year career with an eye-opening 94 singles and six double titles, achievements that led to his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

LENDL: Monita?



How are you?

RAJPAL: This week, we're with tennis titan, Ivan Lendl, to find out what it takes to be a sporting great, why his children don't play tennis and why he looks to Tiger Woods to improve his golf game.

(on camera): Ivan Lendl, welcome to TALK ASIA.

Thank you so much for spending some time with us.

LENDL: Thank you.

RAJPAL: You're back in Hong Kong after quite a long time, some 20 years.

How does it feel to be back?

LENDL: Oh, it's got to be back. I always had nice memories of Hong Kong. And I'm not sure how long it has been, but probably 20, 21 years.

RAJPAL: You have some very fond memories here. You had, uh, you won one of your first ATP Tournaments here. Tell me about that.

LENDL: Uh, it was great playing at Victoria Park. It was my first time to Hong Kong and I was lucky enough to win. And it's always a nice memory when you win.

RAJPAL: You're back on the exhibition circuit now. And you took a long time off after retiring at the age of 34.

What did you do in that time?

LENDL: Well, we had a young family. And the kids played a lot of tennis and golf. And so we traveled a lot, especially myself with them during the summer, the holy days...


LENDL: -- and then when they stopped playing tennis, it was just golf tournaments for them. So for about 10 years, I took them around to play in the events.

RAJPAL: How -- was it difficult for you to leave the games competitively and professionally?

LENDL: Well, it's always hard to leave because you have done it for so long and you have also been trying to compete all your life and not competing on -- on the circuit was hard.

RAJPAL: When did you first realize that tennis was a game that you loved and that you wanted to be a professional at it?

LENDL: I always enjoyed it as a kid. I didn't know much else. And both of my parents playing at the club. I went there every day and I had a ball.

RAJPAL: And when did you realize you were good enough to compete?

LENDL: Oh, you never realize that. You always hope.

RAJPAL: And then -- but when you started to win tournaments, did you feel like you had something there?

LENDL: You always worry about the next match. You -- you want to win again and again and prove to yourself that you can do it.

RAJPAL: Look at your statistics here -- eight time grand slam champion, 94 career singles titles, six doubles titles, spent 270 weeks at number one.

What does it take to achieve all of this?

LENDL: I think just like everybody else, we'll ---

RAJPAL: But you see, this is the thing, Ivan, you're not like everybody else.

LENDL: Oh, there's plenty of guys like that.

RAJPAL: Really?


RAJPAL: But you're not like everybody else. I mean not everyone can get stats like this. Not everyone can spend 270...

LENDL: Well, how many...

RAJPAL: -- weeks...

LENDL: -- how many guys should I name?

RAJPAL: Well, there's two others that have spent more than that.


RAJPAL: That's it.

LENDL: I think you can go Sampras, Federer, Connors. I think (INAUDIBLE) has been plenty over the and so on.

But I think it's, uh, like everybody else, what does it take?

It takes what I said, a lot of work, some talent, a lot of luck and if all that falls into place, then you have a good result.

RAJPAL: One of the things I remember is I bonded with my father watching you play tennis in the '80s. And the one thing he always said, uh, my father always said about your game, is that you were calm and collected. You always kept your cool, even under intense pressure. We saw others having the theatrics that may be, showing their emotion, but you never did.

How did you keep cool?

LENDL: Well, your father is giving me too much credit.


LENDL: You can never say always. But I tried to focus on the -- on my game and most of the time I was able to do that.

RAJPAL: How do you deal with the pressure, though?

LENDL: I think pressure is self-inflicted. Pressure is only your expectations and -- and if you just enjoy the game and play for fun while you're trying to win, that's less pressure, I think.

RAJPAL: You won your first grand slam at the age of 24. It was 1984. It was the French Open. You defeated John McEnroe at the end of five sets, tough sets.

Can you take me back to that moment when you actually, at the end of that fifth set, winning your first grand slam.

What was that like for you?

LENDL: Yes, I don't remember much of it. I was very tired that day. We both were, I think. And I just know that throughout the fifth set, I felt like I should take advantage of it, because the longer the match goes, the better it is for me because of the conditioning.

But with John, you could never underestimate him because of his talent.

RAJPAL: What does it mean for a player to win grand slams?

LENDL: Well, the top players platy for winning the majors. And so once you do it, obviously, you have proved that you can do it. And then you want to try and do it again and again every game, see how many times you can do it.

RAJPAL: How do you think the game of tennis has changed since you were playing professionally to where it is right now?

LENDL: Oh, it made tremendous strides, like all the sports do. It's more physical. There is much more death, especially in men's tennis. In our days, if you didn't play great in the first or second round, OK, so maybe you lost a set or you won 7-5, 7-5 or 6-4 or something. These days, if the top guys don't play their best in the early rounds, they can lose.

