BANKSVILLE, N.Y. -- Ivan Lendl, who made such a religion of physical fitness that he overcame a shortage of tennis talent and transformed himself into the No. 1 player in the world for a record 270 weeks, announced his retirement yesterday.
Alternately misty-eyed and jocular as he held court off the court at the Grand Slam tennis facility he owns here, Lendl, 34, said he finally had succumbed to the back problem that was diagnosed as facet joint syndrome last March. The condition manifested itself in crippling back spasms during many of his matches this year.
Having exhausted several courses of therapy that ranged from rest to exercise regimens to a minor surgical procedure he likened to "a root canal for your back," Lendl made his decision after his back problems worsened after his aborted second-round match at the U.S. Open in September.
A three-city stint on the seniors circuit in October confirmed his suspicion his back can no longer support a tennis career of any kind.
"I was a disaster," he recalled.
"It's the running and pounding on hardcourts that bring the spasms on, and once they start, they just keep on coming, not in one spot, but all over the middle of my back. If I wasn't a professional athlete, I'd be just another guy with a sore back, but because I am, now I've had to give up my career just when I was starting to enjoy playing without the pressure to produce."
Still lean and mean, but no longer able to use his body as the fighting machine that earned him 94 titles, eight of them in Grand Slam events, and an unprecedented $20 million in prize money, Lendl termed it "ironic" that the same impeccably honed physique that made him an iron-man icon within his profession had now forced him to abandon it.
"I'm being forced to make this decision," said Lendl, who in the past few years had come to grips with his dwindling ranking, which dipped from No. 1 at the start of 1990 to 54th this year. He had intended to play a few more seasons merely for the joy of competing.
Instead, said Lendl, he'll find his joy on the golf course, where he surprised himself recently with a hole-in-one, and at the estate in nearby Goshen, Conn., that he shares with his wife, Samantha, their four daughters and a corresponding number of German shepherds.
"The only fear I have is that I'll miss it too much; I would have liked to walk away from tennis when I didn't enjoy it any more, not now," said Lendl, who insisted that his retirement would not send him to the psychiatrist's couch or the rocking chair.
"I don't freak out that easily, other than at a bad call in a match," he said, "and I can't be bitter that this happened to me after such a long run, and such a decent run. I just wish I was still able to run."
As for regrets, he's had a few. He attributed his inability to win Wimbledon to his unwillingness to tinker with his game, and the Czechoslovak-born player, who earned his American citizenship in July 1992, said he always wished he had become a citizen soon enough to be a viable contender for the Olympics.
"Not winning at Wimbledon is not going to bother me forever," he said. "I'm fully aware of my shortcomings on grass, and maybe if the Australian Open hadn't changed its surface, we would have been talking about two Slams I hadn't won instead of one. But I'm pretty much at peace with what I did accomplish."
Because of his ailment, which cannot be corrected by surgery and can become degenerative if unheeded, Lendl described his retirement from the sport he ruled a decade ago as unconditional and absolute.
Tennis at any level, including the senior exhibition tour on which he had hoped to renew his battles with Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, is out of consideration .
"Maybe 50 years from now they'll find a treatment for it," he said of his chronic condition, "but it's not going to happen in time for me to ever think realistically of playing tennis again.
"But I don't think I'm going to lie down and not compete at anything. Last summer I played golf in the championship at one of the clubs out here, and the same intensity was there. I was even nervous about it, which kind of came as a surprise."
Lendl hadn't experienced stage fright in quite a while.
Over a 17-year professional career -- in which he was ranked in the top three for 10 years and finished four years at the top spot -- Lendl made it his business to conquer the nerves that undermined him in four Grand Slam finals between 1981 and 1983 and the body that later folded from the exertion of finally capturing his first Grand Slam crown with a five-set victory over McEnroe at the 1984 French Open.
"That first Grand Slam title was like a wakeup call," he said. "Before then, I was just floating out there. But it not only helped me break the barrier of not winning, it showed me I had to make myself much fitter.
"People may say I developed an iron will, but what really happened is that I made myself much fitter. I think an iron will is always supported by fitness."
Unmatched fitness, he said, was the weapon that made him a champion with titles second only to Connors and winning streaks second to none.
LENDL BY NUMBERS
8: Grand Slam titles (three U.S. Open, three French, two Australian).
13: Consecutive years finished in top 10, second only to Jimmy Connors (16).
15: Titles won in 1982.
44: Career-best match winning streak, from October 1981 to February 1982.
94: Career singles titles, second to Connors (109) in the Open era.
270: Record number of weeks at No. 1.
1,069: Match victories, one of only two players to win 1,000 or more career matches.
$20,512,417: All-time career prize money leader.