Why the Murray-Lendl duo will work
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Andy Murray, speaking about his coaching situation, was praising effusive for the new man in charge.
"[He's] probably the most positive guy I've met," Murray told The Independent. "He's always on good form, never in a bad mood. I love people like that. In that respect he has helped me a lot."
He wasn't talking about Ivan Lendl.
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That was in 2007, in the infancy of his relationship with Brad Gilbert. Gilbert, once called the greatest coach of all time by Andre Agassi, was supposed to lead Murray to tennis' version of the Promised Land. But the optimism faded, Murray never won a Grand Slam title during their tenure, and the relationship turned sour -- fast. An increasingly frustrated Murray would regularly lash out at Gilbert on court.
Here was Murray, still seeking that first Grand Slam title, discussing Lendl with reporters last week: "I really enjoy being around him. He's been good fun, good sense of humor. As you probably expect, he has a lot of great stories to tell."
Who's to say the new partnership won't fizzle, too, especially since Gilbert wasn't the only coach Murray canned? He's also cut ties with Mark Petchey and Miles Maclagan. Further, Lendl wasn't Murray's first choice; it was Darren Cahill.
It may still, but Jeremy Bates, Murray's former Davis Cup captain, suspects a more maturing Murray will make this one work.
"He is putting his trust and faith into someone here that perhaps he hasn't done before because Petch, Miles, Brad, they did their work with him and I'm sure they contributed to him in their way, but I'm not sure he'd never really given himself over to them," Bates said in an interview. "I feel he's giving himself over to Lendl now in a completely trusting way."
Lendl, officially brought on board in December, lost his first four major finals. Murray, 24, is 0-for-3, without winning a set. The way Lendl persevered to become an eight-time Grand Slam champion has given Murray's fans hope that he can still turn it around.
Lendl said he declined as many as 10 offers to coach other players in the past 18 months. He aligned with Murray because he was convinced he could help the Scot improve and presumably get over the hump.
"We have been through similar things, things I went through: He likes to work hard, I like to work hard," Lendl told reporters in January. "I also admire his guts for hiring me because he had to know it would create a lot of interest."
Even if Murray is paying the bills, Lendl is running the show, according to Bates.
"Lendl is the leader," Bates said. "He's not subservient to anybody. He doesn't need to do it. He's not just doing it for fun. It's the first time Murray has had a coach where Murray is not in control of it. Lendl is brutally honest, and he's not going to remotely hold back on the things that need to be said and done."
With Lendl in his box, Murray cruised to the title in Brisbane. The forehand, a shot that has let Murray down in crucial Grand Slam matches, was working.
Joakim Nystrom, who played against Lendl and now travels the world as Jurgen Melzer's coach, said he's seen some positive changes.
"In general here, Murray looks a little bit more aggressive than before, and that's probably something that Ivan told him, that he needs to be more aggressive instead of letting the other guy miss," Nystrom told ESPN.com.
People have been saying that for years, though. So why the difference now?
"It's because he probably has a lot of respect for Ivan, otherwise he wouldn't hire him," Nystrom said.
Nystrom said he'd "heard" that Murray's practices are more intense, with a focus on every shot and point.
Murray didn't need to be intense Monday. His fourth-round opponent, Mikhail Kukushkin, retired trailing 6-1, 6-1, 1-0 with a left hip injury.
"It's perfect because you conserve energy," Murray said. "You just need to make sure today and tomorrow you hit enough balls to make sure you don't lose any rhythm."
Blessed with a nice draw in the second, third and fourth rounds, Murray caught another break later Monday.
Expected to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Murray here in 2008 and gave him a fright at Wimbledon two years later, he'll instead tangle with first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist Kei Nishikori. As exciting as he is, Murray battered the Japanese baseliner in Shanghai in the fall 6-3, 6-0.
A win in the last eight and Murray would likely encounter dominant world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a repeat of last year's final.
"Right now I think he'd have to play the match of his life to beat Djokovic," Bates said. "Djokovic is progressing through the men's draw like some of the top women do. Is Murray capable? Yes. Is he ready right now? I'm not sure, but I hope he could do it."
If he does, then goes on to win the final, Lendl, despite their short time together, will be hailed as a messiah.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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