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Steve Flink: Lendl Is The Right Man At The Right Time

1/3/2012 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Andy Murray is going to turn 25 in May. He has finished the past four seasons locked at No. 4 in the world, which is no mean feat. In that span, he has been to three major finals, three Wimbledon semifinals, and all kinds of high destinations. He made it to his first Grand Slam tournament final back in 2008 at the U.S. Open, and ever since has made most of the sport’s authorities believe that it was only a matter of time before he would claim one of the premier prizes.

And yet, despite his considerable exploits, Murray has not found a way to move out among the elite with a victory at a Grand Slam championship. He has been heavily scrutinized for that, but his presence in the latter stages of the biggest tournaments has been commendable; in 2011, not once did he fail to advance at least to the semifinals. But now, after a string of very good years, after enduring his share of setbacks, Murray has an excellent chance to declare his greatness emphatically across 2012. And one of the chief reasons why he should at last succeed on a Grand Slam stage this year is his partnership with Ivan Lendl.

Lendl is Murray’s new coach, and the view here is that the British No. 1 has chosen wisely and well. Lendl was not only one of the great champions of his time, but also an outstanding student of the game, a master strategist, and a man who looked at the game thoroughly and scientifically. He kept extensive notebooks on all of his opponents, came into matches fully prepared, and left no stone unturned. Lendl was the ultimate professional of his era, a champion who prided himself on an unassailable work ethic, a man who went about his business with a purposefulness and preparedness none of his rivals could surpass. Lendl worked inordinately hard, took off court training to an unprecedented level, and transformed the game with his devastatingly potent inside-out forehand.

But the fact remains that he was an unfulfilled player for a long while. To examine Lendl in the early stages of the 1980’s is in many ways to witness Andy Murray over the past four years. Lendl reached his first Grand Slam tournament final in 1981 at the French Open when he was 21, losing in five sets to the imperturbable Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros. In 1982 and 1983, Lendl was toppled by Jimmy Connors in four set finals at the U.S. Open, and at the end of the latter season he was upended by Mats Wilander in a straight set Australian Open final.

To sum up that three year stretch, Lendl finished in second place at four major finals in three different events against a trio of formidable adversaries. He was branded as a leading competitor who lacked the tenacity to come through when it counted the most. He ended 1981 as the No. 2 player in the world, finished 1982 at No. 3, and concluded 1983 back at No. 2 again. But the skeptics were relentlessly critical of Lendl’s frailty on big occasions. They surrounded him at press conferences everywhere he went, questioning his gumption, disparaging his reputation, coming down on him almost disdainfully.

Yet Lendl did not lose faith in himself or his chances. He knew his time would come. At the 1984 French Open, he took on John McEnroe in the final, and the New Yorker brushed him aside ruthlessly for two sets on the red clay of Roland Garros. Lendl seemed destined to lose another major final. But he staged one of the most remarkable comebacks of his career, halting McEnroe 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5 after trailing 4-2 in the fourth set. At 24, he garnered his first Grand Slam title in his fifth “Big Four” final. Obstinate, durable, unburdened after his breakthrough, Lendl began amassing majors with regularity. He took one Grand Slam title in 1985, two in 1986, two more in 1987, and then secured his last two in 1989 and 1990. Altogether, he appeared in no fewer than 19 title round matches at the majors, winning eight. But after losing his first four finals at the Grand Slam events, he prevailed in 8 of his last 15, which was an honorable reversal.

Murray can surely look at Lendl’s historical trajectory, and find it entirely reassuring. Murray was beaten by Roger Federer in the 2008 U.S. Open final, and lost again to the Swiss in the 2010 Australian Open final. In the 2011 Australian Open championship match, he was taken apart by Novak Djokovic. He was only 21 when he lost to Federer in New York, and the media cut him some slack. But the press and a good many fans were far more critical of Murray after his last two defeats in the finals of the Australian Open. In those appearances, Murray often seemed to be his own worst enemy, a prisoner of his lofty ambitions, a player who could not deal with the immensity of his surroundings.

What was particularly dismaying for boosters of Murray about the loss to Djokovic in Melbourne this past January was his frantic behavior. As he so often has done when important matches are slipping from his grasp, Murray resorted to screaming at his courtside entourage. It reminded me of other times when he would rail at his coach Miles Maclagan. In earlier days, he had frequently vented his rage at his coach Brad Gilbert. Those outbursts were embarrassing, and they were a terrible waste of energy. I am sure all of the victims of his tirades understood that Murray’s heart was in the right place. They knew he was simply a perfectionist who was infuriated by being caught in a losing plight. He desperately wanted to negotiate a way out of his difficulties. But it was all counter-productive. Murray was shooting himself in the foot every time he let his frustrations out on the people who most wanted him to win.

