From hero to human: Seeing an icon in a different light - NBC Sports

From hero to human: Seeing an icon in a different light
PowerShares Series/Rob Loud
March 14, 2014, 7:30 pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The baffling ending to the night somehow brought everything into focus; it’s a strange thing meeting your childhood heroes. Some years ago, I saw a man break down crying as he found himself in front of Mickey Mantle, the Mick, No. 7 for the New York Yankees. The man first started trembling, then blinked away tears and finally left behind all illusion and began openly sobbing.

“You don’t know what this means to me,” he wailed as an embarrassed Mantle looked at him with something that might have been pity, might have been concern, might have been disdain. The man was right. The Mick didn’t know. He couldn’t know. Gods, as John Updike once wrote of Ted Williams, do not answer letters.

Thursday night, for my birthday, my wife treated me to a day with three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived and heroes of my own childhood -– Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. A fourth excellent player, 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, was also in Charlotte to play in the PowerShares Senior Tennis Series, and former No. 5 player in the world Jimmy Arias served as master of ceremonies. But the night centered around three legends.

McEnroe won seven Grand Slam singles titles, 10 doubles titles, anchored five winning Davis Cup teams and was perhaps the most artistic net-player in the history of the game. No one, not even Roger Federer, ever made the game look easier.

Connors won eight Grand Slam titles, 109 professional tournaments (still a record) and was renowned for his breathtaking return of serve and sometimes over-the-line competitiveness. At age 39, he went on one of the most stirring runs in tennis history at the 1991 U.S. Open.

Lendl won eight Grand Slam titles, appeared in eight consecutive U.S. Open Finals, was the No. 1 player in the world more or less every week of the second half of the 1980s and was generally disliked for being surly and sullen. “I always thought of Ivan as the Ivan Drago of tennis,” McEnroe said, referring to the Russian boxer in Rocky IV.

McEnroe said that early in the day. He could not have known how right he would be.

* * *

The thing about senior sporting events and old-timers' games is this: You can rarely tell where the show ends and something real begins. Great athletes who were once deadly serious about their games tend to joke and play around now that their athletic prime has disappeared in the rear-view mirror. When someone asks Ivan Lendl whether he better remembers specific competitions or the little things that surround the events, he says: “I’m 54 years old. I don’t remember anything.”

After Jimmy Connors plays a grueling point that leaves him heaving and fighting for breath, he purposely kicks a tennis ball on the court to give himself some extra time.

When Pat Cash tries to hit a shot behind a scrambling Ivan Lendl, only to find Lendl wasn’t scrambling at all but simply standing right where Cash hit the ball, Lendl crunches an easy forehand winner and shouts: “Did you really think I was going to hustle all the way to the other side of the court?”

Before a point against McEnroe, Connors wanders over to the crowd and asks some fans, “What are you doing here? There was nothing on television, huh?”

And so on. But somewhere inside these men, lions roar. They played each other for best in the world, and it was personal and painful and hot-blooded. Anger fueled them. “What was I angry about?” Connors said to the London Telegraph, and he could have been speaking for any of the three. “Sometimes I was just angry about the morning. It was all there inside.”

Lendl once came back from down two sets and a break to beat McEnroe at the French Open, a loss that McEnroe still does not want to talk about. He never did win French Open.

Jimmy Connors three times outworked and obliterated a young Lendl in Grand Slam finals, which left people questioning Lendl’s heart --– something he does not want to talk about.

McEnroe once crushed Connors 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 at Wimbledon, a beating so thorough and complete that it seemed to break Jimmy Connors –- he never again reached a Grand Slam final. The end is definitely something Connors doesn’t want to talk about.

And now, they crack one-liners and play a more fun and collaborative brand of tennis because, at their age, it would be unseemly to do anything else. You can’t help but wonder, though, what bubbles underneath.

* * *

The first part of my birthday present was a clinic with the four players, two at a time, while Jimmy Arias held a microphone and hurled various light insults and an occasional tennis lesson at us. I played some tennis in high school, though that was many years and pounds ago, and I still love to play until this pain in my back has its say. I spent countless hours imagining that I was playing these three. I came in to this event looking for memories.

The fun part with Jimmy Connors was just seeing him play. He is 61 now and coming off hip replacement surgery –- his third, if memory serves –- and he can barely move. There were whispers that this would be the last time he would play in a public tennis event, and while Connors did not verbally confirm, his body did. He could barely move, and in the drills, he took the top hand off his legendary two-handed backhand to ease some of the tension. When my tennis partner hit a lob over his head, the man who was once famous for chasing down everything waved his hand and shouted, “Forget that.”

