A LOOSE FOREHAND that sailed long spelled the end for Andy Murray in the 2011 Wimbledon semifinals. The Scot had taken the first set from Rafael Nadal 7-5 and held a 2-1 lead in the second. At 15-30, he moved Nadal to the far side of the court. Then, with the Spaniard scrambling to regain his footing, Murray wound up to fire a shot down the line to end the point. But his forehand faltered, turning a certain winner into the beginning of a breakdown. Over the next two-plus hours, the fans on Centre Court groaned as Murray unraveled, losing first the game, then the set, then the match, yet again crushing Britain's hopes of its first homegrown Wimbledon champ since Fred Perry won the trophy in 1936.
Now Murray is preparing to take that same Centre Court grass, but he won't be doing it with the same forehand. After more than five months of training with new coach Ivan Lendl -- who revamped Murray's stroke and his mind --
Not that getting past No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 2 Nadal and No. 3 Roger Federer, who have won more than 30 majors among them, will be easy. The Big Three are the resolute favorites at the start of every slam, and this year's Wimbledon is no exception. But Murray has proved he has what it takes to make it to the late rounds of big tournaments. Prior to this year's French Open, Murray had reached at least the semifinals of the previous five grand slams.
He just hasn't played his best tennis once he gets there, and his inability to clinch a major has become a cross to bear for the No. 4 ranked player. "It's a great feeling to get to the latter stages of the majors, but it's tough when you fall short," Murray says. "But it gives me the motivation to keep working hard to do it."
Enter Lendl. His first mission as coach? The forehand that failed Murray at the last Wimbledon. While it's been an effective defensive shot for Murray, it's been woefully unpredictable as an offensive weapon, as displayed against Nadal last July. Lendl was known for his deadly topspin forehand and was an assassin when it came to using it in an aggressive, strike-first fashion. To stoke Murray's killer instinct, the former world No. 1 adjusted the Scot's position on the court, moving Murray closer to the baseline and forcing him to take the ball earlier. Doing so allows Murray to dictate points -- he returns the ball quicker, forcing his opponents to make faster decisions and shots, which often leads to mistakes. But such assertive play also cuts down on the time Murray has to prepare for his own shots. "The closer you are to the baseline," he says, "the harder it is to make the right contact with the ball and to change the direction of it. You have to hit differently if you want to play with more height on the ball or if you want to go crosscourt or down the line."
But both Murray and Lendl know that added aggression on offense is necessary to pose a threat in today's ATP -- the top three play such brilliant defense, a challenger must break through their armor with forceful attacks of his own. "You have to find ways to shorten points, because it's so difficult to win points," Murray says. "When you get the opportunity, you need to make sure you take it. The more time it takes, the harder it is to win. I watched the final between Novak and Rafa in Rome [in May], and it's clear that the guy who plays closest to the baseline and dictates more wins the majority of the rallies."
Luckily for Murray, he was raised on the slick, fast indoor courts of Scotland, so he's comfortable playing at the newly accelerated pace that Lendl's changes require. That already was evident at the Australian Open in January. Despite losing in the semifinals, he forced Djokovic to a grueling five sets, in contrast to their 2011 meeting in Australia, when he was summarily beaten in straight sets. And his quick feet have always served him well on the grass of the All England Club. Murray naturally hits a flat ball that plays well on faster surfaces like hardcourt and grass, where aggressive play is rewarded more than on clay. "Grass is so explosive and so quick," Murray says. "So it's even more important to end points quickly." And that improved forehand may be just the ticket to closing the deal.
But none of it will matter if Murray doesn't have the mental stamina to endure long, aggressive matches -- an area in which Lendl seems uniquely qualified to help. Murray historically has been emotional on the court, whereas Lendl was once described by John McEnroe as a "scary robot." Some of that iciness seems to have transferred to Murray, who showed incredible fortitude and discipline recently at the French Open -- gritting his teeth and working through two and a half hours of back spasms for a come-from-behind victory over Jarkko Nieminen in the second round. "I feel a lot stronger mentally," Murray says.
Lendl has provided Murray with something else: perspective. Lendl suffered through an 0-4 record in grand slam finals before winning his first major at the French in 1984 in an epic comeback over McEnroe.
"I understand how he's feeling, and it's not a nice feeling," Lendl says. "I was one of the slower learners. You do your thing, and when the door is open, you step through it. But you have to be ready to step through it."
When Lendl took that step, he was 24 years old. He went on to win eight grand slam titles. Murray turned 25 in May. Perspectives don't get any clearer than that.