Murray surely has too much respect for Lendl to yell at him during matches. Lendl is 50, a highly accomplished champion, and a dignified man who commands respect. It will be fascinating to watch the way Murray conducts himself over the course of 2012 in the public arena with Lendl as his coach. I believe Murray will bring forward a larger maturity and greater sensitivity to his workplace. No champion of Lendl’s stature is going to tolerate sitting in a coach’s box and being subjected to ridicule. He will demand that Murray communicate with him behind closed doors in the privacy of the locker room, far away from the public spotlight. Lendl will be willing to accept constructive criticism from his player, but he must be given the license to candidly analyze Murray’s play as well.

Some may wonder if Lendl is out of touch with today’s tennis world. He retired from the game in the fall of 1994 and has only reemerged in senior events and exhibitions over the last few years. But this is a highly intelligent man with a deep understanding of the sport and how it should be played. He will take the same analytical approach with Murray that he once did himself as a player. Lendl will undoubtedly scout all of Murray’s opponents, keep detailed notes about their patterns and store them on his computer, and watch DVD’s repeatedly of Murray’s matches against the likes of Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Lendl will figure things out in a hurry, and his tactical acumen will emerge in a substantial way, enabling Murray to gain a perspective on his rivals that he never had before. The view here is that Lendl will establish himself swiftly as one of the best coaches in professional tennis, and there is no reason why he should not remain in Murray’s corner for at least three or four years.

In the summer of 2006, Andy Roddick hired Jimmy Connors to be his coach, and that association was successful in the short run. Connors managed to encourage Roddick to drive his two-handed backhand down the line with more frequency and conviction, and inspired his young countryman simply by being who he was. Roddick had a terrific run across that summer, winning 18 of 20 matches, reaching the final of the U.S. Open. But the pairing predictably lasted less than two years. Connors was not very concerned with becoming more familiar with the playing styles of Roddick’s rivals; he felt it was all about his pupil’s game and outlook, a philosophy which was too simplistic. He was a fine motivational coach but he needed to work harder at knowing more about Roddick's adversaries.

Lendl will bring a very different mindset to his job. He will learn all there is to know about everyone inside the game’s top 100. He will comprehensively gather facts and make nimble observations on Murray and his game. He will enlighten Murray across the board with his strategic acumen. My only potential worry about the brilliant Lendl will be his rigidity. I recollect his stunning 1989 loss to Michael Chang in the round of 16 at Roland Garros. Lendl led two sets to love and eventually bowed in five sets after Chang began cramping. He had a preconceived notion when he went on court of how he wanted to play the American teenager, but once Chang became physically compromised Lendl needed to readjust and start widening the court and using the short angles to exploit the vulnerable American. Yet he was inflexible.

Lendl seemed frozen in that contest; it was a match he never should have lost. He needed a backup plan once Chang’s problems surfaced, but the favorite seemed unwilling or perhaps unable to change. I also remember watching Lendl year after year at Wimbledon as he admirably tried to win the only major to elude him in his sterling career. Lendl and his highly regarded coach Tony Roche decided that he needed to serve-and-volley on just about every point, on first and second serves. I thought that was a strategic misstep. He worked hard to improve his volley over the years, and made good progress. His backhand volley became remarkably solid. But the better returners exploited Lendl’s weakness on the low forehand volley. He could have benefitted decidedly by staying back often on his second serve, and taking command from the backcourt. But those were the days when serve-volley was the rule rather than the exception. Lendl would not alter his strategy for the grass. He reached two finals at the All England Club but never took the title.

Lendl once told me that he felt he had to serve-and-volley virtually every point because he did not have the mobility on grass to stay back. I was surprised by that assessment because he was very adept on other surfaces at staying back on serve. Only at Wimbledon did he change his routine. Be that as it may, I am convinced Lendl will offer his council to Murray based entirely on Murray’s capabilities. He knows that Murray is a versatile player who can win with both offense and defense. I am sure Lendl’s mind will be wide open when it comes to Murray, and he will guide his charge boldly. He will direct Murray intelligently, and will recognize that Murray’s second serve is his primary weakness. He will also be influential in making Murray break out of his passivity from the baseline to take charge of rallies more regularly. Above all else, Lendl will be successful in helping Murray to exploit the vulnerabilities of his rivals more convincingly than ever before.

In the final analysis, Andy Murray has good reason for optimism as he approaches this crucial 2012 campaign. He can and should win a major this year, and might even get it done at the Australian Open. He is moving ever closer toward the heart of his prime, and the absolute top of his talent. He has a wide range of gifts, an unmistakable flair, and more heart than most people realize. With the expert guidance of Ivan Lendl—who will inevitably grow steadily on the job over the course of the season—Andy Murray will make 2012 his finest year yet as a tennis player.