McEnroe, meanwhile, remains the artist at 55. There are people in sports who do even the simplest things so beautifully that you cannot take your eyes off them. It is a thrill just to watch St. Louis’ Yadier Molina throw down to second base before an inning begins or to see Kevin Durant in a layup line. McEnroe even now barely swings at the ball and yet it does whatever he wants, as if they made some sort of pact earlier. He touches the ball and it blasts past. He touches the ball and it hops over the net and dies. He touches the ball and it lobs gently over your head, mocking you all the way. His racket is Zorro’s sword.

At some point, McEnroe hit a drop shot against me. I developed few physical talents in my life, but the one thing I could always do when young was run down drop shots, my skill being that necessary combination of anticipation and blunt stupidity. Chasing a drop shot is almost always pointless. Even if you get there, you rarely can do enough with it to win the point. Still, I charged McEnroe’s drop shot, reached it, flipped it over the next where a surprised McEnroe promptly volleyed the ball toward my head. I missed that volley.

“Damn,” I heard McEnroe mutter to his partner Pat Cash. “I didn’t think he’d get to that.”

A little later, Cash also hit a drop shot against me, and I somehow reached that one, too -– again to no avail as we eventually lost the point. But the effort did lead to one of the two greatest athletic compliments of my life when, after the clinic, John McEnroe made a point to say to me: “You were really running out there. You surprised us.”*

*My other athletic compliment came from Big John Mayberry, runner up in the 1975 American League MVP balloting, who saw me hit a baseball that one-hopped (or two hopped … or rolled near) the fence and shouted: “Big Joe’s got power!”

But the whole point of this gift was the chance to hit against Ivan Lendl, my tennis hero. Lendl was proof that, like with love, you don’t have all that much control over who becomes your sports hero. It’s a chemical reaction. Certainly if given the choice, I might not have chosen a brooding Czechoslovakian-turned-American, who played a comparatively bland game, was disliked by more or less everybody and always seemed to have a storm cloud dumping rain on his head. But there was something about Lendl’s power game that spoke to me, something about the way people would not appreciate him that angered me, something about the way he kept winning almost to spite all the antagonists that inspired me.

Some years ago, when I was a young writer, I intended to write a piece about Lendl and what he meant to me. The U.S. Tennis Association, undoubtedly shocked that anyone wanted to write such a piece, set up an opportunity for me to speak with him after a match. Unfortunately, Lendl got upset in the match, and his face was a mask of rage afterward. “If you have a few questions for Ivan,” the USTA representative said sheepishly, but Lendl’s look made clear his stance.

“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“Good decision,” Lendl said, and that was my only real interaction with him until Thursday afternoon.

PowerShares Series/Rob Loud

Lendl is still a familiar face because of his role as coach of Wimbledon champion Andy Murray. But much has changed with him. He was once the most fit player in the world, this being his advantage over McEnroe. But time has worn him down a little bit. “Lendl looks like he’s been enjoying life,” one of the other players at the clinic said, and there were nods.

He walked away from tennis for 15 or so years after retirement. He was a family man, raising five daughters, four who ended up playing golf in college. He became a scratch golfer and achieved some success on various celebrity tours. “If you had it do again,” he was asked, “would you have chosen golf over tennis?”

“This was not a choice for me,” he said. “Golf was not an option in Czechoslovakia when I was growing up.” This answer, like most Ivan Lendl answers, avoided the question.

He only began playing publicly again in 2010 –- and sparingly at that. This was a rare chance to see the man play tennis, an even rarer opportunity to hit against him, and at one point I exchanged two or three forehands with him, which was exciting. Lendl once had the most fearsome forehand in tennis. He obviously wasn’t hitting it hard against me.

How do you engage your childhood hero? This is not an easy question. Once or twice every month since I’ve become a sportswriter –- often more -– I have received an email or a letter or a phone call from someone telling the story of when they met their hero. Some of the stories are so happy … the hero is friendly and gives them more time and emotion then they ever could have imagined. Some, however, have terrible endings. The hero is nasty to them. The hero ignores them. The hero mocks them for holding onto childish dreams.

