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Quiet Czech tennis star in hot pursuit of No. 1

Ivan Lendl has always been known as a streak player -- but his streaks are getting a lot longer and more memorable.

Sunday he subdued John McEnroe in four sets to win the $350,000 Canadian Challenge, his ninth straight tournament title. The hottest player in tennis has gone more than 40 matches without a loss since bowing to Vitas Gerulaitis in the U.S. Open last September. In that stretch he has beaten McEnroe, ranked first in the world, four straight times.

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Ivan (pronounced ee-von') Lendl is a strong, silent 21-year-old Czech who has suddenly surged past Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors to No. 2 behind McEnroe and whose unabashed intention is to move up that final notch in 1982.

He is probably the most powerful performer in the game, with a serve that clocks well over 100 m.p.h. and a forehand that could penetrate a bulletproof vest.

At 6 ft., 2 in. and 175 pounds, with a far-reaching arm span, Lendl is rangier than the other leading contenders for tennis supremacy, and makes telling use of his advantage. Although he grew up on soft courts in the industrial city of Ostrava, the son of parents who both gained national ratings as adept backcourt players, he early on developed an intimidating serve-and-volley game.

''I relied on that because I didn't do anything else well enough to compete, '' he says now. ''At 17, I had no backhand at all. I had no slice, no topspin, nothing. I would always serve and volley, whether first serve or second.''

Lendl's most dangerous weapon is still his serve, which nearly knocks opponents down when he aims it right at them and meets the ball with the sweet spot of his racket, but he has practiced five hours a day for the last two years and expanded his arsenal dramatically. Particularly effective is a topspin backhand that has enabled him to become a winner on all sorts of surfaces.

''His return of serve has improved tremendously on the backhand side,'' says one opponent. ''He's the only player I've seen who can make McEnroe play defensively coming to the net. Lendl doesn't let him attack the way Mac likes to.''

Lendl is unorthodox in that he tosses the ball much higher than he can reach on his serve - often off the screen of our television sets - and delivers his ground strokes with uncommon wristiness, outsize wrist bands and all. For those reasons his consistency should be suspect, but his shocking success of the past six months makes any criticizing of his technique just so much nitpicking.

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His one agreed-upon weakness is his footwork. Any lanky young athlete can look clumsy up against smaller, more experienced rivals, and Lendl occasionally does. In the finals of the Volvo Masters in January, Gerulaitis built what appeared an insurmountable lead over Lendl by slicing the ball low to his backhand; time after time Lendl failed to get down to the ball and return it well.

Gerulaitis handily won the first two sets and maneuvered Lendl to match point in the third before Lendl unleashed what could well prove to be the comeback of the year. Pouring the coal to his explosive serve and ground strokes, he saved the third set and then routed the stunned Gerulaitis 6-2, 6-4 for his biggest victory yet.

''It proved to me that I can win important tournaments,'' he said in acceptable English. ''I won nine Grand Prix tournaments last year, but I would trade them instantly for one US Open.''

Wojtek Fibak, the Polish professional who is Lendl's unofficial coach and counselor, believes it is only a question of time - and not much of it - before Lendl begins winning major championships in clusters.

''Once he learns to beat someone, he owns him,'' says Fibak, whose home in Connecticut Lendl frequently shares. ''Once he wins something, he will not let it slip away.''

Fibak has come to know a Lendl who is more complex and pleasant than the impassive, hollow-eyed court warrior. (Fibak at least was able to talk Lendl into exchanging his all-black tennis outfits for white.)

''Partly he is so stern and serious because he thinks that is the way you become the best. Partly because he is so logical and well organized, always thinking. He is a very good chess player and can solve Rubik's cube in 21/2 minutes.

''People ask why he is so silent, but you have to remember he is from a different background, and a great deal of what he sees and does in this country is so new to him. He enjoys himself away from the tour. I've seen him play tennis on roller skates and have a delightful time.

''He enjoys winning and is hurt by losing, even if he conceals his emotions. He is not a computer. He likes to listen to classical music. He comes to dinner and tries to get me to play the Czech composer Smetana on the record player instead of my favorite Chopin.

''I would like him to be easier and more flexible. But maybe that is not the way you become the No. 1 player.''

The No. 1 player, Ivan Lendl very nearly is.

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