RAJPAL: We're looking at, also, we know, very -- it's a very physical game.

Was it always that way for you, as well?

LENDL: It changed a little bit. It was more a quickness and stamina. Now it's a lot of...

RAJPAL: It's a lot of baseline.

LENDL: A lot of baseline. Now it's quickness and strength, as well.


LENDL: And stamina in some matches. But you have to have strength now. Twenty or 30 years ago, you didn't have to have strength yet.

RAJPAL: What about the technology, do you think? how has that impacted the game these days?

LENDL: Well, it allows -- I think the biggest culprit, actually, is the strength, the -- the plastic strength or (INAUDIBLE) and so on. You can point so much spin on the ball and it opens up all different angles for the guys which we couldn't hit because of the natural gat (ph) or -- or a string which wouldn't give the ball as much spin.

And the guys know how to use it and they hit incredible angles.

RAJPAL: There's a lot of money attached to playing tennis today. We're looking at million dollar prizes, if not more.

Do you ever wish you were playing today rather than back then?

LENDL: No, I don't.

RAJPAL: Really?

LENDL: The guys are so good that it would be very, very difficult playing against them. I think everybody has their time and my time was in the '80s and now it's Roger's and Andy's and Novak's and Rafael.

RAJPAL: What -- you know, when you're sitting there in the players box and you've got Andy's family, as well, and you're watching, do you feel paternal?

LENDL: Oh, it's very business.


RAJPAL: Talk to me about training and working with Andy Murray.

LENDL: Well, it's a lot of fun. Hopefully, he enjoys it as much as I do. I know at times, I'm just standing there and he's doing all the work. So it's much harder on him.

But, hopefully, as we were saying earlier, after he wins one, he can win more (INAUDIBLE)...

RAJPAL: And he has done so. He has won...

LENDL: He has won one and hopefully he can win more, preferably this year, as well.

RAJPAL: What do you hope to instill in him and what are you instilling in him?

LENDL: Well, we just talk about a lot of different things about how he plays, how he feels about it, how I played and how I felt about it. We just exchange a lot of ideas and a lot of opinions and then we work on certain things.

RAJPAL: How would you describe his game, his style?

LENDL: Pretty complete, very competitive, doesn't give up.

RAJPAL: It was interesting, it was in the -- what -- in the U.S. Open, "The Guardian" newspaper, they -- this is a quote here. It was like, "In the big moments against Novak Djokovic" -- this was in the U.S. Open 2012 -- "especially after the fourth set, Murray stepped closer to the baseline again and was aggressive."

They're saying that was vintage Lendl.

LENDL: Oh, yes. Well, they're giving me credit for something Andy did. I don't see why. He's the one who did it.

RAJPAL: But could you say that you inspired him?

LENDL: Well, I try to tell him where I see him or what I see is working for him. And hopefully he remembers. And obviously over there, he remembers and corrected what was going wrong for the two previous sets.

RAJPAL: What's it like to be a coach?

LENDL: I enjoy it. I enjoy it with Andy. I don't know if I would do it with anyone else. But...

RAJPAL: Why him?

LENDL: It just happened to be that I met him a long time ago through Brad Gilbert, who was coaching him at that time.


LENDL: And -- and he was extremely polite and when the call came, the time was just right. If it was two years earlier, I would have said no. If it was two years later, I probably would have said no. It just -- the time was right and hopefully it keeps working.

RAJPAL: One of the interesting things I read about you is that when you described his game, even if he's lost, you say, ah, but look at the way he lost and that he has nothing to be ashamed of in (INAUDIBLE).

LENDL: Well, I don't think anybody has anything to be ashamed of if they proper properly and then put it all out there on the line. If somebody is better, you just shake their hand and go back and try to figure out how you get better.

RAJPAL: I mean this is the thing, though, he's playing against the top players in the world. It's not easy.

LENDL: No, it's definitely not easy. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.


How do you deal with that since perhaps insecurity or intimidation, when you feel that your -- your opponent is so strong?

LENDL: Well, as I said, I think you just prepare the best you can and then you go out there and play the best you can. That's all you can do. There is nothing else you can do. So just go and perform the best you can. And if it's not good enough, it's too bad.

RAJPAL: How much is mental strength and confidence, how important is that in tennis?

LENDL: Oh, it's extremely important, not just in tennis, in any sport. If you -- if you don't have confidence and self-belief, it's very hard to win.

RAJPAL: But not everyone is born with that.

LENDL: I don't think anybody is born with it. I think you -- you sort of acquire it through training.

RAJPAL: How do you do that?