Ivan Lendl did not say a word to me while we played. He did not say more than “Thank you,” after I thanked him in the end. But he did do one thing that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I was at the net and my partner hit a ball into his hitting zone. Lendl cracked a backhand volley with some force -– something he had not been doing -– and it caught me off guard. It deflected off the top of my racket and hit me in the shoulder. Ivan Lendl HIT ME WITH A TENNIS BALL.

Then, he held up his hand. The universal signal for “Sorry about that.” The same signal he gave when he hit Connors or McEnroe or Stefan Edberg or Boris Becker or Mats Wilander with a ball. Just a hand up. “Sorry about that.”

I don’t think he meant “sorry about that” for me any more than he did for them. And that’s why I loved it.

* * *

After the clinic came the Q&A session, where all the players talked about how much modern equipment has changed tennis, how homogenized the game has become, how sad it is to see what has become of American men’s tennis. At this moment, John Isner –- the No. 13 ranked player in the world –- is the only American in the top FIFTY. The United States used to dominate tennis but now, there are as many Italians in the Top 100 as Americans (4). The third-highest American in the rankings is someone named Bradley Klahn. “Has anyone here heard of Bradley Klahn?” Jimmy Arias challenged the crowd.

Lendl, when asked what he’s thinking behind those dark glasses when watching Andy Murray play, said that he’s mostly sleeping. McEnroe talked about how tennis should better market itself and consider some rule changes because it is falling farther behind the other sports, certainly in America. Connors talked about the dislike that motivated him and the tennis of his time. “I see players hugging after matches,” he said. “I don’t think John McEnroe has ever hugged me to this day.”

Then it was time to play. The first match was McEnroe against Connors, and it was –- as these things often are –- bittersweet. Connors wore long pants and moved sparingly. He did hit his wonderful two-handed backhand with some success, but the set certainly was more performance than sport. McEnroe did not exactly carry Connors, but he played by clearly defined rules -– no drop shots, few crazy angles, lots of good rallies.

That’s exactly as it should have been. Both men played to the crowd –- McEnroe at one point asked a particularly elderly looking line judge, “Excuse me sir, are you 21?” One of McEnroe’s serves nearly hit Connors in what announcers would sometimes call “the general groin area.” McEnroe had fun with this for a while.

“That’s OK,” he said to a few people in the crowd. “He isn’t going to have any more kids anyway.”

McEnroe prevailed of course, and Connors –- in perhaps his last public tennis act after a career of triumph and heartbreak and fury –- hit a few tennis balls to contestants in some sort of mid-match fan contest. He seemed to enjoy it enough. Connors, for everything, always did love tennis. My lasting memory of him this day came on his last point. McEnroe hit a hard serve to Connors' backhand and he ripped the return, to my eyes the hardest ball he hit all day. It looked almost like an old Jimmy Connors' return of serve. Unfortunately, he hit it high and to the center of the court and McEnroe pounded away the volley.

“Too good,” Connor said as he jogged gingerly to the net, where McEnroe shook his hand and, yes, put his arm around Connors, something close to a hug.

The second match was between Lendl and Pat Cash, and it was more entertaining tennis with less emotional power. Though Cash defeated Lendl in the 1987 Wimbledon final, the two men very much seemed to like each other. Lendl was shockingly chatty. “That was unnecessary,” he said after Cash hit a brilliant angled forehand for a winner.

And then, to the old-looking linesman after he called Cash’s volley in (it looked to be at least six inches out): “This guy misses one volley a year and you call it good?”

The chair umpire -- Dana Loconto, who has a long and respected history in tennis -- struggled throughout the match. In addition to a handful of questionable calls –- at one point, Pat Cash jokingly ran over and tucked a $20 bill under Loconto’s leg –- he began to call the match for Cash when it was only 6-2 in the tiebreaker. It takes seven points to win. After fumbling around trying to remember the score for an embarrassing few seconds (“Don’t worry,” Lendl said dryly, “we’ll tell you when it ends”) Lendl unleashed several powerful serves, fought off five match points and beat Cash.

“How did you fight off five match points?” Arias asked Lendl.

“I won those five points,” Lendl said.

And it was time for the final between John McEnroe and the man he called Ivan Drago. And an ending I never saw coming.

* * *

My wife noticed right away that the final was considerably less light and playful than the first two matches. Lendl seemed to have something to say after every point when he faced Cash; he said nothing between points now. McEnroe’s outward signs of frustration –- which played well for the crowd against Connors –- now became inner rage and quiet grumblings.

