Wednesday 13 December 2017

Lendl's cold analysis driving Murray's red-hot revival

Andy Murray with his coach Ivan Lendl during a practice session. Photo: Toby Melville
Andy Murray with his coach Ivan Lendl during a practice session. Photo: Toby Melville

Kevin Mitchell

The maturing of Andy Murray has not so much resembled the bringing to full fruit a bottle of wine as the cultivation of a delicate rose . . . or a Scottish thistle, perhaps.

There is an underlying gentleness to Murray that can be hard to detect beneath the downbeat exterior, the unshaven public face of a fierce and proud competitor who has endured the unique pressures of growing up in public.

He is not complaining, mind. His talent has defined him - and it has made him rich and famous. The latter prize he could do without; the money, well, that's pretty handy in life, and £2m (€2.34m) from beating Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon final today would bulk up his career earnings to nearly $50m. He has earned every penny, because he is driven by more than mere wealth. He was born to win.

The central paradox of Murray's blooming over the past four years has been the on, off and on again presence of his coach, Ivan Lendl, a man who has little time for sentiment but is as obsessed with winning as the Scot.

They are businesslike in their relationship. When they were first together, Murray hit a brilliant peak despite the pain of a chronic back complaint, winning two grand slams and an Olympic gold medal. Nothing binds like success. However, as they both admit, Murray's surgery after that uplifting burst of trophy collection left him physically and spiritually drained and, for a while, uncertain about his future.

Lendl's departure devastated Murray, who confirms he was "in a dark place" for a long time. He rediscovered his lightness under the altogether more gentle tutelage of Amélie Mauresmo - only to be let down again when she, too, resigned after two years. She had a child to look after and his name was not Andy Murray.

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Murray then chose pragmatism over self-indulgence, another sign of his personal growth, and, having spoken to Lendl for many months already, a reunion became inevitable. Since his initial split with Lendl, Murray had married and was now a father. Family life, for the first time, had edged out tennis as his priority. "When I was younger, in my early 20s, tennis was the only thing I was focused on. Now, obviously, there's family. For the first time ever tennis is probably more of a distraction from my home life than the other way around. Beforehand, in the build-up to a slam final, I'd always just be thinking about that match. I don't feel like that just now - I'm just looking forward to the next time I see Sophia and Kim."

He knew better than anyone, however, that the only person who could help him stay committed to the day job was the coach he trusted to tell it to him straight.

Lendl still needed convincing it would work, and spent many hours talking to Murray's team on the phone before agreeing to return. He wanted to be sure he was fully focused on his tennis. If there had been times in their first association when the player's mind wandered - and, clearly there were, otherwise why would he ask? - Lendl needed assurance that this was going to be a serious second charge at the one player who stood between Murray and the very summit: Novak Djokovic.

Forget the others. It was the Serb that Lendl came back to tackle. He was the towering challenge. Djokovic had opened up such a lead at the top of the rankings he was acknowledged as the most dominant player of any era, having already accounted for the fading giants of the previous decade, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Only Murray, his lifetime contemporary, stood serious and regular comparison.

When Djokovic left this tournament in the first week, it gave encouragement to those on his side of the draw, notably Federer and Raonic. The Canadian snuffed out the Swiss in Friday's first semi-final and instantly grew in stature; Murray had to switch his attention to the completely different job that now awaited him in the final. Lendl was on his shoulder, telling him why. A year ago at the same point of the tournament, Federer obliterated Murray with a peerless display of precision serving. It was not just the 20 aces he pelted past him but the nagging, draining precision of nearly every delivery.

"I didn't watch that match," Lendl said, "but I know the numbers a bit. I think there was more to it than that. There was a reason he was able to do that. You have to worry every time about what the opponent does and respect every opponent, and certainly Raonic's serve deserves the utmost respect."

What Lendl also brings to the party - if that is not too much irony - is a sense of calm. He sits in the box betraying not a whit of emotion, whatever the state of the game. The ranting Murray got away with in the Mauresmo era has dissipated to the odd eruption - and it is never directed at Lendl.

"When I'm sitting there I'm just sitting blankly staring at the court," Lendl said. "I'm processing what's going on and what I need to be doing for the next match, for four weeks from now, eight weeks from now, what needs to improve."

It is odd - or perhaps perfectly fitting in an opposites-attract sort of way - that the emotional Murray has teamed with the taciturn Lendl, while the robotic Raonic has employed, on a short-term contract for the grasscourt season, the ebullient, fidgety, ever-mercurial John McEnroe - in between television commitments, of course.

Lendl and Murray dismiss media interest in the fact the coaches were once implacable enemies on the court. Lendl snapped at an inquisitor when the subject arose again: "It's a non-issue, not worth the words or the paper."

This straight talking is one of the many things Murray admires and values about Lendl. "I don't beat around the bush," Lendl told us yesterday. "Why use 50 words when you can use two?"

It does not take a lot of imagination to work out what those two words might sometimes be - even aimed at Murray? Hopefully not for a while.


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