French Open

John McEnroe vs Ivan Lendl, French Open 1984

The Greatest Clay Court Matches Ever #2

In tennis lore, the year 1984 is remembered for mostly one thing: John McEnroe’s magical 82-3 match record, which stands the test of time as the highest winning percentage for a season in tennis history. 1984 saw McEnroe feature his traditionally jaw-dropping serve and volley game, the game that had toppled Bjorn Borg from his perch atop the tennis mountain.

However, graphite racquets had also helped Mac improve his serve and groundstrokes, and the result was a whirling tornado of shotmaking from all areas of the court that was virtually unbeatable. However, he did still lose thrice that year. Once was to Vijay Amritraj in Cincinnati. Another was to Henrik Sundstrom in Davis Cup. And that leaves just one loss, one of far greater magnitude – the French Open final to Ivan Lendl.

While one may look back and think that an eventual three-time Roland Garros champion in Lendl beating a single time runner up in McEnroe would be no surprise, this match was a stunner. Yes, Lendl had previously beaten McEnroe in Paris quite comfortably in 1981, the year McEnroe won two majors and forced Bjorn Borg into early retirement.

However, 1984 was different. Armed with his now-potent baseline game and laser-sharp intensity, McEnroe had not lost on clay, or at all, thus far that year. He’d lost just two sets in fifteen previous matches on clay. This included a 6-4 6-2 beating of Lendl in the finals of the prestigious Forest Hills tournament on Har-Tru as well as relatively comprehensive dismissals of quality clay courter Jose Higueras and fellow legend Jimmy Connors leading up to the date of his final with Lendl.

Add to this that Lendl had still not tasted grand slam glory and seemed to shrink from the occasion in every one of his previous four grand slam finals, and McEnroe had to be a firm favourite heading into this clash. However, it seems that the Terre battue of Paris has a penchant for stopping historic winning streaks; just ask Novak Djokovic.

We all know what transpired on this particular Sunday. McEnroe blew two sets to love lead, and Lendl staged a heroic comeback to win his first of eight grand slams in five sets: 3-6 2-6 6-4 7-5 7-5. So, let’s take a more in-depth look into one of the most entertaining clay-court matches ever; a match that still pains Mac after all these years, and the match which got the monkey off Lendl’s back and propelled him to a legendary career.

You can watch full highlights of the match in two parts here:

Highlights

Part 1

Part 2

Full Match

First Set

Both players started on serve. The first five games were tidy, and the level of play was high. Two distinct playing styles clashed. McEnroe breezed through his service games with the brutally efficient yet dazzling serve and volley game that had made him famous, a game that was however on its way to being entirely replaced by the all-conquering power baseline game we see today.

Lendl replied in turn with his serve/forehand combo, which would in time take him to the top of the tennis world in dominant style, and also mark him as the father of this tennis paradigm shift. The sixth game summed up the current state of both these players.

Lendl, after a beautiful drop half volley winner, to go up 30-15, followed with a netted smash, an inexcusable mistake in a grand slam final. At deuce, McEnroe hit two aggressive returns and followed up the second with a forehand volley winner for the break.

At 2-4, a stinging forehand return winner and a deft return lob gave Lendl 15-30. However, that would be the only daylight Lendl would see on McEnroe’s serve that set, as Mac followed with three points that showed his all court genius: a serve and volley play, heavy baseline hitting followed by a volley winner, and an ace. Lendl did well to hold for 3-5 to show McEnroe that he would not be a complete pushover.

McEnroe opened the next game with a double fault and a volley error, but one of his numerous ‘chats’ with the chair umpire to discuss a line call seemed to do the trick. He recovered and finished the set with trademark flair, capped off by a superb angled forehand drop volley on set point.

It was not a bad set for Lendl, with 75% of first serves, eight winners, and four unforced errors as opposed to 54%, 15, and 8 for his opponent, but one costly mistake and McEnroe’s trademark blend of efficiency and panache was enough to do Lendl in. It was a set characteristic of Mac’s 1984 fairytale and Lendl’s struggles in grand slam finals. Onwards we go.

Second Set

Lendl opened the second set with some gusto, crunching a backhand winner past McEnroe on the very first point. However, McEnroe’s genius took over from there. Two drop shots helped get the American to deuce, and substantial baseline hitting followed by successful forays to the net gave him an early break.

Is it possible to have more touch off the forehand volley than this guy?