It’s an interesting thing about tennis –- as the quality goes up, sometimes the entertainment value goes down. McEnroe and Lendl started hitting the ball much harder than they had in their first matches and this led to shorter points and a few more mistakes and more questionable line calls. Neither man could do much of anything with the other’s serve. McEnroe’s serve was particularly fierce. It was more intense than artful.

How close was it to the tennis they played 25 or 30 years ago? Well, it was probably as close to 1985 as any of us are. Because the rackets are so much better now, they were at times hitting the ball as hard, and perhaps at times even harder, than they did in their primes. But the speed of serves and groundstrokes -– like speed of fastballs in baseballs –- tend to be a wildly overrated part of the game. It is obvious that neither man can move like they once did, and movement is tennis.

Still, it was dramatic, and both men wanted to win, and in that way it did feel different from the rest of the evening. Then the match went into a tiebreaker, and Lendl won two service points to take a 4-3 lead. Now, McEnroe was serving, and Lendl dug in and the show was over. McEnroe hit his wide serve, the serve that destroyed a generation of tennis players. Lendl shook his head. The ball was clearly wide, and Lendl prepared to crush a second serve. The realization hit Lendl the same time it everyone else. Nobody had called the ball out.

“Four-all,” the chair umpire Dana Loconto said.

Lendl was delirious with rage. “You can still see the spot,” he shouted at Loconto. He turned the line judge behind and asked, “How could you have seen that ball in?” It looked to be another one of the many semi-serious arguments that mark every night of PowerShares senior tennis. Only … it wasn’t.

Ivan Lendl refused to continue playing.

At first, it did not seem clear what he was doing. “Do you think he has a leg cramp or is just trying to get a rest?” my wife asked. I shrugged. It was possible. But, no. Lendl just kept standing there. It was mesmerizing. Lendl argued a little more with the chair umpire, argued a little more with the line judge, and then he sat down on the padding behind the baseline and waited. A minute passed. Two minutes. Three minutes. He made no move back to the court.

“Come on, let’s play,” Loconto said once and twice, but there was still no movement.

McEnroe started to realize what was happening and he saw the comedic opportunities. He quickly served three balls into the court and then raised his arms and ran toward the tunnel as if he had won the match. He came back with a tennis ball and simulated “Hawkeye” -– that animated computer-judging system that shows whether a ball was in or out. He slowly placed the ball just inside the line. “OK, it was in!” he shouted. “Come let’s play.”

When Lendl still made no move, McEnroe began going around taking pictures with people in the stands. Then, he returned to the court and started doing sit-ups.

Ivan Lendl still refused to continue playing.

Was this an act? A joke? The crowd began to get surly. A few people made a show of getting up and leaving. More than one yelled, “Come on, Lendl, get out there. I’ve got work in the morning.” Loconto gave Lendl a 15-second warning -– get out there in 15 seconds or he would take away a point. The crowd counted down.

Ivan Lendl still refused to continue playing.

I watched my childhood tennis hero and wondered: What the heck is going on this man’s mind right now? This was Charlotte, N.C. They were playing for charity on a tennis court made up of some kind of material that felt oddly like cardboard. There were probably no more than 1,000 people left in the stands, some of them kids sticking around only for an autograph or a wave. What was happening in his head?

And for the first time, I looked at Ivan Lendl not as my childhood hero but as something else. I looked at him the way I look at other people. Lendl is 54 -– not much older than I am at 47. He’s a father of five daughters -– I have two. He was once the best tennis player on earth, but that was many years ago.

Or was it? The body grows old while the mind stays young. At some point during the day, someone asked Lendl what was a greater thrill –- winning Grand Slams himself or coaching Andy Murray to that emotional Wimbledon victory last year. Lendl talked his way around the question, as he always does, but the answer was obvious: OF COURSE winning himself was the greater thrill.

And here he was, on the brink of beating John McEnroe and sure, they’re older, and no, the tennis wasn’t the same quality, and true, this wasn’t Roland Garros or Wimbledon or New York approaching midnight. But it was what was left.

Loconto took away a point. Lendl talked to the tournament director. Ten minutes had gone by. A hundred or more people had left. Lendl walked back on the court, was given his point back and promptly made three errors and lost the match. McEnroe in his on-court interview was asked about the irony of someone else losing his mind on the court. “I loved it," he said. "Now I know what it was like. … He melted down, and I pulled it out.”

In the end, I watched Lendl walk off the court. He was animatedly talking to the tournament director. We couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was not hard to figure out. Losing never stops stinging, especially when you feel like you should have won. The rest might be show but that remains real.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

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