ATLANTIC CITY - Sleeping through the night. Getting up from a chair pain-free.
Ivan Lendl constantly thought about these things instead of picking up a tennis racket again. He spent most of the last 16 years suffering from ever-increasing back pain and didn't consider returning in any way to a sport in which he was ranked No. 1 in the world for a total of 270 weeks in the 1980s.
Instead, he took up golf and cycling to stay fit, but when a doctor discovered a remedy for his ailing back, Lendl was able to step on to a tennis court again.
"I picked up a tennis racket because I was finally able to," said Lendl, who turned 50 last month. "I can't say that I am pain-free, but I feel pretty good most of the time. I started hitting tennis balls again and I really enjoyed it."
Lendl will compete in his first tennis match in 16 years at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City tonight at 7:30 at the first Caesars Tennis Classic. He will face longtime rival Mats Wilander, 45, in a one-set exhibition match.
Afterward, Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin will play in a round-robin format of one-set matches with Venus Williams as host.
"We were looking for someone about the same age whose style matched up well," said Lendl's longtime agent Jerry Solomon, who is also the president of StarGames, the event's promoter. "Their styles are the same, so it should make for a fun an interesting event."
Lendl and Wilander were known for their long points when they played each other. They played 22 times from 1984-1992, with Wilander holding a 3-2 edge in their Grand Slam matchups.
Facing one of his greatest rivals hasn't gotten Lendl nervous yet. In fact, he hasn't felt any type of jitters yet. So far he has only practiced on his own or inside an empty Boardwalk Hall. Tonight, there will be nearly a packed house with 7,000 tickets already sold as of Friday, according to Josh Ripple, an executive with StarGames,
Lendl is rather happy to face someone he knows well instead of one of the other men in the event. Lendl and Wilander have always been competitive, even off the court.
When the two lived in Greenwich, Conn., they raced to their respective homes after events.
"I think he was quicker back home," Wilander said, "at the '88 finals anyway."
That year, Wilander defeated Lendl in five sets for the U.S. Open title.
"I know it's not going to be easy to play after 16 years," Lendl said. "But if I want to play, I have to start some time."
Lendl will be limited to just one set, which should keep the strain off his back. He suffers from disc and facet-joint issues, which limit his workouts and daily routines. He doesn't work out or play golf on back-to-back days.
Two years ago, Lendl felt there was something more going on with his back than his chronic pain. He was finally diagnosed with a ligament tear and received two cortisone shots.
"(My doctor) shot it up twice," Lendl said. "The first time it got better quite a bit. The second time was a lot, about 95 percent. It also took away the nagging problems of the other two issues I had."
Many wondered about Lendl during his time away from tennis. He became an avid golfer, competing on the Celebrity Golf Tour and playing Friday morning at Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield, but nothing compared to his success in tennis.
He was one of the best players in 1980s through the early 1990s. He reached 19 Grand Slam finals, a record that was broken by Roger Federer in 2009, and won eight major tournament titles.
"It's so nice to have Ivan back wanting to hit tennis balls," Wilander said. "On the senior circuit, we miss all the guys who are great players and didn't continue. I think he is the favorite on the golf course and I am the slight favorite on the tennis court because of his back, of course."
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