Ivan Lendl, a champion on a tight leash

Jun 19, 2014, 7:09:10 PM

Ivan Lendl, a champion on a tight leash
When Ivan Lendl was traveling on the ATP Tour, he was never really alone. The secret services of his country, Czechoslovakia, were watching him very closely. A story that could make a good thriller, to read in the Tennis story of the week.

In a biography recently published in the UK, the journalist Mark Hodgkinson revealed the tortuous path of Ivan Lendl, watched by the secret services of Communist Czechoslovakia, repudiated by his own country and then exiled to the U.S. A story that could make a good thriller.


Ivan Lendl was 8-year-old when the Soviet armed forces put an abrupt end to the Prague Spring in 1968. The Czechoslovak government wanted to introduce "socialism with a human face", allowing press, opinion and expression freedom. But Brezhnev’ tanks stopped the reforms undertaken since January. Little Ivan attended the deadly parade and never forgot this sad day. Therefore, as revealed in the biography of the champion Ivan Lendl: The Man Who Made Murray, by the Brit Mark Hodgkinson, he and his family started to be closely watched by the State Security. Equivalent of the KGB in Czechoslovakia, the latter was grimly known by the initials StB. Created just after the war in 1945, it extended its control over the country even further after 1968, with special treatment for people considered "subversive" or potential "enemies within." It’s in this stifling atmosphere that Ivan Lendl grew up. The offspring of two tennis players (his mother Olga was notably Czechoslovak number 2 at some point), it was only natural for him to spend his childhood and adolescence racquet in hand. It soon became obvious that the kid was good, very good even. So much so that at 18, in 1978, he joined the ATP professional tour and played his first Grand Slam at Roland Garros.


«A close friendship with a Miss New Zealand»


For Lendl, as for his fellow tennis players at the time, receiving such an authorization proved that the Czechoslovak political system was more flexible than some of the neighbouring countries of the Eastern Bloc. In the GDR for example, professional tennis was prohibited because it was considered “an upper-class sport”, which nipped in the bud the potential great career of Thomas Emmrich, tremendous talent of tennis who never had the chance to play outside the narrow borders of East Germany. The young Ivan, on his part, had the chance to travel the world to compete in tennis tournaments. But he was still being closely watched by the authorities, which were wary of possible defections... And for good reason. Indeed, three years before, in 1975, Martina Navratilova, who was starting her wonderful career, took advantage from her participation to the U.S. Open to go to the immigration department of the United States and applied for a green card that she received only a month later. Shocked and angry, the Czechoslovak authorities stripped her of her nationality in stride. Could Lendl be a 'traitor' too? To find out, they decided to intensify his surveillance. Thus, on the 16th of January 1982, the StB formalized the opening of a folder on the player and his family. With spies worth of the movie The Lives of Others, the StB wanted to know what were his actual relations with the West and how much money he was earning. Mark Hodgkinson, who obtained the said-file (code name "Ivan"), revealed that even his private life was thoroughly watched. For example, it is said that: “he has reportedly begun a close friendship with a Miss New Zealand”. But above all, the StB found out that he was earning quite a lot of money and seemed to enjoy it. The report said: "It is understood that Lendl is not only a great tennis player and a well-dressed man, but also a competent businessman". Which was not necessarily the greatest quality in a communist country... "When I was growing up the thing that drove me in tennis was it could get me out of Czechoslovakia. Then, when I had got out for a while… money then became my [sole] motivation," said Lendl to the journalist in the biography. This propensity to earn a lot and enjoy it only strengthened the surveillance, which became less and less discreet... In 1984, while the Czechoslovak Davis Cup team was staying in a hotel of the country, waiting to play against France, Lendl asked to change rooms, but his request was denied. "So, they are going to listen to the sounds in my room if I have a girl here, right?" He said, annoyed, to his captain Jan Kodes.


Apartheid, Bush and Vaclav Havel


A year before in 1983, the war between him and his country was already well underway, when the player accepted the invitation from the apartheid regime of South Africa to come play an exhibition tournament in Sun City, near Johannesburg. The Czechoslovak authorities expressly forbade him to go there, and made him pay for his failure to comply. He was sentenced to pay a fine of $ 150,000 and was snubbed by local medias, who were forbidden to mention his results. In 1986, he won his second U.S. Open in a row; he said to feel at home in the United States and even said that he would like to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team. A year later, he went even further by saying in an interview given to a Dutch newspaper: "I cannot represent a country whose regime I deny." Because politically, Lendl was a follower of the most liberal thoughts: Thatcher, Reagan, Bush... He even went as far to keep a written correspondence, and even a kind of friendship with the latter, to whom he sent his best wishes for the election in 1992 (he was finally beaten by Clinton). "It’s my first chance to vote and of course I’m voting for you and the Republican Party," he proudly said. Because at the time, he had just received the precious green card for which he officially applied in 1988. He wanted to participate to the Seoul Olympics for the U.S., but had to wait 4 years to get U.S. citizenship. It didn’t take long for him to definitely put his home country behind, as explained Mark Hodgkinson: "Marc Howard, one of Lendl’s former practice partners, told me that he had once had a conversation about it with Lendl. “I was eager to talk to him about my experience and my hopes for Czech democracy under Václav Havel but before I could say much, Ivan cut me off, telling me that, ‘everything over there is poisoned by communism’, or something along those lines. He seemed to be filled with hostility for the country."


By Régis Delanoë