HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Eight-time Grand Slam winner Ivan Lendl watches closely as 10-year-old A.J. Staton hits a tennis ball over the net.
“You having fun?” Lendl said easily, his smile wide as the boy nodded his head. “Good.”
Lendl smiles a lot these days as head of the Ivan Lendl International Junior Tennis Academy, a venture that began last August. It’s focused on what the former No. 1 calls an “all-around” approach to playing the game.
“I enjoy it. I have enjoyed it with my kids and golf, and I enjoy with other kids and tennis,” Lendl said with a grin.
Joy and good humor were not traits generally associated with Lendl by some fans during his championship run in the 1980s. He spent a then-record 270 weeks at No. 1 and was called, “The Champion No One Cares About,” on a Sports Illustrated cover 25 years ago. He was viewed as a stoic, Czech iceman, an Ivan Drago foil to his Rocky-style American rivals John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
“It hurt. It wasn’t fair,” Lendl said of the perception. “But that was a long time ago.”
Now, the 51-year-old Lendl is eager to train a new generation of players, some who may go on to transform the game as he did three decades back.
“I just love it when kids do sports,” he said. “It keeps them out of trouble. It teaches them values. It teaches them fairness. It teaches them hard work. What more do you want to ask?”
Lendl’s school combines academics, personalized tennis instruction, health and fitness training and mental coaching to give students a complete approach to the game, he said. The goals of students range from learning proper technique for local leagues, getting a college scholarship or playing pro tennis.
So Lendl and the academy staff want to develop life skills that students can carry into whatever field they choose.
For Lendl, tennis was played with power and precision. There was no room for distraction, just the relentless thump of ball hitting racket for return after return. Many saw it as his personality. Lendl said it was a hyper-focused approach learned during his childhood in what was previously called Czechoslovakia.
“If you didn’t focus, you were relieved of your duties,” Lendl recalled. “And since I liked playing, I didn’t want to be relieved of my duties.”
Lendl won nearly 82 percent of his matches in a career that stretched from 1978-1994. He won three French Opens, three U.S. Opens and two Australian Open singles titles. He remains the only man to reach eight straight U.S. Open finals and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2001.
Yet, Lendl’s dominance didn’t always translate into worldwide appeal, in part, he says, because of the Cold War era in U.S.-Soviet Union relations and his single-minded style of play.
Move Lendl from the 1980s to the 2000s and he’d likely be as celebrated as Swiss star Roger Federer.
“I guess timing is everything,” Lendl said.
Lendl shared the story of a friend who played for the club championship at his local golf course this summer and fell apart when his opponent caused some trouble during a break.
“I said, ‘Gee, you would do really well playing McEnroe.'”
A bad back forced Lendl from the sport in 1994 and he quickly changed focus to raising a growing family. Lendl and his wife Samantha have five daughters, ranging from 13 to 21. He taught them tennis early on, but stopped when outsiders expected his children to perform like their dad on the court.
“Talking to an 8-year-old like that, they need to get their heads examined,” Lendl said.
Still, Lendl wanted his daughters to play sports — “I hate it when kids hang out at malls at 14, 15,” he says — so the Lendls became a successful golfing family. Marika and Isabelle Lendl are members of Florida’s golf team. Daniela is a freshman on Alabama’s squad.
That’s why Lendl wanted to become part of the academy. The school is based on the successful golf academy run headlined by Tiger Woods’ former teacher Hank Haney.
Lendl visits about once a month and stays about a week. He was down at Port Royal Racquet Club evaluating prospective students for the semester that begins Jan. 16.
The academy’s vice president of admissions, Victor DelGuercio, said they hope to have between 20 and 25 students enrolled.
David Lewis, the academy’s director of instruction, was twice captain of New Zealand’s Federation Cup team. Lewis sees Lendl as a hands-on teacher who will stay involved.
“I think it’s unique,” Lewis said. “We are always in contact. He is very, very, very much into it.”
Lendl watched several teenagers practice and called for pushups after losing a point. He also encouraged the players on good shots and long rallies.
Russian student Vasily Kichigin, 16, was one of the academy’s first students. He said his game has improved with Lendl’s assistance.
“He’s helped me become more aggressive and my strokes have gotten much better,” Kichigin said.
Staton, the fifth-grader from Charlotte, had only heard of Lendl through older family members but was impressed by the chance to train with him.
His mother, Darlene, said that she’d have an admission to make if her son enrolled in Lendl’s academy.
“I pulled for John McEnroe,” she said, smiling.
No worries, not for the tennis champion who’s enjoying the latest stage of his life. He gushed about a visit last year to the Sydney Zoo in Australia, something he never got to do while competing.
“I’d never been to it,” Lendl said. “But I did see a lot of reward (from tennis) and I’m very grateful for that.”