Close your eyes quickly and you would have sworn you would’ve seen Ivan Lendl’s sharp strokes on the Louis Armstrong cement.
And keep your eyes closed and yes that was John McEnroe dominating Wimbledon, like only he could.
But alas, that was a more simpler time – a time when tennis had a clear good and evil and a time where the matches were marked by nationality, just as much as skill.
On one side you have McEnroe, the bad boy from Queens, who didn’t give a care on who is ticked off and how he went about it. Was it improper to challenge calls? He didn’t care. He was a New Yorker through and through and if it wasn’t for tennis, he would be arguing balls and strikes with an umpire at Shea Stadium.
And then you had Lendl, the stoic Czech, who was a symbol of Eastern Bloc athletic dominance. Stoic on the court, his smooth robotic actions reminded one of Soviet system – athletes are robots, with only winning on the mind. If not for tennis, he might have been dominating some Olympic sport or even facing Rocky in a boxing match.
It is that rivalry that is missing from tennis today and when the two now 50+ year-olds took to the Madison Square Garden court for the undercard of the BNP Parabas Showdown, it reminded everyone, not only what was right with tennis, but also what’s wrong.
The friendly match showed the good sportsmanship between the two competitors. McEnroe retired, because he thought it wasn’t fair to Lendl to keep playing hurt, ruining plans on donning is 1982 hair and short –shorts. And Lendl just laughed it off, looking to complete a senior comeback, but said was not concerned about the final score.
“It’s not like we see each other a whole lot,” McEnroe said, after he had to retire with a sprained ankle from the match after leading Lendl, 6-3. “As you get older there’s a lot less at stake, so maybe one out of every 10 jokes is funny.”
That wasn’t the case 25 years ago when Lendl and McEnroe were No. 1 and No. 2 in the world. The final day of the Grand Slam was their domains and both men fought each other tooth and nail.
Sure the same thing can be said about the Federer-Nadal rivalry or main event of the night Sampras-Agassi. Yet, this was different, as the Cold War came into play. Americans staunchly backed McEnroe. Yes, he rubbed some the wrong way, but he was red, white and blue throughout, while Lendl was the poster boy for the Soviet state. A national pride was there. When McEnroe won, America won and it was just another nail in the Eastern Bloc coffin. And when Lendl won, it was just another way of hating the Soviets, if there wasn’t enough back in the day.
“I ended up having a losing record against Ivan,” McEnroe said, who holds a 14-20 record against Lendl. “A lot of guys lost to him a lot. There are not a lot of guys who beat him a lot.”
Yet it is this type of rivalry that’s missing from tennis. With so much globalization, there is no hatred and no lines drawn. It’s hard to hate Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal and there are no lines in a Switzerland-Spain rivalry. Heck Switzerland is a historic neutral country.
And with no lines in the sand drawn, the edge is gone from the sport. Back then, the casual fan would watch for American pride, much like the way he or she watches the Olympics every four years.
Yet, those days are over. Sure America won and Lendl is even an American citizen. But without the pure rivalry, the sport has lost and maybe will never recover its glory days.
Except for nights like there when you close your eyes and can see the Cold War again.