Murray is the perfect fit for me, says Lendl
Czech sees similarities with his own career as British No 1 targets elusive Grand Slam
As he sat back in a chair yesterday in the members' lounge at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, Ivan Lendl would have been forgiven for thinking back to the days when he ruled the world.
Andy Murray's new coach played his first five Australian Opens on the grass courts here at this elite club in the genteel suburb of Toorak, several miles from the hubbub of Melbourne Park, where the season's opening Grand Slam event has been played on hard courts since 1988.
It was also here, in 1984, that Lendl lost in the final of the Australian Open for the first time, to Mats Wilander. Having previously gone down to Bjorn Borg in the French Open final and to Jimmy Connors in successive US Open finals, Lendl is the only man in the Open era who went on to win a Grand Slam title after losing his first four finals – wherein lies a major reason why the former world No 1 has taken on his latest challenge.
Murray has lost his first three Grand Slam finals, including the last two Australian Opens, and both men believe that Lendl is the coach who can guide the 24-year-old Scot through his greatest challenges. Their first Grand Slam tournament together begins here on Monday.
"I think it's the match-up with Andy," Lendl said yesterday when asked why he had returned to work at the highest level of a sport which he left with his retirement 18 years ago. "We have been through similar things." He added: "I see a guy who wants to win, a guy who wants to work hard. He has been a pleasure to be with and work with. Obviously I see the parallels between his career and my career and I want his career to end up like mine." Lendl's hairline, now flecked with grey, has retreated and he no longer has the ultra-lean frame of his playing days, but in many other respects he has changed little since he led the world rankings for 270 weeks and won 94 titles, including eight at Grand Slam level. Despite having lived in north America for most of his adult life, the 51-year-old still speaks with a heavy eastern European accent. He also remains a man driven by his convictions and unwilling to suffer fools.
It is a safe bet that the members' lounge at Kooyong, where trophy cupboards line the walls, has not often played host to a man wearing a garish blue polo shirt and dark tracksuit bottoms, but Lendl has spent a lifetime being an exception to the rules. No leading player of his era went to the same lengths in search of an extra edge, whether it was in terms of diet, fitness, training regime or equipment. Lendl, who watched Murray beat David Nalbandian in straight sets in an exhibition match here yesterday, sees the Scot as another who is prepared to go the extra mile in pursuit of his goals. "I admire his guts for hiring me because he had to know it would create a lot of interest and that it's not going to go unnoticed and be a quiet thing," Lendl said. "It ups the ante a little bit and that just shows me he wants it. It would have been very easy just to hire someone, just another coach, and not get a high-profile person."
Would Lendl have considered coaching anyone else, given that his return to play on the senior tour two autumns ago created widespread interest within the game? "Unlikely," he said. "I knew I would be asked [to coach other players], so I tried to count. I've had between seven and 10 inquiries over the last 18 months. Some were more serious than others, but none was considered by me." Lendl said he had never lost his interest in tennis and has followed it closely in the past year. He has been hugely impressed by the standards that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Murray in particular have set. When asked about last year's Australian Open final, when Djokovic swept Murray aside, he talked about the strengths of the winner rather than any weaknesses in the loser.
"I couldn't believe how well Djokovic was moving and how well he was defending," Lendl said. "I had never seen anything like that. And certainly I couldn't believe the year that he had. It was a phenomenal year. This is a tough era to win majors. Between Roger with 16 [Grand Slam titles], Rafa with 10 and Djokovic with four right now, and only [Juan Martin] del Potro sneaking one in a couple of years ago at the US Open, it's very difficult to win majors. It makes it a much more difficult task for Andy."
Does Lendl have any concerns that standards might have improved so much since his own days that what it takes to win a Grand Slam title may have changed? "I don't just think it's Grand Slams, I think it's individual matches too. You don't have easy matches any more. Every match is a tough match, even for the top players. If they don't play their best they could lose, whereas in our era if you didn't play your best maybe you lost a set in the first or second round and it was a huge surprise already.
"These days you can lose if you don't play your best. The strategy of the game has changed. You cannot wait for opponents' errors any more. You have to take advantage of it yourself if there is the ball to take advantage of. And people will not give you the matches. You have to go and grab it."
This seemed to imply that Lendl would encourage Murray to play a more aggressive game, but he would not be drawn on the subject. "There is a relationship between a player and a coach and if that's violated, it's wrong. It's almost like the doctor-patient privilege. Whatever is said between Andy and I will never come from me any time, even after Andy has retired." Did he have a philosophy about how the game should be played and would he be imparting that to Murray? "In general I do have a philosophy about how the game should be played. However that does not necessarily mean that Andy has to play that way. I think I also have a view about how Andy should play – and those two don't have to match." He added: "You can't ask people to do things they can't do and take away their strengths." Having made a success of most things to which he has turned his hand, did Lendl have any fears about his latest challenge? "You can never guarantee the wins but you can guarantee that you give it 100 per cent and that way you can always look back and feel comfortable, as a player or a coach," he said.
It is clear that Lendl is already relishing his task. "I'm loving every minute of it. He's fun. He works hard. We're going to put in a lot of hard work together," he said. "I really enjoy Andy's sense of humour. Hopefully he enjoys mine. We've had good laughs. I think it's very important that it's not only work but fun as well."
Obstacles To Glory: Murray's possible route to the title
Ryan Harrison (US, aged 19, world No 84)
Talented but temperamental resident of Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida. Broke through last year, reaching two semi-finals in build-up to US Open. Head-to-head: Never met.
Xavier Malisse (Belgium, 31, No 63)
Flamboyant shot maker who was a Wimbledon semi-finalist 10 years ago. Has lost all four meetings with Murray. Another Bollettieri graduate. Head-to-head: Murray 4-0
Alex Bogomolov Jnr (Russia, 28, No 34)
Born in Moscow, a US citizen until recently, having spent most of his life in the States. Beat Murray in Miami last year but lost two subsequent meetings. Head-to-head: Murray 2-1
Gaël Monfils (France, 25, No 15)
Superb athlete who has won two of his five meetings with Murray but regularly fails to live up to his undoubted potential. Former world No 7. Head-to-head: Murray 3-2
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (France, 26, No 6)
Beat Murray in the first round of the Australian Open four years ago but has lost all four of their subsequent meetings. Won Doha title last weekend. Head-to-head: Murray 5-1
Novak Djokovic (Serbia, 24, No 1)
Beat Murray in their only Grand Slam meeting in last year's Australian Open final. Dominated 2011, winning three Slam titles, but had mediocre finish to year. Head-to-head: Djokovic 6-4
Final: Rafael Nadal (Spain, 25, No 2)
May first have to beat Roger Federer in semi-finals, having been drawn in same section for first time since 2005. Beat Murray in three Grand Slam semi-finals last year. Head-to-head: Nadal 13-5
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