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April 13, 1980: the day Ivan Lendl claimed his maiden title

Every day Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 1980 to witness how 20-year-old Ivan Lendl claimed the first of his 94 ATP titles

Ivan Lendl OTD 13_4 Ivan Lendl at Roland-Garros in 1981

What happened exactly

On this day, April 13, 1980, in Houston, Texas, a future world No 1 named Ivan Lendl won the first tournament of his professional career, defeating Eddie Dibbs in the final (6-1, 6-3). The Czech, who had lost two finals before, would claim no less than six other titles that year, and overall, he would win 94 tournaments throughout his career – including eight Grand Slams. 

The players involved: Ivan Lendl and Eddie Dibbs

  • Ivan Lendl, rising Czech star

Ivan Lendl was born in 1960 in Ostrava. His mother was the No 1 tennis player in Czechoslovakia, and young Ivan soon walked in her footsteps, becoming one of the best junior players in the world, winning the boys’ events at both Roland-Garros and Wimbledon in 1978. That same year, he made his Grand Slam debut in Paris, where he was defeated in the first round by Jose-Luis Clerc (6-3, 6-0, 6-3). In 1979, he obtained his best performance in a major tournament by reaching the fourth round at Roland-Garros (lost to Vitas Gerulaitis, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3), and he reached his first professional final in Brussels, where he lost to Balazs Taroczy, from Hungary (6-1, 1-6, 6-3). He began 1980 by losing a second final in early March, in Washington (defeated by Victor Amaya (6-7, 6-4, 7-5). 

  • ‘Fast Eddie’ Dibbs, linguistic innovator

Eddie Dibbs, also know as “Fast Eddie”, was born in 1951. A solid baseliner, he climbed as high as world No 5 in 1978, and he reached the semi-finals at Roland-Garros in 1975 (defeated by Guillermo Vilas, 6-1, 6-4, 1-6, 6-1) and 1976 (lost to Adriano Panatta, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4). He also made his way into the US Open quarter-finals three times (1975, 1976, 1979), and by April 1980, he had accumulated 22 titles, including the 1978 Toronto Open, where he beat Jose-Luis Clerc in the final (5-7, 6-4, 6-1). Dibbs was also believed to be the first to use the word “bagel”, or “bagel job”, to describe a set won 6-0.

The place: River Oaks International Tennis Tournament, Houston, Texas

The River Oaks International Tennis Tournament was established in 1931, in at the River Oaks Country Club, in Houston, Texas. It was played on American clay (also known as har-tru), and over the years, it was won by many tennis legends such as Ellsworth Vines (1931), Rod Laver (1961, 1962, 1972, 1974), Manolo Santana (1963) and Ken Rosewall (1973, 1975). The tournaments was also famous for having displayed the only final between Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, in 1974 – a match won by the Australian legend, 7-6, 6-2. 

The facts

In April 1980, Ivan Lendl, who had just turned 20, was not the dominant player he would become a few years later, but he was already one of the rising stars in the world of tennis. Having reached the fourth round of the last French Open, he had already played two finals on the Tour, the last one in March, in Washington. For many experts, he was one of the few players who could challenge the likes of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in the years to come.

Ivan Lendl 1984
Ivan Lendl at Roland-Garros in 1984

At the River Oaks Tournament, in Houston, he stormed through his half of the draw, destroying his opponents one by one with his powerful groundstrokes. Even Jose Higueras, the defending champion, world No 7 at the time, was dismissed in straight sets in the quarter-finals (6-3, 6-3). 

In the final, against the third seed Eddie Dibbs, a former world No 5 and a solid clay-court player, Lendl proved himself out of reach one more time, despite what The New York Times described as an “erratic forehand”. He defeated his experienced opponent easily, 6-1, 6-3, to claim the first title of his young career. 

What next

Unfortunately for his opponents, Lendl’s great level of play was soon going to become his regular standard on the Tour. In 1980, the Czech would claim no less than seven titles, including a great triumph against Bjorn Borg himself in Basel (6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 0-6, 6-4), and by the end of the year, he would be one of the four best players in the world. In 1981, a few months after Jimmy Connors had called him a “chicken” at the Masters Cup, he would reach his first major final at Roland-Garros (defeated by Borg, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1) 

For several years, Lendl would be followed by the “chicken” nickname that Connors gave him – especially after he lost his first four Grand Slam finals, including two at the US Open against Connors himself. He would finally meet with triumph at Roland-Garros, in 1984, coming back from two sets down to win one of the most famous tennis matches of all-time against John McEnroe (3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5). 

Lendl would then definitely brush off Connors’s comment and no one would ever call him chicken as he would claim three titles at Roland-Garros by the end of his career (1984, 1986, 1987), but also three consecutive titles at the US Open (1985-1987), where he would appear in the final eight years in a row between 1982 and 1989. Lendl would last succeed at the Australian Open, which he would win twice after it switched from grass to hard court (in 1989 and 1990). The Czech would never manage to win at Wimbledon where his game was not as effective, although he would still reach the final there in 1986 (defeated by Boris Becker, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5) and 1987 (lost to Pat Cash, 7-6, 6-2, 7-5). In 1992, after a five-year procedure, he would obtain US citizenship.  At the end of his career, in 1994, the newly credentialed American would wrap up his career having spent 270 weeks at No 1 (topping Connors’ record of 268). He finished with 94 ATP titles to his name.

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