HARTFORD, Conn. – Ivan Lendl is one of the greatest tennis players in history and quite adept at golf as well.
But the tennis Hall of Famer from the Czech Republic and part-time Connecticut resident is just as proud of what he has accomplished in helping others, especially in a camp that involves youngsters with physical disabilities.
At the top of his list of charity endeavors is the Hospital for Special Care Ivan Lendl Golf Classic, which has raised more than $2.2 million and will celebrate its 25th anniversary on May 18 at the TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, home of the Travelers Championship. The event benefits the Hospital for Special Care’s Adaptive Sports year-round programs, which give children and adults the opportunity to achieve their goals and lead independent lives. Sports and fitness programs, both competitive and recreational, teach life skills, promote confidence and develop leadership skills.
The sports camp is a day-camp for youths aged 6-19 living with physical disabilities held at Berlin High School in August. Campers are given instruction in a variety of adaptive sports that provide competition and therapeutic recreation, making a difference in the quality of life for thousands of individuals. Specialized adaptive equipment, including sport wheelchairs, allow for individualized accommodation to meet the variable levels of independence and ability.
“You really can’t compare winning tournaments with doing charity work, but I really enjoy seeing the kids and how much fun they have,” said Lendl, 59, who splits time between Goshen and Vero Beach, Fla. “And after they leave the camp, they keep in touch through emails and other social media.”
The origins of the tournament came from the Hartford Whalers March of Dimes Benefit Dinner in 1988, when Lendl met Jonathan Slifka, who has spina bifida and was the poster child for March of Dimes, is the tournament’s honorary chairman and has realized deep meaning and impact on his family from the event. Through a connection that Lendl made with the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis based in California, Slifka was flown to the West Coast to participate in a wheelchair sports camp when he was 11.
After returning home, Slifka’s family realized there were no camps in the Northeast, but with the help of Lendl through tennis fundraisers and countless donations of space, food and other essential items, Slifka’s mother, Janeace, singlehandedly started the camp in 1991. When it began to really grow, the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain got involved in 1996.
“It’s great to see kids get involved in sports,” Lendl said. “It’s more difficult for the ‘Special’ kids, but it’s nice to see campers grow up and become counselors. They oversee the younger kids and help them out.”
Slifka was one of the campers who transitioned to counselor. The camp has been a vehicle by which he and many others have learned athletic and life skills and developed relationships and self-confidence that stay with people throughout their lives.
“Over the years, we have watched how the camp has profoundly touched the lives of countless kids from their education and professional lives to their personal relationships and even marriages,” Slifka said. “I am so proud and excited to chair this fundraiser in its 25th anniversary year as it’s a testament to the longevity of the camp, the lasting impact it has had on my family and others, and the life-long memories that have been created through these years.”
Lendl was the No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world for 270 weeks and won 94 singles titles, including eight victories and 11 runner-up finishes in major championships, and 49 other non-ATP tournaments. Nicknamed “The Terminator” and “Ivan the Terrible,” Lendl was known for using his heavy topspin forehand to dictate play, with his trademark shot being his running forehand that he could direct down the line or cross-court. He also won six doubles titles, and his career earnings of $21,262,417 was a record at the time. It all led to him being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., in 2001.
In 1982, Lendl won 15 of the 23 singles tournaments he entered and had a 44-match winning streak. He competed on the World Championship Tennis (WCT) tour, where he won the 10 tournaments he entered, including his first WCT Finals, where he defeated John McEnroe in straight sets. He faced McEnroe again in the Masters Grand Prix final and won in straight sets to claim his second season-ending WCT title. In an era when tournament prize money was rising sharply due to the competition between two circuits (Grand Prix and WCT), Lendl’s victories quickly made him the highest-earning tennis player of all time.
Lendl won another seven tournaments in 1983, but he hadn’t won any Grand Slam titles in the early years of his career. He reached his first Grand Slam final at the French Open in 1981, where he lost in five sets to Bjorn Borg. Lendl’s second came at the U.S. Open in 1982, where he was defeated by Jimmy Connors. In 1983, he was the runner-up at both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open and also played three exhibition matches against Connors, Johan Kriek and Kevin Curren in Sun City, South Africa, in the apartheid-era Bantustan of Bophuthatswana. The Czechoslovak Sport Federation (ČSTV), controlled by the Communist Party, expelled him from the Czechoslovak Davis Cup team and fined him $150,000. Lendl disputed the punishment and the fine.
