Honesty only policy for Lendl-Murray
Eighteen-month collaboration between coach and student an unabashed success
Center Court: Men's Preview, US Open
Ivan Lendl, against his sometimes dour nature, is trying to be positive.
On this first day of August, he's behind the wheel of his blue Porsche Cayenne diesel, hurtling up Route 87 North toward Montreal from his northwest Connecticut home. He's about an hour shy of the Canadian border and it's raining.
"Pouring, actually," Lendl says, laughing. "But I'd rather be in the car right now than on the golf course."
Wait, what? I've known the eight-time Grand Slam champion for more than 25 years, but there has never been an option better than … golf.
For the next 45 minutes or so, Lendl will reflect on his relationship with defending US Open champion Andy Murray and his remarkable evolution as a tennis player.
When one question cuts a little too close to what might be classified as professional trade secrets, Lendl quickly says: "I'm not going to discuss any specific details. I never do."
After the 26-year-old Scotsman finally converted the last of four match points against Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final -- which Murray called "the hardest few points I've had to play in my life" -- Lendl, sitting in the players' box, smiled.
Murray, as the world now knows, became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years. In tennis circles, that uncharacteristic smile was received as even bigger news.
"At the end of the match, I didn't quite know what was going on," Murray said after that July 7 triumph. "Just a lot of different emotions."
Nevertheless, he found a way to scale the obstacles between Centre Court and that box filled with his people and envelop the taciturn Czech with a warm embrace. The first man to cut through the pomp and circumstance of the All England Club and celebrate immediately with his friends was Pat Cash -- after beating Lendl in the 1987 final.
The day after, London's tabloids celebrated the "history boy" and marveled at Lendl's lapse in decorum. Clearly, he, too, was going through a lot of different emotions. Wimbledon was the only major he never won.
"First," said Lendl, sounding like his old self, "let's get this smiling stuff out of the way. The more people mention that, it's going to make me less likely to smile. Listen, people don't know it, but we have a good time. Everybody in the box, we make fun of everybody.
"Like everyone else on this team, my job is to prepare Andy the best I can to have a chance to win the majors. We do all we can to prepare him to have a chance. When he wins, we all feel the same satisfaction that we did our job. Andy took it and ran with it. As far as the dynamic of me not winning and then feeling satisfaction of winning, well, you can ask all the people writing about it, not me."
Lendl, as singular a tennis star as there ever was, is clearly happy to be part of this successful team. Three different times, he names the other major pieces: fitness coach Jez Green, hitting partner and assistant coach Dani Vallverdu and strength and conditioning coach Matt Little, who also monitors nutrition.
Only two men in Open era history lost their first four Grand Slam singles finals -- yes, Lendl and Murray. Lendl went on to win eight of the next 15 and stamp himself as one of the all-time greats. Murray, poked and prodded by Lendl, has won two of the past four Grand Slams, the first and second major titles of his career.
Their 18-month collaboration has been an unabashed success. Murray is the reigning Olympic gold medalist and Wimbledon champion, and he will defend his US Open title beginning next week at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
If recent precedent holds (hello, Nick Faldo), Scotland's Murray will soon be knighted … Sir Andrew Murray. That's what happens when the local hero captures the Holy Grail.
An attitude transfusion
Lendl, born 53 years ago in what was then called Czechoslovakia, was a ruthless competitor. He won those eight majors and was remarkably consistent. For 11 consecutive years, from 1981 to 1991, he reached at least one Grand Slam singles final and was a contemporary of John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg. Lendl became a U.S. citizen in 1992 and retired from the game two years later, raised five daughters with his wife in suburban Connecticut -- and played a ton of golf.
He blames a bad back for his 14-year sabbatical from tennis, but it's quite possible he needed that kind of break to rediscover his love for the game. He was sometimes getting in more than 250 rounds of golf in a year -- and taught his daughters to play the game; Marika, Isabelle and Daniela (nicknamed Crash) have all played or currently play for SEC teams. A few years ago, Lendl lost some weight, began making exhibition appearances and, in December 2011, started talking to the Murray camp about coaching.
Based on the history, it was not a particularly attractive post.
Murray was first coached by his mother, Judy, briefly a professional player. Leon Smith took Murray through a junior career. Then, in order, there was Pato Alvarez, Mark Petchey, Brad Gilbert, Alex Corretja and Miles Maclagan. That's five coaches in seven years.
