1984 French Open: Ivan Lendl defeats John McEnroe
Extract: Serious by John McEnroe
It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: sometimes it still keeps me up nights.
It’s even tough for me to do the commentary at the French – I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match. Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.
Connors had two Wimbledon titles and five US Opens at that point, but he’d never won the French. Borg had won the French six times, and Wimbledon five but never the US Open. Besides the Masters – which, because of the limited field, was a different kind of test than a regular tournament – Lendl had never won a major. Lendl choked away majors. Everyone knew that.
I had two Wimbledons and three Opens. A French title, followed by my third Wimbledon, would have given me that final, complete thing that I don’t have now – a legitimate claim as possibly the greatest player of all time.
Looking back, I try to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty – otherwise I’d tear out what little hair I have left, and work myself into a tizzy every day of my life, playing that match over and over and over again in my mind. I try not to do that, because? god knows, I’m an intense enough person as it is.
It was meant to be mine – even though the French is on slow red clay, which favors baseliners like Borg and Lendl, even though I’m a serve-and-volley player, and my best surfaces were always grass and hard-court, where my serve came off the ground fast and I had that extra fraction of a second to get to net and punch the volley. On red clay, the ball bites into the surface, and you lose that fraction, even with the fastest serve: the receiver gets extra milliseconds for a passing shot if you come in.
But I was at the top of my game that spring, and my game plan was this: don’t change a thing. Serve and come in. I knew my volley was the best in the business. I knew I couldn’t lose. Peter Fleming was planning a victory party even before the match began.
When I was introduced on Center Court at Stade Roland Garros, I got the greatest hand I’d ever received at the start of a match – a huge roar!
And by the end of the match, in my own inimitable way, I had somehow managed to get the entire crowd against me once again.
I had not only won the first two sets, I was ready to take over the third. Everything was perfect – it was astonishing how well I was playing – and then it happened. An NBC cameraman had taken his headset off, and it was sitting there, squitting, while I was trying to play. […] I know the squawking headset was an innocent technical glitch – it wasn’t as if anybody had said ‘Let’s screw McEnroe up’, but that’s how I took it – and, just like that, my concentration was shot.
I got very angy, because nobody was dealing with the situation. On the changeover, I went over to the headset and screamed into the little mike, ‘Shut the fuck up!’. Then , as I went over to my side, I thought, What the hell am I doing? If you start lashing out when things are going well, you may be letting your opponent think that you’re not as sure of yourself as you seem. […]
I went from two games to love in the third, to losing the set 4-6. But then I was up 4-2 in the fourth, serving a 40-30. And that, to me, is where I really lost the match.
Tony Roche had been coaching Lendl for a while , and they had worked on how to play me. They knew my left-handed slice serve in the ad court was a killer for most right-handers – the guy would be in the stands before he got his racket on it. Even Lendl, as good as he was, couldn’t drive that serve back.
So he and Roche determined that whenever I served wide to his backhand on the ad side, he was jus going to chip it crosscourt. The ball would be sinking, with backspin on it, and I’d have to hit my volley up instead of punching it deep. That let hil stay in the point and try to take back the offense with his big goundstrokes. That was his plan, and I knew it. So I served wide, and sure enough, he chipped crosscourt, and I was right there. My first inclination was to hit a drop- volley and go to the winner, but then I decided, no, no, just play it a little safe, because even though I’m known as someone with pretty good hands, a soft touch, the drop-volley is a low-percentage shot. I decided just to float the volley deep, make him pass me. I went against my gut. And I missed the volley. I pushed it the tiniest bit, and it floated out.
I don’t remember the points after that. It goes in a blur. It’s now eighteen years ago, but I’ve never watched that match once. I can’t bear to. So I can’t tell you the exact details of what happened next. It’s too sickening to me.
[…] Against most other guys, I would have won that French anyway. I have to give Lendl (grudging) credit for being who he was, and for being fit enough to be able to get better as the match progressed. It’s the only match in which I ever felt I was playing up to my capacities and lost.
But he didn’t beat me. I beat myself. Lendl got his first major, and I took his title, Choker-in-chief, away from him.