Looking back : McEnroe vs. Lendl – Diametrical opposition

Thursday, Jul 18

John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. The Kid from Queens and the Ostrava Ghost. The Superbrat and Ivan the Terrible.

By its very nature, tennis (a surface, a net and two opponents) produces compelling sports rivalries, opposing styles and spectacular clashes on and off the courts, some of which are practically within the realm of boxing.

There’s no shortage of mythical confrontations. Navratilova and Evert went head-to-head over 80 times. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic combine nearly 140 matches against each other. Also on the long, long list are Edberg and Becker, Agassi and Sampras and Graf and Seles. But the struggle between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl ticks all the boxes: West versus East, attack versus counterpunch, agitation versus stillness, volubility versus silence. In sum, yin and yang. More than anything, THE blockbuster tennis race of the 1980s. 

In this respect, Montréal should consider itself lucky to have hosted two of their epic finals. The first, which takes us all the way back to 1985, merits some background notes. Lendl descended on the city as a former Canadian Open champion. As comfortable as ever on DecoTurf, he racked up easy wins over Mayotte, Jarryd and Arias. As for McEnroe, his return to Montréal was news in itself. Two years earlier, infuriated by local fans’ attitude towards him, he had vowed never to return. No stranger to paradoxes, he showed up ready to duel Lendl for the spot at the top of the rankings. Playing inspired tennis, McEnroe overpowered Connors in the semis (6-2, 6-3) and secured his ticket to the final showdown.

In the end, the two sets that Johnny Mac managed to control (7-5, 6-3) despite the windy conditions were less about the level of play and more about McEnroe’s first and only win here (and Lendl’s first loss here). An incident that could have been just a small anecdote ended up becoming a key point in the match when an ordinarily robotic Lendl whipped himself into a frenzy over the chair umpire’s calls. Accusing Jeremy Shales of “demolishing the competition” with his questionable decisions, he propelled the match into the surreal. Taking a page from McEnroe’s book, the Terminator lost his cool and called on the tournament supervisor to replace Shales right then and there. When he asked for new balls at the wrong time, the World No.2 was promptly ridiculed by McEnroe who mockingly declared: “He got carried away, he lost his concentration. I remember him accusing me of making the same mistake. He was right!”  

Four years later, the titans collided again in the final in Montréal. The roles were reversed, and Lendl raised his sixth and last Canadian crown.

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