Mac followed with a hold at love before gunning a backhand pass down the line to give him another break for 3-0. For Lendl, his serve was letting him down as he was getting very few cheap points, part of the reason Mac was 3/3 on breakpoints thus far. From there, the Mac express rolled on and didn’t stop.

After three clinical holds of serve, he found himself up 6-3 6-2 and just a set away from the coveted Coupe des Mousquetaires. The quality of play was high despite the score, with both players striking the ball cleanly from the ground without many unforced errors. However, the serving was making all the difference. McEnroe was able to continually put Lendl on the defensive with his serve, while Lendl was frequently letting the American take the initiative on returns.

At this point, the situation looked dire for Lendl, but surely the man who had taken the great Bjorn Borg to five sets on this court three years ago was not going just to fade away.

Third Set

Lendl faced danger in his second service game, with Mac having a 0-30 edge. However, Lendl then fought his way back and finished the game with a McEnroe-Esque backhand volley, early signs that Lendl would not be going quietly. The next game reaffirmed that belief. A series of strong returns got Lendl to 30-30. Then, he attacked McEnroe’s backhand with deep, heavy forehands to draw an error.

Mac saved that breakpoint, but Lendl replied with a sizzling crosscourt forehand winner at deuce. Mac reached deeper into his bag of tricks and hit a forehand drop volley to save the second breakpoint. A body serve, and a tough overhead got Mac out of jail, and the third set was levelled at two-all. The next game continued this tense passage of play as Mac secured himself three breakpoints.

However, once again, Lendl did not wilt, saving all three. The last one was the most memorable as a do or die Lendl passing shot curled inside the line and sent the American tumbling into the dirt.

Lendl faced a further breakpoint but eventually managed to get out of the game. His resistance and confidence were mounting with every passing game.

Lendl carried his momentum into the next game, getting himself to 15-40. An overzealous forehand return cost him the first break chance, but he then ripped a forehand passing shot past McEnroe to break through for the first time in the match.

However, consolidating the break was not easy for Lendl as some McEnroe brilliance, along with a loose error on the breakpoint, gave the American a break back. In the next game, Mac capped off hold to 15 with a perfectly timed forehand winner down the line to restore some normalcy to a set that had been full of momentum changes. Lendl followed with another tenuous hold for 5-4. Lendl then got off to a fast start in the next game with a gorgeous lob followed by a deft drop shot.

An angled backhand return winner got him to 0-30. Lendl netted an easy volley, but then a scorching backhand return got him a hint of daylight in this match: two set points. Lendl pressured the McEnroe backhand, causing the American to net a pass, and it was game on in Paris. Lendl had survived a topsy turvy third set to give himself some footing in the match.

With stinging returns and heavy groundstrokes, he had taken McEnroe off his free-flowing and instinctual game. Featuring a combined 66 winners to just 46 errors on a clay court, this was a match filled with lovely shotmaking from all areas of the court, and there was much more to come.

Fourth Set

The players traded holds to start the set, but then two deft McEnroe volley winners got him to 0-30 on the Lendl serve in the third game. He got to 15-40 after Lendl sent a forehand long. On the second breakpoint, an entertaining rally was capped by a netted Lendl backhand.

Mac had the break, 2-1, and the finish line was coming into focus. However, Lendl was far from finished. A return winner followed by a stunning slice backhand lob after a long rally saw him get to 0-30. However, the best was yet to come as Lendl then followed with a ridiculous running forehand return winner down the line.

He had cheated over to the middle of the court on a McEnroe second serve, but the serve was wide. Lendl was unfazed and chased the return down to give himself three breakpoints. A double fault gave Lendl a break. It was a poor finish on McEnroe’s part, but some genuinely spectacular shots on Lendl’s part to break back.

However, Lendl could not consolidate this momentum, and two loose backhand errors followed by a mishit overhead gave Mac two breakpoints. Lendl saved one with an ace, but McEnroe then timed a backhand laser cross court to perfection to break. Eternal clay court glory was now just three holds away for John Patrick McEnroe. An ace, drop shot, volley winner, and unreturned serve followed, and it was 4-2 in the blink of an eye. Lendl held for 4-3, and after Mac missed a lunging forehand volley by inches in his next service game, Lendl found himself at deuce. He cracked an inside out forehand winner to get himself to breakpoint, but Mac’s trusty serve and volley play erased that one.

