The education of Ivan Lendl -- a golfing dad

Former tennis champion Ivan Lendl is surrounded by females: his wife, Samantha, and five daughters, ages 9 to 17. Yet from the beginning, that has not prevented Lendl, one of the most intense athletes of his generation, from passing on that same competitive spirit to his children.

"When they were crawling," Samantha recalls, "he would say, 'OK, who can get to the top of the stairs first?' And he would sort of push them, and they went up the stairs."

He is still pushing, and they are still climbing -- fast -- in the world of junior golf, with no apparent limit to what they can achieve in the sport. Two daughters -- Isabelle, 15, and Marika, 17 -- are third and 10th, respectively, in the American Junior Golf Association's Polo Golf Rankings.

Another Lendl, 13-year-old Daniela, whose nickname is Crash, stands in the top 300. Isabelle's 1-stroke victory Sunday in the Scott Robertson Memorial in Roanoke, Va., was a successful defense of her title in 2006, when she also won the MCI Junior Heritage and Thunderbird International.

Marika, who won the 2006 McDonald's Betsy Rawls Girls Championship and Ringgold Telephone Co. Junior Classic, shot a 73 early last week in local qualifying for the U.S. Women's Open to advance to the next stage.

All three attend the David Leadbetter Golf Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. They are coached by experts who fine-tune their swings and psyches, yet make no mistake about who remains the driving force behind their development. The world knows him as the stoic combatant from Czechoslovakia who often outdueled American idols John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in the 1980s. Lendl's daughters, who have watched only a few of his matches on tape and might be unable to grasp his place in the tennis universe fully, know him in an entirely different way.

"He's just 'Dad,'" Crash says.

Lendl, who is 47, is only doing for them what was done for him. Many boys growing up in his hometown of Ostrava ended up in the coal-mining or metalwork industries. Either way, they were destined to spend their futures in a land that was not truly liberated but rather part of the Soviet bloc established in the wake of World War II. But because of the efforts of his father, Jiri, an attorney for a building company, and mother, Olga, the second-ranked women's tennis player in Czechoslovakia, this boy was able to have options and see the world. Lendl won eight Grand Slam titles -- and 94 total singles events -- before a bad back knocked him off the court in 1994 when he was 34. By then, though, the girls had begun to arrive, one after another, and he got right to work.

As a father, Lendl can be very demanding. Years ago, he made Marika and Isabelle study one golf rule a week and write a report. As recently as last year, curfew was 9 p.m., which led to an intervention from Samantha.

"She was like, 'You're going to make them hate you,'" Marika says.

Curfew was switched to a more reasonable 10 p.m. Until two months ago, though, the girls were required to leave their computers and cell phones by the back door every night before they went to sleep. "If we didn't," Marika adds, "he would take them away."

This relaxation in the rules was partly Mom's doing, and also partly because, Lendl points out, they had shown more maturity in their decision-making.

In March 2006, however, Marika quit the game for about a month. "I was sick of my dad riding my back on everything," she explains. "It was rebelling against him. I was also sick of how I was playing, and it was stressing me out."

Marika came back with a streak of independence. "I don't want you to tell me anything unless I ask," she told her father. "And, slowly, I kind of asked him."

Lendl doesn't miss much. In March, during the Kathy Whitworth Invitational at Mira Vista GC in Fort Worth, Texas, he shuttled between daughters, paying especially close attention to the mental errors that disturb him much more than physical ones. Nobody was more mentally disciplined on the court than Lendl, who famously rallied from a two-set deficit in the 1984 French Open to beat McEnroe.

"Oh, Marika, that was dumb," he said to himself after she went for a difficult pin. He will tell her about it later. He will also tell Tim Sheredy, who coaches Marika and Isabelle. Lendl tells Sheredy a great deal, filling in the gaps of the hole-by-hole progress reports the girls regularly e-mail to their coach.

"He's extremely intelligent when it comes to course management," Sheredy says.

If demanding, Lendl is also quick to acknowledge good shots and good choices, especially in dealing with Crash, who, as the youngest of the trio, definitely can benefit from the encouragement. "I carefully choose what I'm going to say," Lendl insists. "I'm only going to say things I'm 100 percent sure of." The girls claim his presence in the gallery does not greatly affect their performance one way or the other.

Lendl seems pleased to hear that. His daughters are getting tougher.

As with most siblings, bragging rights are important. Earlier this year, Crash, who got her name early on from a habit of running into things, notched a lower score in a competitive round than Isabelle for the first time, 73 to 76. "She walks in and looks at me and smiles," recalls Isabelle, who hopes to play on the LPGA Tour. "I was happy for her, but she wouldn't shut up all day."

For the second round in Fort Worth, Marika and Crash found themselves in the same threesome, which amused and intrigued their father, who was curious to see how they would respond.

"Marika has no patience for Crash. She will not talk to Crash 'cause Crash is a chatterbox," he predicted.

