Lendl takes a fall in '93, may make exit after '94

December 25, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Play it again, Ivan.

Despite a terrible 1993, Ivan Lendl, invincible of yore but lately incapable of clinging to the Top 10 where he once held court an epic 615 weeks, has vowed to return to the tennis circuit for at least one more full season of singles competition.

"I'm going to have another crack at it, but if I play lousy, there's a good chance 1994 could be my last year," Lendl, 33, said from his new home in Goshen, Conn., where he moved last month with his wife, four daughters and three German shepherds.

Despite finishing 1993 in 11th place on the money list with $1 million (his career earnings top $20 million), Lendl's ranking dropped from eighth to 19th in the world, well beneath the dignity of the competitor who held the No. 1 spot 270 weeks, longer than anyone else.

Not since he was a teen-ager in 1979 had Lendl ended a year without the distinction of being among his sport's 10 best players.

"I don't think I belong out of the Top 10 yet," he said, "but there are reasons why it happened that I couldn't control."

Lendl attributed this year's indifferent results, which included a 33-23 match record and a precipitous drop in the world rankings, to immobility rather than a dwindling of ability or motivation.

While rivals repeatedly referred to Lendl as "a step slow" this year, they also remarked on the immortal sting of his ramrod forehand and his occasional flare-ups of top-echelon tenacity.

"There are some days when he still hits the ball like a Top 4 player," said Andre Agassi just after defeating Lendl in the New Haven quarterfinals last August.

But in 1993, those were rare days.

This year, Lendl captured just two titles, Munich and Tokyo; the first came at the expense of Michael Stich in May, the second in October against Todd Martin. Curiously enough, whenever Lendl stayed in an event long enough to face a Top 5 player, which happened just three times, he was victorious: Pete Sampras was ranked second, Boris Becker third and Petr Korda fifth when they were upset by Lendl.

Still, his 11 opening-round losses marked a career nadir, and his Grand Slam results were an absolute aberration: Lendl suffered first-round defeats at the Australian and French opens, a second-round loss at Wimbledon and a first-round injury default to Neil Borwick at the U.S. Open.

But Lendl didn't work his way to the peak of his profession without the assistance of a stubborn streak.

"I didn't feel my year's results were due to a lack of skill," he said last weekend in between sessions of "unpacking boxes" after the recent move from his Greenwich, Conn., mansion to the custom-built retreat that spans two townships in the Litchfield hills.

"It was more because of a lack of movement in my hip and my legs. Let's just say that my mobility didn't help things any."

The mobility problem is one he attempted to correct two weeks ago with a second round of arthroscopic knee surgery. "At least the knee is not locking up anymore," he said, "and I can get back to training again."

Lendl, winner of eight Grand Slam titles, will put his repair work to the test next month in Australia when he makes his 11th visit to the Australian Open, an event that he has won twice and finished twice as runner-up.

"Right now, it's just too early to tell how I'm going to do," said Lendl.

"But it's also too early to think about quitting and becoming a corn farmer," said the Czech Republic native, who built his new residence on sprawling rural acreage that was once a sheep farm.

Lendl said that his 3-year-old daughter, Marika, would accompany him to Melbourne, where he will also be joined by Tony Roche of Australia, his coach for the last decade. And there he will split his time between two disciplines, fatherhood and tennis matches.

"I'm starting to know as much about zoos as I do about tennis," said Lendl of his mandatory paternal activities when he's not competing or practicing.

"But I'm not ready to be put in one; I'm not a dinosaur yet."

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