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A Clash of Champions, 2
Ivan Lendl Defeats John McEnroe 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5
in the 1984 French Open Final
By the spring of 1984 Ivan Lendl had won everything except what he coveted most: a Grand Slam title. The frustrated world No. 2 set the prize money record ($2,028,650 in 1982) and beat No. 1 John McEnroe seven successive times during one stretch, but lost all four Slam finals he contested.
Lendl's image was also taking a beating, and sometimes it was his own fault. Jimmy Connors derided him as "a chicken" for intentionally losing a 1980 Masters match. Lendl was widely ridiculed for copping out of Wimbledon in1982,claiming he was allergic to grass, only to be photographed soon after in the rough on a golf course. Worst of all, he was branded "choker" and "quitter" for half-hearted efforts in the 1982 and '83 US Open finals. "Perhaps I really can't win the big matches, like people are saying," a discouraged Lendl confided after being routed by McEnroe in the 1984 Masters final in January.
But, in an unforgettable, suspenseful duel, the stern-faced Czech, dubbed “Ivan the Terrible” by the merciless media, broke his jinx in major championships and silenced his critics. If Lendl’s 1984 French Open final triumph started his transformation from a near-great to a great player, the defeat cost McEnroe one of tennis’ most prized crowns and haunted him for the rest of his storied career.
John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl shared a mutual animosity.
McEnroe arrived at Paris with a dazzling 36-0 record in 1984 and five straight wins over Lendl, but he had never advanced past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Its slow clay surface tested character as much as skill and stamina — and Mac failed dismally against Mats Wilander the year before. The enfant terrible alienated French fans when he unleashed obscenities, such as "f–ing French frog fag," at officials and shouted "I hate this country" to spectators. McEnroe's outbursts also had outraged the no-nonsense Lendl who declared that if officials failed to discipline Mac, "I will take matters into my own hands. If I cannot hit him with my fists, I will hit him with the balls … every time."
The animosity was mutual. McEnroe called Lendl “a robot” and “selfish” and bragged, “I’ve got more talent in my pinkie than Lendl has in his whole body.”
Supermac, who outclassed Connors 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinals, again looked unstoppable against 24-year-old Lendl in the first two sets, allowing only 10 points in his nine service games. McEnroe tormented and bewildered his mechanical foe with vicious lefty serves, stinging volleys, feathery drop shots and clever angles. He even out-rallied Lendl from the baseline. And he made it all look so easy. It was no wonder Rod Laver, the double Grand Slammer (1962 and 1969), praised McEnroe as “quite possibly the most brilliant talent we will ever see.”
Ahead 6-3, 6-2, the 25-year-old racquet genius seemed destined to end the 29-year American men’s singles title drought at Paris. Only a year before, athletic Frenchman Yannick Noah reaffirmed the fact that a serve-volleyer can win on French clay by dethroning ’82 champ Wilander.
But, could McEnroe maintain his razor-sharp aggression, concentration, physical strength and poise against Lendl’s power-packed groundstrokes on a surface that heavily favored baseliners?
Click photo: McEnroe looked unstoppable against the 24-year-old Lendl in the first two sets, blanketing the net and even out-rallying him from the baseline.
The pressure started getting to the high-strung New Yorker at 1-all in the third set. He angrily grabbed a TV cameraman’s head-set that was emitting loud noise, yelled “Shut up!” and threw it aside. Most of the already pro-Lendl crowd of 18,000 started booing and whistling.
Two games later, McEnroe lost momentum by not seizing a love-40 opportunity and a fourth break point on Lendl’s serve. Lendl escaped for a 3-2 lead and then broke serve for the first time to go ahead 4-2. Even though McEnroe broke back for 4-all, he began looking a bit slower and tired. Lendl grabbed the set 6-4 when Mac netted a volley at 15-40. He was back in the match at last.
McEnroe’s serve, which was losing both power and consistency in the third set, faltered even more in the fourth set, when he connected on only 13 of 40 first serves. Even so, his deft volleys were still confounding Lendl and dazzling the crowd, and he pulled ahead 4-2 with his second service break in a row. Mac’s victory had been delayed, but now it seemed unlikely it could be denied.
Lendl, no quitter or choker on this hot day, was far from finished, though. His percussive groundstrokes increasingly passed Mac at net and dominated him from the backcourt. He uncorked a terrific crosscourt backhand to break back for 4-3.
Click photo: In the last three sets, Lendl percussive groundstrokes increasingly passed Mac at net and dominated him from the backcourt. .
McEnroe kept the pressure on. In the next game, his forehand winner set up a break point chance. He was a mere five points away from the championship. So near and yet so excruciatingly far — because McEnroe blew it by stroking a backhand long. With that crisis behind him, Lendl broke serve for the set, 7-5, on a terrific lob off a tentative McEnroe volley.
The grueling match was dead even, but the much-fitter Lendl had clearly turned the tide. Later, McEnroe talked about “a snowball effect. I had gotten to such a high level early, when I went down, I couldn’t come back. Then the crowd got into it. It’s frustrating.”
Still, the dramatic duel was far from over. McEnroe had his last golden opportunity when he reached 15-40 on Lendl’s serve at 3-all in the final set. But Lendl, who served four love games in the set, was confidently blasting big serves and forehands, and Mac couldn’t convert.
McEnroe also courageously survived a scare when he came within two points of defeat while serving at 4-5. McEnroe held for 5-5, but Lendl held at love to take a 6-5 advantage.
Lendl hit a wicked forehand down the line for 0-30 on McEnroe’s serve and a crosscourt forehand passing shot for 15-40. Spectators chanted, “Len-DL! Len-DL! Len-DL!” until the umpire silenced them.
After saving one championship point, an exhausted McEnroe succumbed on the second one by ironically pushing a routine volley wide into the alley. The crowd exploded with cheers of joy. Their man had staged one of the most spectacular comebacks in tennis history and became only the fourth French champion to have recovered from two sets down.
After the four-hour, eight-minute epic, Lendl told the media: “I was in the best shape of my life, and you have to, to be here. I gave everything I had. I wanted to win very badly so you people won’t ask me why I don’t win these tournaments.”
Lendl would be burdened no more by such questions. His Paris breakthrough paved the way for seven more Grand Slam titles and a then-Open Era record reign (270 weeks) as No. 1.
Although all-time great McEnroe went on to capture his third Wimbledon and fourth US Open in 1984, that fateful loss to hated rival Lendl would long torment him.
“It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: Sometimes it still keeps me up at nights,” he confided in his 2002 autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious. “It’s even tough for me now to do the commentary at the French — I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match. Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.”
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