Sunday, August 30, 2009

Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal Remind Me of the Days of Ivan Lendl & Mats Wilander


Like many kids in the early '80s, I became a tennis fan because of the eccentric antics of the great John McEnroe. As I began to follow the game more closely and became familiar with the great names, the game became more and more addictive. I remember being disillusioned during the middle 80s, however, when McEnroe started fading, finally losing the #1 ranking to the great Ivan Lendl.

I also remember not liking Lendl very much. For starters, he was too dominant and basically McEnroe couldn't handle him anymore. At first I thought it was just me, but as time passed, I noticed many tennis fans felt the same way. When Sports Illustrated came out with their iconic cover of Lendl, on September 15, 1986, I knew there was something to the displeasure.

That year, for this very reason, I became a loyal follower of Mats Wilander. I guess, Wilander became my replacement for McEnroe. Wilander began to slowly work his way up the rankings, eventually becoming No. 2 in the world. But Lendl continued his dominance. I began to wonder if anyone would ever dethrone him.

Then came the 1988 U.S. Open finals, a rematch of the previous year's final between Lendl and Wilander (l.). Lendl, was the defending champion, having won 3 consecutive U.S. Open finals. Wilander, already had a dominant year in '88, capturing 2 of the 3 Grand Slams (Australian Open and Wimbledon), but he was still stuck at #2. The great Lendl was still ranked #1. In fact, going into the '88 U.S. Open final, Lendl had a 3 year reign at the top of the world rankings.

I remember sitting on the edge of my couch the day of the match. It was already known that if Wilander wins he would take over the #1 ranking and finally humanize Lendl.

It was a nail-biter of a match. Quite frankly, at times during the match, I didn't think Wilander had it in him. Lendl was just incredibly gifted. But finally, after nearly 5 hours, Wilander defeated the mighty Lendl, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. At last, finally, there was a new #1 ranked player in the world. Lendl was human after all.

I have to say, that match has been one of the greatest sporting events, I've ever seen.

Wilander would only hold the #1 ranking for 20 weeks, eventually losing it back to Lendl. But he did his job. He left it all on the court that day. The 1988 Open would be Wilander's 7th and last Grand Slam title. After that excruciating match, he was never the same.

That was a great era for tennis and it's eerily similar to what is happening today with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. When Nadal dethroned Federer at the 2008 Wimbledon finals, it reminded me of the Wilander-Lendl rivalry. Nadal left it all on the court that day. He finally became #1 in the world, but hasn't been the same since. Like Wilander, Nadal eventually gave back the #1 ranking to his arch-nemesis.

But the same way, Wilander proved Lendl was human--Nadal proved Federer was human.

I guess, the difference between Federer and Lendl is that Federer is much more likable. But it wasn't that anyone really disliked Lendl as a person, we just disliked his dominance.


Photos courtesy of SI.com

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