In 1984, Lendl bought his own house in Greenwich and won his first Grand Slam title in the French Open, defeating McEnroe in five sets. Down two sets to love and trailing 4–2 in the fourth, Lendl rallied to claim the title 3–6, 2–6, 6–4, 7–5, 7–5. McEnroe subsequently beat Lendl in straight sets and reached the finals of the U.S. Open and Volvo Masters (played in January 1985). In 1985, Lendl lost the French Open final to Mats Wilander but then beat McEnroe in his first of eight consecutive U.S. Open finals. He reached the WCT finals for the second and last time, defeating Springfield native Tim Mayotte. He also won the Masters Grand Prix title for the third time, defeating Becker in straight sets.
In each year from 1985 through 1987, Lendl’s match-winning percentage was over 90 percent. The record was equalled by Roger Federer in 2004–2006, but Lendl remains the only male tennis player with over 90 percent match wins in five different years (1982 was the first, 1989 the last). From the 1985 U.S. Open to the 1988 Australian Open, Lendl reached 10 consecutive Grand Slam singles semifinals, a record that was broken by Federer at the 2007 Australian Open.
Lendl began 1989 by capturing his first Australian Open title with a straight-sets victory over Miloslav Mecif and went on to win 10 titles in the 17 tournaments he entered. Lendl successfully defended his Australian Open title in 1990, but the only Grand Slam singles title that he never won was Wimbledon, reaching the semifinals in seven of eight years and the final to Becker in 1986 and Pat Cash in 1987.
Lendl retired on Dec. 21, 1994 at age 34 due to chronic back pain. His last match was a loss in the second round of the U.S. Open 31/2 months earlier. He played several exhibition matches, and then on Dec. 31, 2011, he was appointed to coach Andy Murray, guiding him to Grand Slam titles in the 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon. Lendl and Murray split on March 19, 2014, but Lendl rejoined his team on June 12, 2016. By the end of 2016, Murray had become world No. 1, having won his second Wimbledon title, second Olympic gold medal in singles and his first ATP World Tour Finals title, defeating Novak Djokovic. In August 2018, Lendl joined Alexander Zverev’s team, but that relationship lasted only 11 months due to disappointing results in 2019 and personal differences.
Lendl was the Association of Tennis Professionals Most Improved Player in 1981 and named the International Tennis Federation’s world champion in 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1990 and the ATP Player of the Year in in 1986 and 1987. Lendl has often been considered among the greatest players ever, and renowned Boston Globe writer Bud Collins included Lendl in his list of greatest in 1946-1992 in his book Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis. Tennis magazine described Lendl as “the game’s greatest overachiever” in its 40th anniversary series, and North Korea issued a postage stamp featuring Lendl in 1986.
On Sept. 16, 1989, six days after losing the U.S. Open final of Becker, Lendl married Samantha Frankel. They have five daughters: Marika, twins Isabelle and Caroline, Daniela and Nikola. Marika and Isabelle were members of the University of Florida women’s golf team, and Daniela played on the University of Alabama women’s golf team. Caroline was on the Alabama women’s rowing team, and Nikola was an instructor at SoulCycle, a New York City-based fitness company that offers indoor cycling workout classes. Since its founding in 2006, the company has opened 88 studios in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom.
After ending his tennis career, Lendl took up golf on a regular basis, reaching a zero handicap and notching three wins on the Celebrity Tour and capturing the Connecticut State Golf Association Senior Four-Ball Championship with fellow Torrington Country Club member Ray Underwood in 2018. Lendl has played in the Gary Player Invitational Charity Pro-Am several times and helped organize the tournament that bears his name. Still competitive on the mini-tour levels, Lendl spends much of his time with his daughters and their families – and helping his extended family of youngsters to realize dreams that might not have seemed possible.