Ivan Lendl is hungry. And it’s personal.
The former world No. 1 player, who missed out on winning the singles title at Wimbledon—he came perilously close in 1986 and 1987, reaching the finals on both occasions—is back at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) this year. But this time, it’s different. He wants someone else, someone who, like him, has lost his initial Grand Slam finals, to win the title. Lendl is not alone in his quest though.
Much of Britain wants Scotsman Andy Murray, the fourth-ranked player in the world who is coached by Lendl, to lift the title as well. But fortune, it would seem, is firmly pitted against Murray, at least for now.
The last time a male player from the UK won at Wimbledon was Fred Perry in 1936. This will be Murray’s seventh attempt at the title—he has lost in the semi-finals in the last three years. In three of his six attempts, he lost to Rafael Nadal, a two-time winner.
To cut Murray some slack though, in only one of his past six attempts has he lost to a player ranked lower than him—in 2009 to sixth-ranked Andy Roddick from the US, when Murray was No. 3. But then, Murray has also appeared in three Grand Slam finals till date (US Open 2008, Australian Open 2010, 2011), losing all three in straight sets.
Tough task: Ivan Lendl (right) is trying to inspire Andy Murray to his first Grand Slam title. Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
To turn his fortunes around and to go a step further, Murray hired Lendl as his coach in December. Ever since the Scotsman turned professional in 2005, he has changed coaches five times, among them former American professional Brad Gilbert (who also coached Andre Agassi), who coached him for a year and a half from 2006, and two-time former French Open finalist Alex Corretja (from mid-2010 till April 2011). Which means that ever since he turned professional, Murray has failed to stick with a coach for more than three years. Does that hamper his game?
Leif Shiras, a broadcaster for Sky Sports and a former professional player, doesn’t think so. “Murray is not alone. Roddick has been through a lot of coaches as well,” says Shiras from California, US. “Most of these guys are trying to bring the best out of their game, to plug into some fresh ideas and how they can improve. They just want to become the best player possible. If that means having a number of coaches, then that might be a good way to go about it. (Novak) Djokovic is going to stay with one coach. So will Nadal. But you know, there is more than one way to skin a cat; Murray might be thinking that a new coach will help him take a step forward.”
Helping hand for a feeble mind
So what does Lendl bring to the table? Precious little in terms of strokes, claim tennis observers. “I don’t think we are looking at any technical changes. Andy’s game is well set,” says Tim Henman, former world No. 4 and a Wimbledon semi-finalist, from London.
“Murray’s issues aren’t technical; his strokes are fine, and so is his fitness,” says Mary Carillo, American sportscaster and former tennis professional, in an email interview.
Henman and Carillo say it is Murray’s mind that needs help. “The biggest challenge for Murray is dealing with adversity. When he is playing well and everything is going well, he can win everything; he’s that good. When things aren’t going well, his challenge is not to get frustrated,” says Henman, hinting at the frequent exchanges Murray has with his entourage in the stands during his matches.
Henman is familiar with what Murray is and will go through. For years, Henman was the great British hope, reaching the Wimbledon semi-final four times. His popularity would reach a crescendo during the two weeks; the attention of local fans and media piling on intense pressure. So much so that the area adjacent to Centre Court at the All England Club, in front of a giant screen for people who could not get a ticket to the courts, was informally named Henman Hill—it’s now called Murray Mount.
Carillo says Murray’s mind has let him down in big matches. “In his two Grand Slam finals, it wasn’t his strokes,” she adds. In two of the three finals Murray has lost, he won only nine games in each. Against Roger Federer in the Australian Open final of 2010, he managed to take Federer to a tie-break in the third set before fizzling out in straight sets.
Only two other men have spent more weeks as the world’s No. 1 player than Lendl (270 weeks) and the Czech-born has the second-most number of ATP titles (94). But Lendl, more than anyone else, would know what it is like to fall short of expectations.
Like Murray, Lendl too lost in his first three Grand Slam finals before winning the 1984 French Open, coming from two sets down to beat his nemesis John McEnroe.
“It took the French Open final against McEnroe and a meltdown on John’s part for Ivan to push through the mental struggle. Then he was so much stronger in that department,” remembers Carillo.
Lendl went on to win eight Grand Slam singles titles in all.
Gilbert, Murray’s former coach, feels that there are a lot of similarities between the two. “If anybody can help Murray to be a better player, it could be Ivan,” he adds.
The results are slow, but—as some experts put it—are coming in.
Cliff Drysdale, ESPN announcer and a former tennis pro, says: “I have seen Murray’s attitude improve. He doesn’t seem hung up; he’s upbeat on the tennis court and not put off by bad fortune.”
This year, Murray won the Brisbane International and almost beat world No.1 Djokovic in the Australian Open semi-finals. His poor show in the clay court season notwithstanding—he did not get past the quarter-finals in any of the four events he played—Wimbledon and then the Olympics, which will also be played on grass at the same venue, will prove to be a big test for Murray.
His ascent to the top also gets tougher because of the Holy Trinity of men’s tennis—Djokovic, Nadal and Federer—all formidable opponents and all of whom have a better record against Murray.
“Like Lendl against McEnroe in 1984, Murray may have to make that breakthrough before he wins the big one, in order to win the big one. It will be harder for him because the three guys ahead of him don’t tend to melt down—he will have to bear them on his own…except, perhaps, with the help of Ivan,” says Carillo.
Been there, done that
It’s not just Murray who wants to prove a point. Wimbledon holds a special place in Lendl’s heart as well. This is the only Grand Slam title he never won; he won each of the others at least twice.
After initially dismissing grass as a surface he didn’t care for much, Lendl famously turned into a person desperate for that one title. His best chance came in 1987 when, seeded No. 1, he played the Australian Pat Cash, ranked No. 11. Cash won the match—and much to Lendl’s heartburn—in straight sets. Lendl even skipped the French Open in 1990 and 1991 so he could focus on his quest for Wimbledon without the desired success.
The AELTC gave him an honorary membership in 1995 soon after he retired from professional tennis. Typically, it gives such memberships only to those who’ve won a title here; Lendl was only the fourth non-champion to get this distinction.
“The AELTC recognized Lendl’s dedication and commitment to win Wimbledon over years and what a great champion he was. So you know, it’s a special place for him,” says Henman.
Obviously, it’s personal.