A Perfect Fit

Thursday, May 16, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“I stand before you today . . . to acknowledge Ivan as a far superior physical specimen than myself, despite a near-13-year age gap.”

These were the words spoken by Jez Green, Andy Murray’s 40-year-old strength and conditioning coach, during a minute-long statement he made at Murray’s press conference prior to the start of the 2013 Australian Open. Green was reading from a statement that had been prepared for him by Ivan Lendl, the eight-time Grand Slam singles champion who started coaching Murray at the start of last season.

“We bought a new piece of training equipment, a VersaClimber, about the time of the US Open and Jez made a bet with Lendl that he would never be able to match him on it,” Murray explained in a column he wrote for The Australian. “This is a tough machine that makes you feel like you are climbing up a mountain. Try to imagine this: Basically, you have your arms outstretched above you and your feet locked in at the bottom, and then you start climbing. Adjust it one way and it kills your quadriceps, the other way your arms are aching. Before the challenge, they were going back and forth at each other. The loser, Jez, had to read out a piece written for him by Ivan. Funny stuff, though it will be a while before any of us, and particularly Jez, challenge Ivan.”

After 16 years of professional tennis, and another 17 years away from the pro game until he teamed up with Murray at the start of last season, Lendl remains a fitness fiend. The man who introduced healthy eating habits, cardio workouts and strength training to a tennis generation that thrived on Haagen Dazs (John McEnroe) and Mountain Dew (Andre Agassi) is not only still impressively fit himself, but he has spent the last 16 months sharing his wisdom with the 26-year-old Murray. He used to run for miles, but once his hips began to hurt, he took to biking hundreds of miles a week. One of the things that attracted Lendl to Murray, and helped ease the transition into being his coach, was the fact that Murray is passionate about his own fitness regimen. He has whipped his body into fighting shape through a series of sprint drills that have also given him the stamina of a middle-distance runner. Murray also does weight-room work, including chin-ups with a 44-pound weight strapped to his waist, that have added nine pounds of muscle to his otherwise lean 6-foot-3 frame and now allows him to bench-press like a rugby player.

“What Ivan brought to Andy was structure without being strict,” says Darren Cahill, an ESPN commentator and former touring pro from Australia who has helped advise Murray through their mutual association with Adidas, one of Murray’s sponsors. “He’s forthright, but you can debate with him. He’s brought at least a dozen little things to Andy’s game, things like helping him develop an offensive down-the-line forehand, because Ivan knows that everyone else is so fit today that they have no problem hitting heavy cross-court forehands all day long.”

Lendl’s own transformation from tennis player to athlete came at a most unlikely time in his career. After losing four consecutive Grand Slam finals—to Bjorn Borg at the 1981 French Open, to Jimmy Connors at the 1982 and ’83 US Opens and to Mats Wilander at the ’83 Australian Open—Lendl fought his way back from two sets down to upset top-seeded John McEnroe, 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5, in the final of the 1984 French Open.

“After I beat John, I didn’t feel very well at all,” says Lendl who, like his Czech compatriot Martina Navratilova on the women’s side, is now widely credited with introducing off-court training as a means of gaining an edge over his opponents. “I was feeling tired and there was a suspicion of mono[nucleosis] that turned out not to be true. It turned out to be nutritional. That’s why I started watching my nutrition and it allowed me to train harder. Before that, I would think nothing of drinking a two-liter bottle of soda with dinner or sitting down and eating three servings of raspberries, which have a lot of natural sugar. Once it was explained to me and I started having proper nutrition, all of a sudden things started getting better for me.”

Lendl is quick to admit that he does not see himself as Murray’s great savior, nor his lifetime tennis coach. He jokes that he is simply waiting until he turns 55 and can join the senior golf tour. He plays nearly every day and during Wimbledon rents a flat that is within walking distance of a golf course so that he can go to the driving range at 7 a.m., then have time to fit in a late-afternoon round after Murray’s practice or match. He did not seek out Murray, who had already worked with five coaches over the last 14 years, including former touring pros Mark Petchey from Great Britain, American Brad Gilbert and Spaniard Alex Corretja. Lendl was perfectly happy with his life, having raised five athletic daughters with his wife Samantha, four of whom have been college athletes (three golfers, one rower and the youngest, a 15-year-old involved in equestrian), and was enjoying playing golf near his homes in Vero Beach, FL, and Goshen, CT. But after training USTA juniors for a week or two at a time and opening his own Florida academy, Lendl realized that he genuinely enjoyed working with kids, especially those who were diligent and wanted to absorb more.

Murray was a teenager the first time he met Lendl at Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Bradenton, FL. He was there with Gilbert, practicing with Czech Radek Stepanek, when Gilbert insisted Murray and Lendl be introduced.

“We chatted for about three minutes and he was extremely nice and polite, which impressed me quite a bit,” says Lendl, who learned a strict code of manners from his parents back in what was then Czechoslovakia. “I think that was the key, because if I didn’t know him, I don’t know if I would have been open to discussion. If he was rude, or had been in the bathroom at that time, when Darren [Cahill] called I think I would have said, ‘Thanks, but I like my life the way it is.’”

It was near the end of 2011 when Cahill called Lendl and asked him to meet with Murray at a nondescript Italian place called Sal’s Ristorante, halfway between Lendl’s Vero Beach home and Murray’s Miami residence. It turned out to be a stroke of brilliance, as Murray and Lendl are similar in a number of ways. Both are hard workers who dedicate themselves to being the best. But with their harsh, sometimes dour, demeanors on court, both have also been misunderstood. Off court, however, both Murray and Lendl have dry senses of humor, laugh with ease and talk animatedly about sports, everything from Murray’s beloved boxing and soccer to Lendl’s obsession with ice hockey. The most important thing they had in common, in addition to their fitness fanaticism, was the bleak fact that Murray was losing in major finals, as Lendl had in the early ’80s. Lendl understood what Murray was going through.

“Just having someone who has been through a lot, the same experiences as me, really helped,” says Murray, who, like Lendl, lost his first four Grand Slam finals before prevailing at the Open last year. “Being able to speak to someone who knows what it feels like to go through that, that’s the one thing I find most valuable, to be able to communicate with him on a more mental and emotional level.”

Lendl knows all too well that there is a fine line between physical and mental fitness, and that no player can win without both. He also knows that no job lasts a lifetime, and for that reason his agreement with Murray is month-to-month, week-to-week, day-to-day. “We don’t talk about timing,” Lendl says. “The advantage of Andy and me working together compared to other coaches is I don’t rely on him. I mean, I’m not doing it for the money; I could make many times more money playing exhibitions. Because of that, I can tell him the truth. There’s a big advantage in being able to tell the truth. And if we go our separate ways because of that, we go our separate ways.

“I always tell him,” Lendl adds with a grin, “when you’re tired of me, let me know. I will go play more golf.”

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