How do you tell yourself and what do you tell Andy to -- and what did you tell yourself when you were playing?

LENDL: You just train and through training and repetition, you hit the shot and execute it so many -- so many times that all of a sudden you can do it under pressure. And that's where the confidence comes from.

RAJPAL: So it comes from practice...


RAJPAL: -- more and more practice?

LENDL: From more and more work, yes.

RAJPAL: Tell me about your training, when you were training competitively. I understand you were meticulous. Other opponents have said you were meticulous, an almost scientific approach to your training.

Talk to me about that.

LENDL: I don't know scientific, but I just tried to address what's weak or what I need to improve to beat certain opponents or to give myself a better chance of beating them. And then once I said that and figured it out, how to -- how to work on it, I worked on it. And sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

RAJPAL: Is -- when a player is out on the game -- and we were talking about, when we talk about Andy Murray in 2012, he had a lot of pressure on him at Wimbledon, especially from Great Britain. A lot of people, the whole nation wanted him to win the Wimbledon final. He didn't. But yet a month later, on center court, that same court, he won the gold medal at the London Olympics against the same opponent, Roger Federer.

How do you deal, as a coach, how do you tell your -- the person that you're training, Andy Murray, to deal with the highs, but also the lows?

LENDL: Well, I believe that -- not necessarily with Andy only, with anyone, even my kids when they play golf, I tell them when it's going good, take it and be humble. And when it's not going good, accept it, as well, and just keep training.

So stay sort of level-headed either way. Don't get too high or too low.

RAJPAL: Where did you enjoy playing most?

What was -- which tournament do you think was the one that was the most challenging for you?

LENDL: I -- the most challenging for me was Wimbledon, because there was a short period between the French Open and Wimbledon and getting used to the grass, but...

RAJPAL: And two very different -- you've got clay...

LENDL: Right.

RAJPAL: -- and then you've got grass.

LENDL: Right. But I enjoyed playing most in Australia. I always had a lot of friends in Australia. I always had nice memories and even now, it's still my favorite tournament to go with Andy, because I love the golf courses out there.


RAJPAL: You like to mix the two?

LENDL: Absolutely.


LENDL: As soon as the practice is over, I go and golf.

RAJPAL: Really?


RAJPAL: Do you -- what -- you know, when you're sitting there in the players box and you've got Andy's family, as well, and you're watching, do you feel paternal?

Is there a sense of paternal or is it very business?

LENDL: Oh, it's very business. I look at it and I'm watching and seeing what we have been working on what's working in the match and what's not working, if we need to put more work into it or -- or we can move on to another thing and so on.

RAJPAL: Have your daughters ever talked to you about living up to the Lendl name?

LENDL: Well, I think that's part why -- partly why they play golf or do horse riding and not tennis.




LENDL: (INAUDIBLE) winning the Davis Cup is special. I hope I can say it's always special, but I can't, because we've won only one and I had good memories (INAUDIBLE) with my career.


RAJPAL: What do you think about the Czechs winning the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup last year?

Tell me about how -- how the Czechs have come up in the game and are doing so well in tennis.

LENDL: Yes, tennis has always been a very popular sport in Czechoslovakia.

RAJPAL: Why is that?

LENDL: I don't know. I really don't. After football and ice hockey, it was number three sport. Whether it's still number three, I don't know. But it was one of the sports which was defying the regime in Czechoslovakia and it was great seeing the guys win after 32 years.


LENDL: We won it 32 years ago and they won it last year. It was great.

RAJPAL: Tell me about growing up in Ostrava.

LENDL: Well, as I said, I went to the club every day with my mom and dad. And they -- they played still competitively when I was very young. And I just hung around the little bit older kids and snuck on the (INAUDIBLE) to the couch there and that's how I got into it.

RAJPAL: Your parents were very good tennis players. They were the top -- top two tennis players in the country.

LENDL: My mom was...

RAJPAL: Your mom?

LENDL: -- number two at one time and dad was about 15.

RAJPAL: Was there are a lot of pressure to do better?

LENDL: I never looked at it that way. I just played because I enjoyed it. I played for fun.

RAJPAL: What did tennis give you?

LENDL: A great life. There was not much hope in Czechoslovakia growing up without doing great in a sport. And I think it was the motivation for a lot of tennis players at the time. And I've seen the world. I have done very well for -- for myself and my family with playing tennis, as well, and enjoyed it.

RAJPAL: At the age of 21, you moved to the United States to further your...

LENDL: Probably even a bit earlier.

RAJPAL: Probably even a bit earlier, to further your professional tennis career.

What do you think it was about the U.S. that you felt was important in order to excel in that sport?

