“I have more talent in my little finger than he has in his entire body,” John McEnroe once said of Ivan Lendl, the rival he loved to hate.

The comment was typically brattish but to be fair, many would have agreed with McEnroe. The American had perhaps the best hands on the tour and he would routinely conjure up shots that others could merely dream about. But Lendl, nicknamed ‘Ivan The Terrible’ in his early years, went on to show the sports world that talent isn’t everything.

‘’I had to change my game, raise the level of play against someone like McEnroe,’’ Lendl told The NY Times in 1986. ‘’It was frustrating sometimes because you are working hard and it is not going well. I wished I could have as much success as McEnroe.’’

The duo ended up playing each other 36 times over a decade-long rivalry. And while McEnroe had the edge in the early years, by the end, Lendl’s domination was complete.

Lendl vs McEnroe, last 11 matches

Year Event Surface RND Winner Result
1992 ATP Masters 1000 CanadaCanada Outdoor Hard QF Ivan Lendl 62 64
1991 Long Island NY, U.S.A. Outdoor Hard SF Ivan Lendl 63 75
1990 London / Queen's ClubGreat Britain Outdoor Grass SF Ivan Lendl 62 64
1990 Toronto-1Canada Indoor Carpet SF Ivan Lendl 63 62
1989 MastersNY, U.S.A. Indoor Carpet RR Ivan Lendl 63 63
1989 MontrealCanada Outdoor Hard F Ivan Lendl 61 63
1989 WCT FinalsTX, U.S.A. Indoor Carpet SF John McEnroe 67 76 62 75
1989 Australian OpenAustralia Outdoor Hard QF Ivan Lendl 76 62 76
1988 Roland GarrosFrance Outdoor Clay R16 Ivan Lendl 67 76 64 64
1987 US OpenNY, U.S.A. Outdoor Hard QF Ivan Lendl 63 63 64
1985 US OpenNY, U.S.A. Outdoor Hard F Ivan Lendl 76 63 64
Stats from ATP

So how exactly did Lendl turn things around?

The Czech was a talented junior but at the senior level he was often being let down by the mental aspect of the game. This wasn’t to say he wasn’t doing well – he had a great forehand, a solid backhand and serve – but he just wasn’t able to get over the line. He lost six of his first seven Major finals and the word around the tour was that he was a little soft.

Lendl responded by taking a leaf out of Martina Navratilova’s book. Both were former Czech stars who had moved to US to further their careers. And both had run into American opponents, who were proving to be tough nuts to crack. Navratilova’s rival was Chris Evert. Lendl had to contend with McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

In an effort to change things, Navratilova had surrounded herself with a support staff of nutritionists, trainers and other specialists to improve her game. She even turned to computers to break down Evert’s game. She had an entourage well before it became the norm. It worked for her.

Lendl knew he needed to change things too. And he was just as desperate. Connors won their first eight matches. McEnroe had beaten him in the big matches as well.

So he went the Navratilova route and worked as hard as any player possibly could. He changed his diet (found out he was eating too much meat), his fitness regime (weight-lifting and aerobics), his coach (Tony Roche to help him with left-handers who he had never really trained against before) and dissected every little part of his game. When he was done, he became the epitome of a modern tennis player – he established the system and the others have simply followed along.

Lendl even introduced tennis to the practice of changing racquets with every ball change. Before him, players could go through matches without changing their racquet. Everything had a structural feel to it. There was a definite method.

And if his work ethic didn’t make believers of everyone else, the results certainly did.

Most weeks as No 1 on the ATP tour

Rank Player Total
1  Novak Djokovic (SRB) 322
2    Roger Federer (SUI) 310
3  Pete Sampras (USA) 286
4  Ivan Lendl (TCH) 270
5  Jimmy Connors (USA) 268

Most consecutive weeks as No 1

Consecutive Player
237    Roger Federer
160  Jimmy Connors
157  Ivan Lendl

For three years, starting with 1985, Lendl’s match-winning percentage was over 90%. He was almost unbeatable. This record was equalled by Roger Federer during the 2004–2006 period but Lendl achieved the feat five times in his career (1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989) and he remains the only male tennis player with over 90% match wins in five different years.

He reached at least one Grand Slam final for 11 straight years and between the 1982 US Open and the 1991 Open, Lendl made the semifinals in 27 of the 34 Majors he participated in.

He also established the then-record 270 weeks as World No 1. The record has since been broken but it remains a testament to the manner in which Lendl pushed himself and rose to the top of the world. He set a goal and worked towards it.

By the time he retired in 1994 he had done it all. He had won 94 titles on the ATP tour and eight Grand Slams. Wimbledon eluded him but as it is with all things Lendl, it wasn’t for want of trying.