True enough, 5-foot-8 Marika, who sports long, light brown hair, kept quiet, especially the first few holes -- she usually doesn't talk much on the course. "I'll quit if I lose," she told her coach, kiddingly.

After falling a shot behind, Marika seized the lead at the seventh hole when Crash three-putted from about 15 feet and held on to beat her by 3. As the round progressed, she, too, offered Crash encouragement for well-executed shots. "I am her big sister," Marika says.
When their dad showed up shortly after the duel, Marika made certain he knew how well she had behaved. "I was so nice to Crash," she told him. "I don't think I've ever been that nice to her in my life." Lendl did not seem overly impressed. "You better start," he said jokingly. "She's going to beat you before too long."

Like their dad, the three Lendls are extremely competitive, game faces firmly in place before play begins. Also like their dad, they are very focused during competition, and that also goes for Crash, although she admits her mind sometimes wavers. They don't go too crazy over great shots -- probably because, with swings that exhibit very few moving parts, they expect to pull them off.

At first, naturally, the siblings played tennis and became pretty good at it, but it was also natural that the pressure of being compared with their father was simply too great. They don't have that problem with golf. By the time each turned 11 or so, the conversion was complete. They picked up the game at country clubs close to their house in Goshen, Conn., and, each winter, home-schooled by their mom, their base was Vero Beach, Fla. Three years ago, it became time to get serious. The family moved to Bradenton when Marika enrolled in the Leadbetter school. Isabelle and Crash signed up about six months later. They lived in a condo on the campus for the first two years before occupying a place about a mile away. Life revolves around the academy -- golf instruction and physical training in the morning, traditional classes in the afternoon, study halls at night. It is rare that the whole family -- which also includes Isabelle's fraternal twin, Caroline, and 9-year-old Nikki -- is together at one time.

The sacrifice comes with a price, but one they seem more than willing to pay.

"I might not be having as much fun as [other kids] now," says Marika, who plans to attend Vanderbilt in fall 2008, "but in the future, I could be making millions of dollars doing what I love. I've got four years of college to do whatever I want."

The girls have plenty to learn. Five-foot-10 Isabelle, who drives it about 250 yards, needs to acquire more clubhead speed as well as patience. Marika needs to improve mentally. Last month, attempting to qualify for the Ginn Open in Florida, she shot a respectable 71 while paired with other amateurs competing for two spots. Two days later, against 45 pros -- and after warming up on the range next to Lorena Ochoa -- she recorded two double-bogeys in the first four holes en route to an 83.

"It freaked me out," Marika says. "I was crying by the fourth hole."

Crash, meanwhile, is Crash. Much about her is different from her sisters, including her hair, a darker, chestnut brown. Moments after finishing the first round of the Kathy Whitworth, she sent a text message to her father.

"I didn't play that good at all," she wrote. A bit later, though, she told him she didn't need to practice because she was happy with how she hit it. He began to sift through his messages. She asked him to stop, knowing exactly what she wrote. She would practice.

Which raises the question: Are the girls doing it for themselves or their dad? For themselves, they say, without a doubt.

"He kind of pulled me into it," Crash says. "I wanted to play hockey. I wasn't really happy with it."

She gave it up when she found out that there was no checking in women's hockey. Now, she loves golf and can see herself turning pro someday.

Still, there have been times, Samantha confesses, when she wondered whether they might be pushing the kids too hard. She doesn't wonder any longer.

"There comes a point when the child takes the lead," she contends, "and that has happened with them."

Samantha is sensitive to her children's needs. Aware of the attention the other girls receive, she was happy to produce a tape of Caroline, an equestrian who hopes to compete in the Olympics. Samantha worries that Caroline will feel left out. As for Ivan, he never has worried about pushing his daughters too hard. He loves golf. If he could go back and choose between tennis and golf, it would be golf -- game, set and match. He was so smitten in the 1980s that he even played nine holes the day of his 1986 U.S. Open semifinal; the next day, he won the tournament in straight sets.

A scratch golfer who once shot a 64, Lendl honed his game by making himself immediately skip rope 100 times for each stroke over par he was on a hole.

He hopes to play in state opens in the Northeast, and he might try to qualify for a few Champions Tour events after his 50th birthday in 2010. His game, he admits, is nowhere near the level he would need to be successful.

Years ago, while he was still on the tennis circuit, Lendl used to poke fun at his coaches and friends who kept having baby girls instead of boys.

Samantha tried to warn him, suggesting: "You better be careful because it's going to come back to bite you."

At times, Lendl might seem completely hopeless in coping with a house full of women, including four teenagers who have been known to gang up on him.

"Ivan is a pretty macho guy," Samantha says. "I wouldn't exactly say he's one of those people who has a feminine side."

Yet there is no denying what this macho guy, with the same dedication he showed to his own career two decades ago, has helped create in three promising junior golfers. But his job is far from done.