When Ivan Lendl assumed the job of coaching Andy Murray just eight months ago, Murray was in danger of becoming the champion of also-rans. He was a three-time Grand Slam finalist, never a winner.
Lendl came with baggage, namely eight Grand Slam titles. The only coach with a comparable resume in many years has been Jimmy Connors, whose relation with Andy Roddick was productive but relatively short-lived and not sufficiently transformational to enable Roddick to win another major title.
There was also this: Lendl is the only Open era Grand Slam champion to have lost his first four (or more) Grand Slam finals before winning one -- a record Murray was on course to meet head-on. Most pundits felt that the empathy quotient could work in Murray's favor, but others doubted that Lendl could actually feel anything like empathy, never mind sympathy or compassion.
After all, in his playing days Lendl was known for his stony visage and often referred to as the "terminator." His obsession with fitness bordered on the masochistic, his contempt for the weak and less talented, and his withering, cutting humor, were legendary.
That's some package in a coach delegated to help an emotional, sensitive player who cried during trophy presentation ceremonies (and not for joy). To quote Victoria Azarenka responding to an attempt to ban grunting, "Good luck with that."
In July, Murray lost his fourth final (Wimbledon). But Lendl's tutelage paid off at the London Olympic Games where Murray won the singles gold medal (and a silver in mixed doubles). When Murray won the U.S. Open a few weeks later, Lendl established his coach-of-the-year credentials. In eight months, Lendl accomplished a very tough mission with little margin for error.
Looking back, the weird thing about this achievement is the oddly touching nature of the Lendl-Murray relationship. In fact, it's almost touchy-feely, a description that would undoubtedly make Lendl vomit. As valuable as Lendl's advice on the X's and O's must have been, the greatest thing this very conservative, stand-offish coach provided for Murray was an authority figure. And that makes this a human interest story.
Lendl seems to be the father figure Murray never had in the succession of well-intentioned but not particularly decorated men who had previously guided his career. And it was one he couldn't have in the architect of his career, his mother Judy. Notably, she was separated from Andy's father when Murray was nine (the couple divorced in 2005).
In Murray's press conference after the U.S. Open final, a reporter noted that he seemed subdued, and suggested that if he were elated, it might be "a good time to show it."
Murray's deadpan reply of "yeah" triggered a bout of laughter. But after a pause he added, "Exactly. I think we're sort of learning from Lendl a little bit."
"Learn the on-the-court stuff, not the off," someone suggested.
That bit of advice missed the point by a country mile. The off-court things Murray's team learned from Lendl -- the even-keeled attitude, the ultra-professional dedication, the joy-denying mentality -- were keys to his success.
Murray went on to say of his feelings as a new Grand Slam champ: "I don't know if it's disbelief or whatever. I'm very, very happy on the inside. I'm sorry if I'm not showing it as you would like."
That last, subtle remark could be interpreted as a Lendl-esque dig, although it was rendered amenably. The entire exchange showed the depth of Lendl's influence on Murray. He has convinced Murray that it's OK to be the unemotional champ -- the tough guy -- and not feel like you need to apologize for it.
As Murray said after winning his Wimbledon semifinal earlier in the year: "You try to make sure you don't get too excited on the court, never get too high, never get too down. ... I needed to try and be a bit more stable on the court, not be so emotional."
When Murray was asked in New York if he planned to celebrate his breakthrough win with Lendl, he said: "Knowing him, you know, after we will have a chat about the match tonight and then we will be discussing, unfortunately, the practice schedule for the next few weeks before the tournaments in China."
The difference between Murray today and Lendl is Murray's droll use of the word "unfortunately." And that's not a very big difference at all.