London: Andy Murray’s first thought, once he had blinked and reassured himself that this was just all a happy dream, was to celebrate with the man who made it all possible in the first place.
The coach who took a good tennis player and made him into a great one. His stony-faced mentor, Ivan Lendl.
This might seem like an overstatement, when you consider that Murray had already been as high as No. 2 in the world before teaming up with Lendl 18 months ago. He had flirted with the sort of international stardom that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had already earned. Yet the consummation was yet to be achieved.
After the final, Murray spoke revealingly of the relationship between these two curious yet equally driven personalities. And it was clear that Lendl’s independence of mind was a critical factor in his success.
“I think he’s always been very honest with me,” Murray said. “He’s always told me exactly what he thought. And in tennis, that’s not always that easy to do in a player-coach relationship. The player is sometimes the one in charge. I think sometimes coaches are not always that comfortable doing that.”
Murray is right to suggest that the power dynamics in this relationship are usually all over the place. In most team sports, the coach or manager is the man making the calls, as Warren Gatland demonstrated so clearly last week on the British and Irish Lions tour.
Tennis is very different, because the player is the one paying the bills. His coach is an employee, with little or no executive power. In the case of someone like Paul Annacone, who has carried the buckets of balls for Roger Federer for the past five years, he is no more than a chief equerry at the King’s court.
Murray’s longest-serving previous coach — Miles Maclagan — is a much-admired technical analyst, as is clear from the enthusiasm with which Laura Robson signed him up last month.
But even he has admitted that he sometimes found it difficult to get his messages through to Murray.
“What Ivan Lendl is saying to Andy might be the same as what I used to say,” Maclagan said last year, referring back to a playing career that peaked at No. 172 in the world. “But maybe it carries more weight because he’s got eight grand slams in his trophy cabinet.”
It also carries more weight because Lendl, frankly, does not need the money. He has a mansion in Jura Beach, Florida, and a boutique tennis academy on Hilton Head Island. He can walk away whenever he likes. And the fact that he is still here, and now relishing the prospect of a full-scale assault on the world No. 1 position, gives you a sense of how much he is enjoying himself. “He’s made me learn more from the losses that I’ve had than maybe I did in the past,” Murray said last night.
“He’s been extremely honest with me. If I work hard, he’s happy. If I don’t, he’s disappointed, and he’ll tell me. And when I’ve lost matches, last year after the final he told me he was proud of the way I played because I went for it when I had chances. It was the first time I played a match in a grand slam final like that. He’s got my mentality slightly different going into those sort of matches.”
The rebuilding of Andy Murray began two years ago in a Florida pizza parlour, halfway between his penthouse flat overlooking Miami’s marina and Lendl’s home further up the coast.
Murray had appeared in three grand slam finals without winning a set. So while his admirers liked to speak about the “big four”, it was actually more of a case of the “Big 31/2”.
There were plenty of people, both within the family of tennis and looking on from the sidelines, Lendl was not one of them. And he, more than anyone alive, knew what it felt like to stand in Murray’s shoes.
When we think now of Lendl’s ruthless heyday, we remember him as a serial champion. Yet around 30 years earlier, Lendl had been saddled with the unenviable record of four defeats from four grand slam finals. The newspapers were starting to refer to him as “The Choke-o-slovakian”. But Lendl turned his record around so successfully that he finished his career with eight major titles.
He used a variety of techniques, many of them left-field, that encompassed everything from a change of diet to jazzercise classes. Now he looked at Murray and saw the potential for history to repeat itself. In this instance, the stress would be on tennis technique and tennis strategy, not so much on lifestyle.
Murray was already a virtual hermit, a man who could see the fleshpots of Miami’s South Beach from his bedroom window, yet never once indulged. And after Lendl’s example, all the leading players had switched on to the importance of nutrition, flexibility, meticulous preparation. No, the problem with Murray was that he had created his own style, rather than being guided by a former top ten player as Lendl was by the Polish champion Wojtek Fibak.
It was a tricky, counter-punching style that would have been good enough to carry him to grand slam titles in a weaker era. But with Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on the scene, more aggression and self-belief would be required. It was Lendl who honed those qualities in Murray, and they were fully expressed yesterday in a dominant, near flawless performance.
As long as these two stay together, there is no knowing how far they can go.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2013