Ivan the Nurturer

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

"I will always be in Andy's corner and wish him nothing but great success as he too goes into a new phase of his career.”Ivan Lendl, quoted in Andy Murray’s blog on the termination of their coaching relationship.

With that gracious comment, one of the most interesting and wildly successful coaching experiments has come full circle. The partnership lasted two years and change, and the way it played out underscored one of its great strengths. Lendl didn’t really need Andy Murray’s money; he was free to walk away any time he so chose, without a care in the world. This was a satisfying story with a logical beginning, middle, and end. That Lendl could claim “mission accomplished” only adds luster to the saga.

Besides, if you look at it from Lendl’s perspective, you have to wonder what upside might have remained for him as Murray enters this “new phase” of his career. If you track Murray’s results since he became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years last July, you would be entitled to feel that while Lendl is by no means abandoning a sinking ship, he may be getting out while the getting’s good—or at least avoiding what might be a long, arduous effort to bolster the chances of his now ex-protégé.

Murray lost in the quarterfinals of last year’s U.S. Open, then took the rest of the year off to undergo minor back surgery. He returned in January, and has yet to make a final in five tournaments.

Lendl probably has better things to do than re-re-organize Murray’s game. He pointed the Scot to a path through a woods that Murray, in 2011, was in grave danger of never finding. You can’t put a price tag on that.

But Lendl also knows that Murray is without a doubt the junior member of the still-intact Big Four. Roger Federer, another member of that august company, recently leapfrogged back over Murray to the No. 5 spot, and beating Rafael Nadal (5-13 head-to-head record) and Novak Djokovic (8-11 head-to-head record) will forever be a big ask.

With or without Lendl, Murray has had to really struggle to keep pace with those icons.

"I'm eternally grateful to Ivan for all his hard work over the past two years, the most successful of my career so far," said Murray.

It turns out that Lendl not only directed Murray to the path he needed to take, but perhaps Lendl himself was also shown a path—one leading back to the game that he seemed to renounce, as so many great champions do, when he retired. In working with Murray, Lendl may have re-discovered the joy of being in and around the game.  

"As a team, we've learned a lot and it will definitely be of benefit in the future,” Murray said. That “we” probably includes Lendl—and should if it does not. His popularity, never his strong suit as an active player, has grown immensely. Ivan Lendal is back, playing in old dude events that suddenly seem more viable because of the recent activities of himself, Edberg, Becker et al.

As for Murray, the sub-text here is clear: It’s time for him to put on big-boy pants.

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