Why would Lendl, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, step into that kind of coaching colander?
"Why wouldn't you do it?" he said. "I saw that he can hit the shots. He moves well. And maybe most important, he's a guy who is hungry to win majors."
Murray wanted to establish a team and wondered if Lendl could be productive and happy in that atmosphere. The two talked for more than three hours on the phone. Later, Lendl met with Murray in Florida -- where they both own homes -- and with other members of the team.
"He knew we would not go unnoticed," Lendl has said. "It upped the ante a little bit, and I liked that about our arrangement. It showed he was not scared of anything."
Seeing Murray up close, Lendl was pleasantly surprised.
"The first trip to Australia surprised me how cleanly he hits the ball," Lendl said. "Practicing one day, I was walking around the court, and, all of a sudden, I heard a mishit. I looked at him and said, 'What happened?' That's how rare it is."
Murray liked Lendl's straightforward approach.
"He just asks the questions and I give him the answers," Murray said in March at the Sony Open in Miami. "We have had no problems so far.
"A lot of ex-players view things like 'This is what I would have done in that situation' or 'that's how I would have played,' whereas Ivan has been actually very, very good with that. He asks a lot of questions to understand why you maybe chose to hit a certain shot or what your favorite shots in certain moments are."
Slowly, incrementally, Lendl has pushed for subtle changes in fitness, strategy and match preparation.
"The player has to believe in [the relationship], and if he doesn't, it's pointless trying," Lendl explained. "I try to do what Andy does best and stay close behind. If I see something he does wrong, I try to point it out. And then let Andy do what Andy does best."
Last year, we saw a more aggressive forehand from Murray, and a player consistently moving forward for court position. Instead of maintaining a perfectionist's mindset, unable to aim for the lines under duress, Murray sometimes went for it. He made a conscious effort to end points more quickly -- a point of emphasis in the offseason. He is now more willing to step around his backhand and hit inside-out forehands to the backhand corner, wrong-footing opponents who expect a shot into the open court.
The biggest thing missing from Murray's game was not a particular shot. It was confidence, an area in which Lendl excelled.
"I think confidence comes from doing well," Lendl said. "Which comes first? You can't do well without confidence and when you don't well it's difficult to have confidence. I think it also comes from being prepared well, and Andy has definitely that going for him."
Lendl appreciated Murray's work ethic -- it reminded him of his own -- but could he instill some of the killer instinct that seemed so natural to him?
When he lost there to Roger Federer, dropping him to 0-4 in Grand Slam finals, Murray was crushed. He cried on court and, endearingly, said, "I'm getting closer."
Yes he was.
Back at the All England Club a few weeks later, Murray closed the deal, beating Federer on Centre Court for the Olympic gold medal. In September, he collected his first Grand Slam singles title at the US Open.
After dropping the third and fourth sets to Djokovic in that New York final, Murray played an emphatic fifth. At Wimbledon, when the weary Serb showed signs of reviving, Murray put him away and won in straight sets, something he had never done in a major to the top-ranked Djokovic.
Lendl defused the pressure he was feeling by playing as much golf at the nearby Royal Wimbledon course as circumstances allowed.
"I was in England for 37 days, and if I had to guess, I touched my golf clubs 25 days," he said. "But I did not play 25 rounds. I'd just go hit balls to clear my head. Maybe play the last five, six holes.
"Before my wife got there, I'd be out there at 9 p.m., and had to make a choice: Play five more holes until 9:45 or go find dinner. It was an easy choice. I just had to eat more cereal the next morning."
After winning the title at Wimbledon, Murray acknowledged that Lendl had helped him become a better closer.
"And yeah, when I've lost matches, last year after the [Wimbledon] 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."
And at this level, "slightly different" is all it takes. Men's tennis can turn on a dime; Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had won nine of the previous 10 Wimbledon titles but were both gone by this year's second round. Rafa is back up to No. 2 after remarkable title runs in Montreal and at Cincinnati, but Federer has fallen to No. 7 in the ATP rankings.
Like a demanding father, Lendl -- he is almost exactly twice Murray's age -- is grudging with his praise. Unlike some coaches, he does not feel the need to accompany his charge to dinner every evening. That said, the famously stoic Lendl has an acerbic sense of humor he doesn't mind sharing on the practice court. Or he challenges Murray to hit opponents when they stray too close to the net, something Lendl was known for.
