Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You’ll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
8. Ivan Lendl
Years played: 1978-1994
Major titles: 8
“I have more talent in my little finger than he has in his entire body,” John McEnroe once said of Lendl, his most hated rival. Lendl never really bothered arguing; he just kept doing the one thing that he undoubtedly had a gift for: working. By the time he had worked hard enough to pass McEnroe in titles won, majors won and weeks spent at No. 1—and had won nine of their last 10 matches—Ivan the Terrible had made himself into the greatest overachiever, and one of the most feared players, in tennis history.
Along with his fellow Czech-turned-American Martina Navratilova, Lendl transformed the sport in the early ‘80s with his systematic approach to training. Nutrition, weightlifting and early-morning aerobics became a standard part of the tennis-player’s regimen, and no detail was too small to consider. Before Lendl, it was unthinkable that a player would switch racquets with every ball change, in case the properties of the frame had altered during those nine games. After Lendl, it became standard practice.
It wasn’t just Lendl’s physical fitness that improved; his mental toughness did as well. He lost six of his first seven major finals, but by the mid-1980s he had transformed himself from soft to steely. Lendl would finish with eight major titles and 94 titles overall—15 in his breakout season of 1982. Lendl couldn’t match Jimmy Connors’ 109 titles, but he passed Jimbo in weeks spent at No. 1, 270 to 268.
For all of Lendl’s effort and professionalism, he struggled to win the love of fans and press: “The Champion That Nobody Cares About,” Sports Illustrated dubbed him in 1985. But his annual attempts to capture the only tournament that eluded him, Wimbledon, made him a more sympathetic figure. As always, Lendl went all out to make it happen, remaking his game for grass and skipping the French Open to prepare. The fact that this born baseliner reached two finals on Wimbledon’s then-slick turf was just one more in his long list of (over)achievements.
Defining Moment: In 1984, John McEnroe capped his best season by dismantling Lendl in the US Open final—at the time, it seemed that he had vanquished his rival. Not quite. Twelve months later, Lendl turned the tables with his own one-sided win over McEnroe at Flushing Meadows for the title. Lendl would dominate the rest of the decade, and wouldn’t lose to McEnroe again for four years.
Watch: Ivan Lendl beats Mats Wilander to win 1987 US Open
Follow the men’s and women’s countdowns of The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era throughout the month of February right here.
This Week on Tennis Channel Plus 2/12
ATP Buenos Aires (Feb. 14-18)
-Watch Tennis Channel Plus live coverage of Dominic Thiem and Argentina Open beginning Monday February 12 at 12 p.m. ET.
-Can’t make it to Buenos Aires? Watch every match from the Argentina Open on-demand with Tennis Channel Plus.
ATP Rotterdam (Feb. 13-14)
-Don’t miss extended ATP Rotterdam Court 1 coverage live on Tennis Channel Plus Tuesday February 13 at 6 a.m. ET.
SUBSCRIBE TO TENNIS CHANNEL PLUS at tennischannel.com/subscribe