However, a forehand error and a missed volley from Mac gave Lendl a break back. Easy holds were hard to come by these last two sets, and that trend continued in the next game when a crosscourt forehand winner gave McEnroe a breakpoint at 30-40. However, Lendl proved to be strong under pressure and held after Mac sent a trio of groundstrokes long.

A relatively stress-free hold from McEnroe then levelled the fourth set at 5-5. Lendl followed with one of his own, and after so many contested service games, we now had two easy holds in a row at the most crucial juncture thus far in the match. However, the next game bucked the trend. Lendl made some dipping returns and secured himself two set points. He made good on the second one with another successful lob, and as the ball arced over McEnroe and nestled into the clay to give Lendl the set 7-5, Lendl pumped his fist, and the crowd roared. They both had what they wanted: a fifth set.

Fifth Set

At the start of the fifth, Lendl must have been feeling good about his chances. McEnroe’s error count was rising, and his first serve percentage had plummeted. The first game featured several entertaining exchanges, but Lendl made good on his momentum and crunched a forehand down the line after an excellent rally to hold.

McEnroe returned the favour with a hold to 30, which included a drop volley, backhand winner, and jaw-dropping forehand half volley winner on game point. There was no letup in the stunningly high quality of this match. Lendl then pulled out a rare hold to love and made McEnroe save two break points in the next game. Lendl replied with another hold to love, hitting two angled backhand passes in the process, for 3-2.

At this point, it was fair to wonder whether Mac’s attacking style was starting to take a toll as it is tough to play that way over five sets on clay, especially in an era that relied on the accuracy of timing and feel for the ball instead of the modern-day game fueled by the bazooka racquets we know and love. Lendl was starting to look like the more reliable player.

However, McEnroe continued to paint lines and pull out tough volleys. He held serve comfortably and then had 15-40 on Lendl’s serve. On the first break opportunity, McEnroe sent a forehand long, and on the second the American had a look at a forehand pass that he sent into the top of the net. McEnroe fell to his knees with his hands over his head for dramatic effect, but he knew he had passed up a golden opportunity. On the next point, Mac connected on that down the line forehand pass one point too late in a moment of cruel irony, but Lendl pulled out a spectacular lunging forehand volley.

McEnroe-Esque – and Lendl had a game point. A tremendous running pass gave Lendl the game and a 4-3 lead. Two spectacular shots from Lendl to pull out that game signs that he was perhaps finally ready to win on the game’s biggest stages.

The two then exchanged easy holds, and the fifth set had reached a pressure cooker stage as McEnroe served to stay in the match. The next two games featured some high-quality shotmaking, including a backhand smash from McEnroe and more sharply angled passing shots from Lendl, but the two traded holds and McEnroe would once again serve to stay in the match.

He missed an easy volley on the first point, and Lendl then hit a spectacular pass to draw an easy putaway on the next point. 0-30, Lendl was two points away from victory, and a scorching forehand pass at 15-30 gave him two championship points. McEnroe saved the first with a backhand volley, but on the second the American sent a forehand volley wide, and Lendl raised his arms and jumped for joy. Finally, he had banished his demons and tasted the elixir that was grand slam glory.

McEnroe has often said that this is the loss which haunts him the most, and that missed forehand pass on breakpoint at 3-3 is part of the reason why. Had he won this title, he would have most likely completed the “Mac Slam” at the Australian Open in 1985, and in the process fashioned probably the most dominant stretch of play in the history of the sport.

In general, he made more than a few loose errors in the last two sets, perhaps the result of him wearing down after so much attacking play. For Lendl, the skills had always been there to win grand slams, but on this day he proved that his mind was also up to the task, with steady and inspired play in big moments over the last three sets.

It cannot be said that McEnroe choked this match away despite his opportunities because Lendl kept coming up with clutch shot after clutch shot. In general, this match was truly incredible to watch. I lost count of how many times I said wow after a brilliant point or shot. I highly recommend everyone to watch it end to end.

Looking forward, the rest of 1984 was not as kind to Ivan Lendl, including a humiliating defeat to McEnroe in the finals of the US Open. However, this grand slam would open the door to seven more over the rest of his illustrious career.

McEnroe brushed this loss off and continued to play breathtaking tennis the remainder of the year, with dominant wins at Wimbledon, the US Open, the Masters, and the WCT Finals.

However, on this sunny afternoon Sunday in Paris, one man, Ivan Lendl, had found an answer to McEnroe’s towering genius, and these two legends of the game produced a breathtaking clay court clash that will never be forgotten.

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