LENDL: They had so many tournaments in the U.S. and when I settled in Greenwich, Connecticut, there were 15 tournaments I could travel to by car and be there within four hours.

RAJPAL: Yes. What was it -- what do you think it is about sports when the tennis and golf that -- that give you, today?

LENDL: Well, they give me the pleasure of competing. And I still get nervous when I go and play a golf tournament. And if I have a chance of winning on the final day, I get very nervous and I enjoy that.

RAJPAL: You get nervous?


RAJPAL: You still get nervous?

LENDL: Oh, yes.


LENDL: That's because I care. If you don't get nervous, you don't care about how you do.

RAJPAL: Do you ever feel that it -- does one ever feel confident enough to say, yes, I can do that?

LENDL: Oh, that's dangerous. That's very dangerous. It's almost over confident.


LENDL: I think being nervous is a privilege. That means you're doing well and you're -- you're in a position where it means a lot to you and that's what you work for.

RAJPAL: You've got five daughters, three of whom are playing golf.

LENDL: Right.

RAJPAL: Did they ever pick up tennis?

LENDL: They did, when they were younger. But then the oldest one started getting injured and started playing more golf then they all started playing golf.

RAJPAL: You play golf now.

LENDL: I enjoy it, yes.

RAJPAL: You're on the circuit. Tell me about the switch from the -- the tennis racket to the golf club.

LENDL: Well, I couldn't play much tennis anymore. My back was really bad and I couldn't last running on the hard courts. But I enjoyed golf. As I said, I was trying to compete all my life. And I compete through golf now, obviously, at a very different level, but I do enjoy playing tournaments.

RAJPAL: Golf is a sport that requires a lot of patience and, again, mental strength. Talk to me about your game. You're a right-handed tennis player, but your golf swing is left-hand?

LENDL: Yes. Correct. It was a long time ago, when I was a little kid, I got a hockey stick at a game, which was broken, the shaft, so we could nail it together. And it was a left-handed stick.

RAJPAL: Really?


RAJPAL: And so since then?

LENDL: That's how I started playing golf left-handed.

RAJPAL: What is it about also watching your kids, your daughters, play the sport that you love?

LENDL: Well, I think it's not necessarily golf or tennis. I'm (INAUDIBLE) to sports. And I...

RAJPAL: Was that a re--- a prerequisite in your family?

LENDL: Pretty much. Pretty much.


LENDL: All the privileges were won if you were not doing a sport, so.

RAJPAL: Really?

LENDL: I think it's good for kids.


LENDL: Whether it's boys or girls, no matter what age, it teaches them a lot of good values, values of hard work, values of competing and winning and losing.


LENDL: And I think it's excellent for young children.

RAJPAL: Are you a tough dad?

LENDL: You should ask the kids, not me.


RAJPAL: Are you a tough coach?

LENDL: You should ask Andy and not me.


RAJPAL: Well, what do you think?

You have high standards when it comes to competing (INAUDIBLE)...


RAJPAL: -- for your children and for -- for Andy, as well. You set the bar pretty high.

LENDL: Well, I think that's the only way to become good. And I don't think you become good by having low expectations. And if the player has high expectations, then the coach has to have high expectations, as well.

RAJPAL: What does it take to be good, great?

LENDL: A lot of work. A lot of talent. A lot of luck, meaning not only during the matches or tournament rounds, but also as a youngster, having a good coach early on to get good fundamentals, having parents which support you and lead you to the sport, avoiding injuries and so on and so on. That's all involved.

RAJPAL: Do you think that -- have your daughters ever talked to about living up to the Lendl name?

LENDL: I think that's part why -- partly why they play golf or do horse riding and not tennis. I think there was a lot of pressure from other people coming and -- and asking questions, not having a better sense than not asking a nine-year-old about their dad. That's unfortunate.

RAJPAL: Yes. When you look at the golfers out there today, who do you have your eye on?

Who do you think is a tough opponent?

LENDL: Well, it depends which year you're looking at, but over the years, I always enjoy watching Tiger.

RAJPAL: He's got a beautiful game.

LENDL: Yes. Yes, he does, and he can hit shots that not too many other people can hit. And he always produces them. And even when he is winning by a lot of shots, there is always two or three shots in the round where you say, wow, could anybody else hit that shot?

And I'm glad he's playing better again so I can watch him pour his shots.

RAJPAL: What was your favorite part about playing tennis, when you were doing it competitively?

What was the favorite part?

LENDL: I just enjoyed the exercise and the competing and even, let's say, working out with Tony Roche on my court...


LENDL: -- at home. I love that. I love hitting the ball.

RAJPAL: All right, Mr. Lendl, a pleasure to speak to you.

LENDL: Thank you.

RAJPAL: Thank you.