HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Eight-time Grand Slam winner Ivan Lendl watches closely as 10-year-old A.J. Staton hits a tennis ball over the net.
“You having fun?” Lendl said easily, his smile wide as the boy nodded his head. “Good.”
Lendl smiles a lot these days as head of the Ivan Lendl International Junior Tennis Academy, a venture that began last August. It’s focused on what the former No. 1 calls an “all-around” approach to playing the game.
“I enjoy it. I have enjoyed it with my kids and golf, and I enjoy with other kids and tennis,” Lendl said with a grin.
Joy and good humor were not traits generally associated with Lendl by some fans during his championship run in the 1980s. He spent a then-record 270 weeks at No. 1 and was called, “The Champion No One Cares About,” on a Sports Illustrated cover 25 years ago. He was viewed as a stoic, Czech iceman, an Ivan Drago foil to his Rocky-style American rivals John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
“It hurt. It wasn’t fair,” Lendl said of the perception. “But that was a long time ago.”
Now, the 51-year-old Lendl is eager to train a new generation of players, some who may go on to transform the game as he did three decades back.
Lendl’s school combines academics, personalized tennis instruction, health and fitness training and mental coaching to give students a complete approach to the game. The goals of students range from learning proper technique for local leagues, getting a college scholarship or playing pro tennis.
So Lendl and the academy staff want to develop life skills that students can carry into whatever field they choose.
Lendl won nearly 82 percent of his matches in a career that stretched from 1978-1994. He won three French Opens, three U.S. Opens and two Australian Open singles titles. He remains the only man to reach eight consecutive U.S. Open finals and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2001.
Yet, Lendl’s dominance didn’t always translate into worldwide appeal, in part, he says, because of the Cold War era in U.S.-Soviet Union relations and his single-minded style of play. Move Lendl from the 1980s to the 2000s and he might be as celebrated as Swiss star Roger Federer.