Ivan Lendl has advanced to the point where he needs a nickname. How about Ivan the Invincible? Heading into the 1988 season, Lendl is dominating professional tennis as few players before him ever have. In 1987 he won eight tournaments, including Grand Slam titles at the French and US Opens. His prize money exceeded $2 million.
He overpowered the rest of the elite field in the Nabisco Masters that ended the schedule, thrashing a bewildered Mats Wilander in straight sets in the final. And he's already looking ahead to an even bigger year in '88.
By now just about all tennis enthusiasts have learned to handle the unusual pronounciation of Lendl's first name (ee-VON, not I-van). But can anybody handle his awesome power game on the court?
His chief rivals, Boris Becker and John McEnroe, are struggling. The phlegmatic Swedes, led by Wilander and the improved Stefan Edberg, may or may not want to be No. 1 keenly enough.
With Lendl there is no doubt. He has been the best player in the world for three years in a row, and his desire seems to be intensifying.
``It took me a while to get to the top,'' says the 27-year-old native of Czechoslovakia, who now lives in Greenwich, Conn.
``I didn't start all that early and I've had to keep getting better steadily. I was prepared to be on top and I'm enjoying it there immensely. I am more and more eager to do well before time runs out on me. I should have five strong years yet.''
Lendl took a week's vacation after winning the Masters, then left early for Australia to work with his coach Tony Roche for three weeks before the Australian Open comes up in mid-January.
Holidays? What holidays?
``I am pretty much a self-made player,'' says Lendl, a lean 6 ft. 2 in. and 175 lbs. ``I can still learn to move better on the court and add another stroke or two to my game. I'd like to have a good drop shot, for instance. My opponents may think I have no more room for improvement, but I know better.''
As much as he thrives on competition and pressure now, Lendl is guarding carefully against burnout. He saw what happened to McEnroe, and does not intend to let it happen to him.
``I will play only 12 tournaments next year, with the permission of the Men's [International Professional] Pro Council,'' he says. ``In exchange I also will play fewer exhibitions. They are letting me do that because I've played extra tournaments to help the circuit the past several years. I should be able to stay fresher for the big events.''
He also has expressed interest in playing for the United States in next September's open-style Olympic tennis competition. It's doubtful, however, that he will be granted US citizenship in time.
Lendl has yet to win the Australian Open or Wimbledon, and will be pointing for them in 1988. The Australian Open is converting from a grass surface to a hard court, which should help Lendl's chances. He was runner-up to an inspired grass specialist, Pat Cash, in the last Wimbledon.
``I will work on coming to the net more on grass,'' he says. ``I have a powerful enough serve - it's just a question of tactics and angles.''
Lendl's serve was mostly just a supersonic sound to opponents in the Masters. They couldn't handle it or his killer forehand from the baseline. His power was overwhelming.
When an opponent stayed back and tried to exchange ground strokes, Lendl outlasted him. When the other man tried to rush the net, Lendl drilled shots past him. His backhand, down the line and cross-court, was nearly as imposing as his feared forehand. His topspin lob also has taken on new precision.
``Lendl has more tools than the rest of us,'' laments Brad Gilbert. ``He can win a lot of games in a short amount of time. It's 2-1 and you feel you're getting in the match, then all of a sudden you're down 6-2, 2-0. You're going down the slope way too fast.''
``When he's playing well, there's not much you can do to stop him,'' says Wilander, who has become a near neighbor of Lendl in Greenwich. ``He is the steadiest player in the game, and he's relentless.''
Lendl says one reason he keeps getting stronger is a recently diversified training program. ``I've stopped spending so many hours on the court,'' he says. ``I train off the court a lot, in different ways that keep me interested. Depending on what I feel like doing on a given day, I'll ride my bike 25 miles, or play ice hockey, or run, or lift weights. When the weather's nice I'll play golf, maybe 36 holes. I'm in better shape and I'm never bored.''
Ivan the Invincible has a goal for 1988: He wants to go undefeated, an outrageous idea for anybody else.