Ivan Lendl's bold experiment in tennis alchemy, transforming his leaden style on grass into the golden touch of a Wimbledon champion, is about to be tested before a gallery of skeptics.
John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Boris Becker, Wimbledon winners all, were among many who scoffed at the notion that Lendl, 30, could remake his carefully crafted game so late in his career.Now, on the eve of Monday's opening matches of this most cherished of tennis championships, they're not so sure he hasn't succeeded.
McEnroe once described Lendl's form as "programmed" and "robotic," fine for the hard courts of the U.S. and Australian Opens or the clay courts of the French, but unsuited to the odd bounces and artistic demands of grass courts.
Connors said recently that the top-seeded Lendl, winner of eight Grand Slam events but never a Wimbledon title, simply didn't have the serve-and-volley style that comes so naturally to boomers like Becker.
"Grass-court tennis is a game of aggression and risk taking, but of a calculated nature," said Mark Cox, Britain's former top player and an expert on the surface.
Rallies often last only two or three shots, he pointed out, putting a premium on the serve, return of serve and volley. Lendl's big weapon, the baseline passing shot, is difficult because of the low, skidding bounces, and his ventures to the net in the past have been rare.
Arthur Ashe pulled one of the great switches in tennis history when he forsook power for soft-touch shots to beat a slugging Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final. But that was only one match, not a whole tournament.
Tennis players, like boxers, don't often fare well when they change styles in big matches. In the crunch, they tend to revert to old habits.
Bjorn Borg, a ground-stroker supreme, won five Wimbledon titles from 1976 through 1980. But he was the rare exception to the rule of serve-and-volleyers dominating through most of Wimbledon's 113-year history.
Lendl, running out of time to capture the one championship that has eluded him, dedicated himself this year to proving he could win at Wimbledon. The quest has been called an obsession, though the Czechoslovakian native dismisses that term and says he merely wants to give himself his best shot of winning here.
"I'd hate to look back, years from now, and think there was something I could have done differently to win at Wimbledon," Lendl said. "If I don't win, OK, but at least I made the sacrifices to prepare for it. I'm doing everything I can do."
Lendl, a Wimbledon semifinalist the past two years and runner-up in 1986 and 1987, solidified his No. 1 ranking by winning his second straight Australian Open in January. He then spent much of the next five months honing his grass-court game with coach Tony Roche.