Before Wimbledon, Murray beat Marin Cilic in the final at Queen's Club. Afterward, he and Tim Henman squared off against Lendl and Tomas Berdych in a charity doubles match. When Murray cracked a forehand and drilled Lendl, he celebrated with an exuberance that was striking.
"I was just happy to hit him," Murray said afterward. "I hit it so, so clean."
Lendl, playing the foil, responded, "He will be lucky to make it until next Monday."
Although contract details have never been revealed, it is believed that the agreement between Murray and Lendl is incentive-based, which means he's already earned a few pounds.
The relationship, as underlined by Murray's on-court success, has deepened.
"Like any relationship, we've grown with it," Lendl said. "There's more trust. I say, 'Tell me anything you want and it won't go anywhere. No one will know about it. We trust each other 100 percent. I think the relationship, the chemistry of the entire team has been going that way."
Last year, Lendl says he spent 25 or 26 weeks with Murray, attending the Grand Slams and their run-up weeks, plus most of the important tournaments. But it was an under-the radar, 11-day training session in Florida after this year's Australian Open that set Murray on a course to winning Wimbledon.
"This year, it's going to be a bit less because of [Murray missing] the French," Lendl said. "There is a number that I agreed to give, but I usually give him more than that."
Murray's former coach, ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, saw it coming. Before last year's US Open watershed victory, he said:
"Ivan likes the challenge, and it is a challenge. I think he will get him over the hurdle eventually. Andy has the right temperament and he wants to get better. I think he's a different guy than when he was 19. At 25, it's a different chapter. They're doing all the right things, but they're chasing some tough cats."
It's obvious now that, going forward, Murray, Nadal and Djokovic have become the toughest cats.
Now that he's cracked the code and has two majors, how many can Murray win? John McEnroe says Murray can win six majors; is that because McEnroe himself won seven?
Perhaps the more relevant question of the day is: Who's the better player, Djokovic -- or Murray?
Lendl is biased, of course, but has always been a truth teller. At least he says whatever is on his engaging mind.
"Under pressure right now, Andy has two majors and a gold medal," Lendl told The Telegraph of London the day after the Wimbledon final. "Novak is a great player, don't get me wrong. He has had a phenomenal last 12 months, basically since the start of 2011, so the rankings look at all of that.
"[But] if somebody has two majors and an Olympic gold medal, and everybody else has only one major. Everybody can make their own opinion on that."
With a title at the US Open, Murray could end that discussion. He would have won three of the past five majors -- with Djokovic and Nadal winning only one each.
After winning at Wimbledon, Murray said, Lendl told him he was proud of him.
"Which, obviously coming from him, means a lot," Murray said. "I mean, I think he believed in me when a lot of people didn't. He stuck by me through, yeah, obviously some tough losses the last couple of years. He's been very patient with me. I'm just happy I managed to do it for him.
"Obviously, ideally he would have won it himself, but I think this was the next best thing for him. I'm saying it seriously."
Murray, who missed Roland Garros with a back injury, has now played in the finals of the last four majors he's contested. Is Lendl surprised?
"I don't know," he said after a pause. "I don't look at it that way. I mean, I don't want to speak silly. There are so many factors: injuries, luck, the draw. To be saying I'm surprised … you cannot say I expected it or that I'm shocked either.
"I'm pleased with the way he's responded. He has worked very hard, had some good results. Would I want him to win more? Of course."
Ah, this is more like the Lendl we know and appreciate.
The rain, he reports, is letting up. Closing in on Canada, Lendl can see Lake Champlain and the outskirts of Burlington, Vt. Life, he says, is good. With one notable exception.
"Golf," he says, groaning. "My level has gone down, and it's driving me crazy."
Before the coaching gig, he regularly played the mini-tour events -- 18-hole, one-day affairs around Orlando. These days, traveling so much has curtailed his appearances.
"I have to get out there more this year," he said. "I am committed and I will do it. My handicap went to 2-over for a while, but I am scratch right now."
Nevertheless, just a few days earlier, Lendl had made a mess of things on his home course, the Torrington Country Club, which hosted the Connecticut Open. Lendl shot 79-78 and missed the cut by 10 strokes.
"My golf was total crap," he said, sounding disgusted. "It's a lot like tennis. You do your best, figure it out, and then you fix it. You have to fix it."
This, Andy Murray knows.
2013 US Open
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