The Slow Learners

Tuesday, January 03, 2012 /by

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by Pete Bodo

You have to appreciate the irony of it all. The proverbial "dour Scot" who hasn't been able to win Wimbledon has hired a new coach: Ivan Lendl, the original "dour Czech" who never won Wimbledon.

Naturally, one is inclined to ask, What was Murray thinking?"

The answer to that is probably something like, "I need someone who was tough enough to make himself over from a frustrated runner-up with issues into a Grand Slam champion."

If I'm right about that, Murray found the right man. And whether or not he was thinking along those lines, this partnership makes sense at a number of other levels. But let's get back to what must be No. 1 on Murray's to-do list: Winning a major tournament. In that quest, the decision to hire Lendl is not the shot in the dark it may appear, or even a concession that Murray needs some sort of makeover engineered by someone who has deep experience with the process. It seems more like a reach for the final piece in a puzzle that has been slowly but surely coming together.

The rap on Murray before 2011 was that he seemed to be missing some vital component that enables men who win major titles to perform at a certain, peak or near-peak level over two weeks. Murray had already proved that he could sustain an appropriate level of skill and mental and emotional stamina over the course of a one-week Masters event.

In fact, some thought that Masters events had become Murray's metier. But in 2011, with one final-round loss (l. to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open) and three semifinal losses to Rafael Nadal at the majors, Murray established himself as a consistent force at big four events. He did not fail to make his seed at any major.

It's pretty clear that Murray doesn't need much to get over the Grand Slam hump, which is a good thing. Because it's impossible to envision Lendl as the nurturing long-term coach, or the guy carrying Murray's racquet bags or making his airline reservations. I don't see Lendl checking to make sure Andy is tucked into bed instead of up playing Grand Theft Auto. And I don't see Lendl tearing down and rebuilding any technical aspect of Murray's game.

A supremely logical guy with an abiding faith in the empirical, Lendl will help Murray find his most efficient game. And that is, I think, a very big deal for Murray. For one of his weaknesses (it's also a source of some of his appeal) is a tendency to lose the plot in any given match. Nobody in the Top 4 gets as careless as Murray, and none of his rivals are as prone to getting sloppy. Does any great player unravel right before our eyes as convincingly as Murray?

It's taken me a long time to figure out with any clarity how I feel about Murray, but now I know. He's an Enthusiast—you know, the eager, determined amateur holding his own, or trying to, among the polished pros. In some ways, he always seemed an outsider, the bony, pasty-complected Scot afoot among all those tan European, American and South American dudes with their crisply laundered shirts and cool haircuts.

Lendl was an outsider, too, albeit in a different way. Both punishing and awkward, Lendl burst onto the tour (circa 1978) from what was still the Iron Curtain country of Czechoslovakia. He was remarkably stiff and unusually robotic for a world-class athlete. For a long time, he also had a tendency to lose the plot, albeit in a different way. Early in his career, Lendl also struggled at Grand Slam events, although in his case it was a far readily identified shortcoming: A terrible penchant for choking. He overcame that over time, partly through discipline (it came naturally to him) that enabled him to find greatness through fitness. A pioneer of cross-training, he began to push people around and beat them up because he knew he could.

As Lendl, who lost four major finals before he won one, said today about his partnership with Murray: "To me this is like Groundhog Day, I have been in this movie. I was that player once, who needed something to help make it work, it was the same as I was before I hired [Tony Roche]. What happened then changed my career around. What excites me about this partnership? More than anything, it is simply that this is absolutely the best match-up."

It's unlikely that Murray will turn comparably Prussian (back in the day, Lendl never would have drawn as whimsical a parallel as the one above), but the influence will be valuable, and a little bit of the obsessional never hurts a guy in his position.  I think of this aborning relationship as similar to the one not long ago between that other Andy—Roddick—and Jimmy Connors, except this one has more upside. You can teach a Top 5 player the critical importance of being able to go down the line with the backhand, but you can't give him a better backhand than the one he's already got. Lendl has great clay to work with—and Murray is being shaped by a very smart man who knows that tennis isn't rocket science. He will identify and find Murray's "soft" places and have ideas about how to firm them up.

Roddick was also hoping to tap into Connors's reservoir of competitive desire, perhaps drain some of it off to use himself. Murray must be thinking along similar lines; is it mere coincidence that Lendl once stood in the same position in relation to Borg, McEnroe and Connors as Murray stands today in terms of his rivals, Nadal, Roger Federer and Djokovic? Connors won the first eight matches he played against Lendl, and Lendl won the last . . .  17. Granted, Connors was about eight years older than Lendl, whose true career rival was McEnroe. Lendl ended up with at 21-15 head-to-head advantage over McEnroe, although the high priests prefer you not to know that. 

Personality-wise, neither Lendl nor Murray has shown much inclination to play the big tennis star, and both have a dark streak. Lendl truly enjoyed pushing people's buttons. Edgy and cutting, he always was good at humiliating people, although he would claim it was all in good fun. Nobody would consider that talent an asset for a coach, although being around someone with a bit more of an edge could be good for a live-and-let-live sort like Murray.

Lendl played 18 majors before he won one; he was a slow learner. Perhaps Murray, who has played 20 so far, is as well.

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