Lendl and Murray: How Does That Work?

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Lendl is keeping a close eye on Murray

By Michael Mewshaw

Nine months ago, when Andy Murray hired Ivan Lendl, the choice seemed counterintuitive, if not downright insane. Having run through half a dozen coaches, starting with his mother, Judy, and continuing through a rogue’s gallery of journeymen Brits and one high profile American, Brad Gilbert, the famously prickly Scot had a reputation as resistant to suggestion, much less instruction. Naturally gifted, preternaturally quick, a pace-changing counterpuncher, he had worked to increase his strength and stamina but ignored advice that he get more aggressive.

To complicate matters, Lendl didn’t appear to be the type to turn Murray’s game around. Having kept his distance from the tour for more than a decade, the Czech was rumored to be out of touch. Even in his playing days, when he won eight Grand Slam titles, he was notoriously aloof from other players, scornfully incommunicative with the press and charmless with fans. One journalist described his on-court demeanor as that of a salivating Doberman Pinscher. The fear was that Murray and Lendl would soon rub each other as raw as beef tartar.

Instead, under Ivan’s stone-faced gaze, Andy steadily improved. After reaching the Wimbledon final, a breakthrough in itself for a British player, Murray won Olympic gold by beating Djokovic and Federer back to back, and now he has taken his first major title at the U.S. Open. The conventional wisdom is that Lendl pushed him over the top by convincing Murray to flatten out his forehand and put more juice on his serve.

Because all of the Scot’s previous coaches and even casual spectators would probably have advised Murray to do the same, the question was how the Czech succeeded where so many others failed. One possible explanation is that Lendl and Murray have much more in common than is apparent. Certainly Andy felt more comfortable with the laconic Czech than with the extroverted, motor-mouthed Brad Gilbert. Whereas the Scot and the American simply didn’t speak the same language (body language included), Andy and Ivan definitely seemed to understand each other.

As Lendl has remarked, they both share a sick sense of humor. To outsiders neither would appear to be a laugh-a-minute man, but in fact Lendl has always been fond of jokes, which went largely unreported because they were often aimed at the press. Back in the ’80s, sick of being asked the same silly question – Who would you like to play in the finals? – he once wisecracked, “I’d like to play the semifinal loser.”

Lendl, like Andy, also had an intense mother who got him started in tennis, but whom he needed to escape to reach his full potential. As Sports Illustrated revealed decades ago, Lendl’s mother had been a nationally ranked competitor whose career was cut short by Ivan’s birth. She tried to continue playing and during practice sessions tied the toddling Ivan to the net post. Later, as she coached him, their relationship remained so tangled that he tanked the matches they played and couldn’t beat her until he was 15. But he went on to become a world-class junior. Then, under Woytek Fibak’s influence, he broke into the constellation of stars – Borg, McEnroe, Connors – who had kept him in darkness, just as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic had done to Murray.

Of course, none of this Freudian analysis is to deny that Lendl has made key technical contributions to Andy’s game. But it’s simplistic to say that getting Murray to be aggressive was the whole answer. A great deal of Murray’s success, especially in the U.S. Open final, depended on his genius for absorbing an opponent’s speed and sending the ball back at acute angles. Here, too, Lendl was a role model. While he had a reputation for winning with stark power, the Czech could also create hellacious angles and come up with deceptive placements. He was notorious for nailing John McEnroe at the net. Then, when John became gun-shy, flinching and ducking, Lendl tormented him with dinks. In one memorable match at the U.S. Open, he reared back to smash a lob, noticed John retreat, and tapped a dropshot that left Mac looking foolish.

In another match at the U.S. Open, this one against Connors, Lendl hit nothing but off-speed shots. After losing in straight sets, Jimbo accused Ivan of pitty-patting the ball – a strategy Murray used to perfection against Djokovic, frustrating the Serb with slow sliced backhands that frequently drew unforced errors.

For the moment, Andy and Ivan are on the same page and seem poised to be a winning combination for many more Grand Slam titles. But even successful coach-player relationships are fragile. Once again, Lendl serves as an example. After a long happy ride with Fibak, with the Pole acting not only as his coach, but mentor, landlord, art advisor and investment counselor, the two men parted ways amid unpleasantness and hurt feelings. Maybe it’s worth pondering Lendl’s comment after Murray’s triumph. “Smiles are overrated. I like jokes.” As with any shaggy dog tale, we’ll just have to wait for the punch line to this one.