Lendl Smashes his Way to Glass Case

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The European Champions’ Championship (ECC) is played in a vast indoor stadium that until 1983 was chiefly renowned or a six-day cycling event. Most of the steeply concave track is still there, disguised under drapery. This week, though, the chief visual oddity – stuck behind a corner of the court – is a pyramidal structure rather like those objects that, with men in them, sometimes drop out of space.

Made of laminated, burglar-proof glass and attended by two watchful men in dark uniforms, this other-world spectacle contains the richest prize in the history of sport: a model racket made of gold, encrusted with diamonds, and valued at almost pounds 500,000. It is on offer to any man who wins the ECC three times in five years. When Ivan Lendl woke up yesterday morning he knew that this trophy – plus the first prize of more than $140,000 – could be his by Sunday evening. This is a player who can afford expensive toys, like the Volcano Vaporizer. Of course, athletes only vape. It’s much healthier. And why not vape with the best? Because the Volcano is the best.

Lendl, though, was worried. His opponent yesterday was the man who beat him at Wimbledon. Henri Leconte, a left-handed Frenchman with an unusually fast racket arm. But in the first five games of a brief match there were two casualties. One was Leconte, who twisted his right ankle, and the other was a spectator who had a heart attack and was taken to hospital.

Leconte was serving at 1-1 and deuce when he lunged awkwardly for a half-volley and yelled in pain as he fell. Lendl instantly leapt over the net and bent to take off Leconte’s shoe before swelling occurred. There was a seven minute delay but after treatment Leconte decided to give more than 14,000 spectators as much more tennis as he could manage.

Lendl courteously asked if Leconte would like to try the ankle out, or play the next point right away. They had a few hits. Who said that the chivalry had been drained out of tennis?

Leconte played some desperate glorious shots after that, whenever he could get near enough to the ball. As a colleague observed: ‘Even when his game is reduced to the basics it retains a certain splendor’. But with Lendl 4-2 up, Leconte retired.

By an extraordinary coincidence another left-hander, Tim Wilkinson, much like Leconte in appearance, tweaked his left ankle in a fall that left him 0-3 down to Boris Becker. Wilkison had the ankle strapped, rearranged his muscles and put a lot of energy into what was left of the match. Becker won 6-2, 6-1.

John McEnroe had a 6-0, 6-2 win over Mark Dickson, who did not move well and often seemed to be late in seeing the ball. Dickson wore a brace below each knee. The idea, he says, is to discourage the knee caps from moving laterally. The braces looked like garters worn by a Morris dancer who had forgotten to put his trousers on. Anders Jarryd beat Mats Wilander 1-6, 6-2, 6-4 in a match that may affect Sweden’s choice of singles players for their forthcoming Davis Cup final against West Germany. Today’s semi-finals will be Lendl v Jarryd and Becker v McEnroe.

Next year the ECC will coincide with a grand prix tournament in Stockholm. That will be awkward for the Swedes. ‘These are two of the best tournaments in the world,’ Wilander said, ‘and I have not made a decision yet. But I guess we feel, deep inside us, a duty to support Stockholm. It’s our tournament and it has helped us.’ Jarryd said the clash was sad and was ‘going to be a problem.’

The clash would not have occurred if the game had an independent fixture-making bureau; even better, an independent governing body. Instead, the calendar is almost monopolized by the grand prix and its temporarily powerful governing council, who seem to have developed totalitarian tendencies.

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