It was two years ago this week and yet it seems like a lifetime. Andy Murray was walking through central New York, clutching the US Open trophy and reflecting on all that seemed to lie ahead. His next step, after demolishing the mental block attached to winning a Grand Slam, was to become the world’s No 1 tennis player. “It’s something I’d love to do,” he told my colleague Paul Newman.
That such an accomplishment was within the range of possibility for a player who had simply been born at the wrong time, with Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic for company, was a supreme piece of evidence about the power of positive psychology in sport. Or at least the power of psychology for those who think it is important to them. Murray – a man whose self-esteem was so buffeted that he would lower his head while shopping in the supermarket to avoid conversations with members of the public, for fear of what they might say – discovered Ivan Lendl and everything changed.
We all shared in the Centre Court ecstasy which followed a year later, of course, though we did not know that the light would be extinguished as dramatically as it was switched on. In Saturday night’s discussion between Boris Becker and Greg Rusedski on the mesmerising day’s tennis which saw Djokovic and Federer dumped out of the US Open by Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic – who meet in Monday’s final – there was talk on the sport’s “big four” being deposed. As if Murray, who has not reached a Grand Slam final since Wimbledon and whose descent to 10th in the world rankings has been painful to behold, really had a hold on the big prizes. He has not done for a year.
It would be miserly to cast aspersions on a career accomplishment which already makes Murray indisputably Britain’s greatest tennis player. But we are bearing witness to the difference that Lendl made and the mistake that Murray made in not holding on to his services for grim life. Could he have retained him? On the basis of the evidence, quite probably, yes.
The complex story of their parting shows that it certainly was not a development that Murray encouraged. Lendl indicated that he could not commit to Murray’s timetable – and in the finer points of his contract, there was plenty of evidence of how player had to fit in around coach. Lendl’s devotion to golf, for example, meant that a clause was included allowing him to watch the final round of the Masters.
But it was a mutual estrangement between them, too. Murray has said of the separation: “I would try to impress my girlfriend a lot more in the first few months I was with her than I do now. It’s the same with Ivan.” The tennis writer and Lendl biographer Mark Hodgkinson, whose book Ivan Lendl: the Man who made Murray charts the relationship, observes that the Wimbledon title removed some of the intensity, precipitating a “tennis divorce” which, as he has put it, “not even Andy Murray” could have predicted. It is as if there was nowhere else to go after that sun-kissed July afternoon on Centre Court.
Well, there is actually most definitely somewhere else for Murray to go. The most devastating aspect of his fall down the world order is that it comes just at the point when a fit, firing Murray could have made his biggest impact. Saturday’s events in New York revealed that the players whom Murray had to live with for so long, do not pose the threat they once did. Simply to watch the last game of Federer’s three-set annihilation by Cilic – powerless to swat a racquet at three successive aces – revealed a player in decline. The timing of Nadal’s return remains uncertain. Djokovic is not at his 2012 peak. We can only wonder where Murray will be tonight when Nishikori (whom he has played three times and beaten three times) meets Cilic (played 11, won nine.) Can he bring himself to watch a final that he knows he could have comfortably won?
The official line in the weeks ahead will be that Amélie Mauresmo’s working relationship with Murray can deliver what Lendl’s did, as his new coach. She knew a little of Lendl’s hunger, too – winning junior Wimbledon and French titles, then waiting a decade for them to materialise into something bigger: the Wimbledon and Australian women’s singles crowns. And that was her lot. Two titles – no more, no less. Murray’s own current total.
But Lendl, with his motionless, inscrutable courtside appearances when Murray played, brought an incalculably greater intensity than anything Mauresmo can provide. It was after that win in New York two years ago that Murray made the disclosure – significant with hindsight – that Lendl had not found time to join him and his family for dinner after the triumph. And yet it had only heightened the aura. “He just kept telling everyone how dead he was after the match and how tired he was,” Murray told Newman. “But he’s been through many matches like that, so he knows how tough it is.” Murray has perhaps three years left at the top – enough time in a far less inhospitable men’s singles era to take eight titles, just like his great mentor did. Money, timetables or pride must be no impediment. Murray must hammer down Lendl’s door.
Uefa’s leniency with City squad is sign of weakness
Manchester City’s Champions League squad list, published on Saturday, revealed a whittling down of the punishment handed out for failing Uefa’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. We were told back in May that City must reduce their squad from 25 to 21 players and, since FFP is supposed to be about stopping spending, also assumed that eight of those 21 must be “home-grown” like every other club. Then Uefa quietly agreed that City could reduce their “home-grown” quota to five, to compensate them for reduced numbers. The squad list shows that only one of that five is actually “home-grown” rather than developed at another English club (“Association-trained”). He is the Belgian, Dedryk Boyata. Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal must all include at least four properly “home-grown” players. The sports lawyer Daniel Geey, one of the nation’s leading authorities on FFP, tells me that this surprises him. “Uefa has effectively rewritten its homegrown player rules,” he says. The stringency of the FFP punishments gave the regime an authority backed by European law. The dilution of the rules of punishment is baffling.Reuse content