It's an itinerary fit for a world-class athlete in his prime. San Diego one weekend, New York the next, Boise, Idaho, soon after, stops in Europe on the horizon. Each new city and time zone bring a new tournament and challenge.
This is a peek at Ivan Lendl's summer schedule. A small peek. The Hall-of-Fame tennis legend that has been happily retired for 11 years runs through airports to catch flights, not wanting to miss any part of the next adventure.
The ground-strokes dominator, who can count the number of times he's picked up a racket in the last decade on two hands, finds himself waking in luxury hotel rooms, wondering what zip code he's in. If it's Saturday, it must be Lake Tahoe.
Ivan Lendl is essentially on tour all over again. Only now, the paychecks he's competing for run low four and five figures rather than gaudy sixes and sevens. Only now, the biggest thrills come in lugging the equipment and giving advice. Only now, Lendl doesn't hesitate in declaring it the time of his life.
"It's a dream life really," Lendl said, speaking on his cell phone as he heads for another airport.
It's a golf life. A dimpled white ball has replaced the fuzzy yellow one at the center of Lendl's world and its hold is only growing stronger, passing on to a new generation. Lendl is not just a golf-obsessed nut trying to grab on to the last remnants of his athletic prime by competing in Celebrity Players Tour events and trying to qualify for the U.S. Open in his new sport every year. He's a golf-obsessed schemer with a family plan.
Four of Lendl's five daughters play golf at a highly competitive junior level. The oldest, 15-year-old Marika, has played in the U.S. Girls Junior three straight years, advanced as far as the round of 16. Thirteen-year-old Isabelle Lendl's been in two U.S. Girls Juniors, the first as the fifth-youngest golfer in the entire field. The Girls Junior is the United States Golf Association championship where Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer first started building their names a few years ago, and while the Lendl girls are not at that level, it isn't hard to see the dream plan.
Marika is already talking like a future champion, already talking like a Lendl.
"I love the strategy of golf," she said. "And I love to win."
She's not alone on that in this household. Twelve-year-old Daniela, whom some of the coaches the Lendls use tout as the most naturally talented golfer in the family, is itching to play in national junior events of her own. Seven-year-old Nikola is just starting, but she's already talking of one day beating dad.
"We talk about golf all the time as a family," Isabelle says. "Every day."
To say golf has taken over the Lendls' life is like saying things got a little out of hand at a NBA game in Auburn Hills, Mich., last year. In order for Marika and Isabelle to attend the vaunted David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Brad enton, Fla., the entire family moved.
While Lendl's mother, Olga Lendlova, a tennis star herself in Czechoslovakia, pushed him to practice and practice some more, Lendl could afford to be a more laid-back sports parent. His family is financially set for life, and he's not trying to escape a communist regime. But sometimes genes speak louder.
"He'll tell us what we're doing wrong," Marika said, laughing. "Whether we want to hear it right then or not."
To think it all started with Lendl worried his well-off kids might just veg out in front of a TV. Or worse.
Ivan Lendl lingers in a mall for a moment, stopped cold by an everyday scene. It doesn't matter that Lendl won eight Grand Slams, dominated tennis like few legends before or since him ever have, at this instant. All his tournament prize money and endorsement earnings (a reported $100 million combined) cannot help him now either.
No, at this moment, Lendl is just another dad, prone to worrying about his little girls.
A few things are universal, cutting through both celebrity and wealth. Fatherhood is definitely one of them. And only a father can truly understand how seeing a bunch of girls, teen-aged and younger, just hanging around a mall can send shivers of real fear shooting down your spine.
"I had to go to the mall the other day and there were all these girls - girls the age of my daughters - just there, not really doing anything," Lendl sighs, painting the picture. "They were just there. That's scary. At a mall all day ... you never know what could happen.
"I'm just glad my daughters have golf. I don't need to wonder where they are. I know where they are, at the golf course, working on their game."
Ivan Lendl - Hall of Fame tennis icon and multi-millionaire businessman - is just another golf dad arranging his schedule around his kids' tee times, caddying for them whenever he can. It's a transformation that has even surprised him a little. Lendl sounds almost embarrassed when he admits he hasn't been spending as much time on the practice range working on his own golf game as he should.
"With the girls more involved in sports, there's not as much time for me to do my own thing," said the 46-year-old Lendl, who played almost 300 rounds a year in the first few years of retirement. "I put the work in when I can."
This is the same guy whose relentless practice habits made his pro tennis peers feel like they were competing against a tireless robot? This is the same guy whose devotion to extra court time inspired Vijay Singh, the PGA Tour's biggest workaholic?
Yes, and yes.
Well, at least the same guy turned into a dad.
In an age when star athletes seem to have more trouble than ever walking away from the adoring crowds, the money and the irreplaceable competitive rush (see Michael Jordan, Rickey Henderson and any boxer), Lendl's made a remarkable transition. He swiftly dove into his own golf game and then turned outward and became even more involved with his daughters' games. If you think about it, Lendl is actually doing what Jordan always said he wanted to do before he tried another sport or hit the gaming tables: spending more time with his family.
Sure, the time carries a certain competitive edge. What'd you expect? This isn't the Robinsons or the Smiths. It's the Lendls.
In a few moments, the tennis great will hang up the phone and hustle for another flight. He has a really important sporting event to catch. He has new worries, ones he can embrace.
"You'd like to see them improving even quicker," Lendl said. "But I know in sports, things take time. Still you'd like ..."
Ivan Lendl cannot help himself. He's a golf dad.
September 7, 2005
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