Chapter 1: The Nearly-There and the Veteran
Way back at the end of 2011, back when Andy Murray was but a perennial Grand Slam runner-up forever playing second fiddle to three players seemingly destined to dominate the ATP for years, he asked Ivan Lendl to be his coach.
Way back at the end of 2011, back when Ivan Lendl was but a retired former world number one tennis professional busying himself often out on the golf course and indulging himself frequently in the pleasures that come with no-longer grinding it out on the not-always-grand stage of professional sport, he said yes to Andy Murray’s request.
It seemed like an oddly poetic pairing. Murray had lost his first three major finals at that point, leading to speculation that he just didn’t have the bottle, the mindset to handle the moment. Lendl, similarly, has went through his own difficulties with getting the job done throughout his early career stages, making four major finals and falling short each time before finally hitting bullseye and catapulting himself to legend status. And so these two teaming up grabbed attentions immediately, curiosity captured as many wondered whether or not the notoriously hot-headed Murray could be cooled by the presence of Lendl, a man who outwardly seemed to exude an aura of the no-nonsense.
The results of this setup were born from a far more behind-the-scenes one-to-one conversational variety of coaching. Lendl was never about to teach Murray a new technique to hit a backhand better, rather offer an understanding of the heartbreak that seemed obsessed with the Scot at the time. Under Lendl, Murray’s temper was still very much there and present. But rather than let it tip over and run through his game, damaging the internal circuitboard of his match plans, Murray was far better able to let himself feel the rage before the refocus.
A semifinal loss for his charge in a five hour, five set war of attrition to the world number 1 Novak Djokovic at the 2012 Australian Open gave Lendl a stable base from which to push his methods from. Murray could win matches like that, he could do it but only if he was told that he could by someone who knew how it felt to not do it, someone who knew how it felt to fail at doing it and come back from that venomous demoralisation that threatened confidence free-fall whenever it occurred. Lendl slotted himself into that area of Murray’s coaching team and went to work.
The highlights of this first chapter were painted in the colours of the rainbow, curving across Murray’s career from all angles. A first Wimbledon final was reached and cried over in a close four set defeat but revenge was best served with a hint of a metallic sparkle as an Olympic gold medal was hung around Scot’s neck mere weeks later on the same court following a straight sets win over the same opponent in the form of Switzerland’s Roger Federer. And then – FINALLY! – a U.S. Open trophy tumbled his way and he caught it with a relief stricken face and a missing toenail tumbling about his shoe.
But this wasn’t yet enough, not for the Mendl duopoly as they rode their wave of good vibes into the following season, snowballing through the opening few months of 2013. The Brisbane International title. Another Australian Open final. A Miami Masters trophy. Even a skipped clay season couldn’t derail the feeling that was beginning to storm as the grass season and Wimbledon loomed, recollections of that tearstained ceremony the year before drifting across minds of the British public. Yet another Queen’s Club win set the good omens aflutter and they were quite right to fly high as two weeks later and at long long loooooooooooooooooooong last, Andy Murray beat out the men’s field at SW19, reaching the Holy Grail and setting the headlines alight above photos of a boy from the small town of Dunblane in Scotland lifting the most historic gold cup in all of world tennis.
This was the peak of that first run and what it will always be remembered for. What followed was a tumultuous few months that climaxed with Murray cutting his season short due to the need to undergo surgery on his lower back. From this, it felt like a combination of a steady and slow downturn in immediate results alongside what had felt like reaching the ultimate-culmination-that-could-not-be-improved-on of that dreamy Sunday afternoon on Centre Court the summer before. that resulted in the Murray and Lendl team fraying. Indeed, by the time March of 2014 rolled around, Murray was without a title since Wimbledon, was out of the top five in the rankings, and was without a coach.
Lendl was heading back home.
Chapter 2: The World-Beater and the Veteran
Before we open the pages of chapter two, I think it’s worth mentioning that as an unfortunate side-effect of the success of the Murray and Lendl unit, other coaches that guided Murray when Lendl was not in the picture were often overshadowed. Most notably was Amélie Mauresmo, who Murray relied on through a period of up-and-down results. These two won titles together, a good many in fact, but because she wasn’t with him when he won the very top prizes the sport has to offer, her impact is unfairly footnoted by many. Murray himself has spoken in length about the benefits that Mauresmo brought with her, the skills and knowledge she added. She – and Murray’s other not-Lendl coaches – should absolutely be credited for everything they gave.
And so with that all said…
Way back in the middle of 2016, when Andy Murray was but the second best tennis player on the planet, he asked Ivan Lendl to be his coach… again.
Way back in the middle of 2016, when Ivan Lendl was but a retired former-world-number 1 tennis professional and ex-coach of Andy Murray, busying himself often out on the golf course and indulging himself frequently in the pleasures that come with no-longer grinding it out on the not-always-grand stage of professional sport, he said yes to Andy Murray’s request… again.
Lendl’s return was, if anything, more widely publicised than his initial debut. Everyone knew what he brought to the Murray camp two years prior, everyone knew what he was capable of injecting into Murray’s game through his combination of stoney-faced expectancy and slight nods of vague approval. Could they really deliver together for a second time? Lightning strike twice? Too good to be true, surely?
Needless to say, all of the eyes were watching as Lendl entered the Murray camp on the grass courts of Queen’s Club with the look of a man who’d never left, smirking slightly with the wicked humour he’s famed for. He was here once more, standing behind Murray at the back of the court with his arms folded and with a face that looked like it would remain the same even if a nuclear explosion were to suddenly erupt from the ground in front of him.
A lot of people would describe Lendl’s impact here as instantaneous, so quickly did Murray reunite with him and win Queen’s, a second Wimbledon title, a second Olympic gold medal and more. But Murray had won a title earlier that season as well, it was just the instinct in the biggest of big matches where he found himself still lacking, those times where he’d take his nervous angst and verbalise it through heavy-handed words towards his team. Lendl returned and gave Murray nothing from the box exactly the same as before, nothing at all in response to his meltdowns. It were as though Lendl were a parent and Murray his disappointment that he knew could do better, knew could work it out, knew could perform if he just allowed himself to do so and took responsibility for his errors.
And he was right because of course he was. With Lendl steering the ship, Murray drove forwards through limits that many once thought his career would be unable to surpass. One title, two title, three title, four, five title, six title, seven title, more… In all, Murray won nine tournaments in 2016, eight of those coming with Lendl. He reached world number one for the first time and held on to it through the final event of the year by defeating Novak Djokovic in the last match of the season in front of a home crowd at a sold-out O2 Arena in London. This was as close to the stars as he could get as a tennis player, walking on non-existent air amongst them from win to win with a feeling that if he just kept working and going and moving, he may never need come down, this so clearly and obviously the absolute pinnacle of every childhood daydream that a young Andy Murray would have burned his spare-time envisaging.
But as with every gasp of exhilaration at life’s pleasant offerings, so quickly does it go from you, smoking through your grasp. So it was with Murray and Lendl. From that 2016 aura came 2017 and with it only one title in a year that really struggled to get started. His Wimbledon defence ended with injury and his ranking fell with it, tumbling to outside the top 10. Things looked bleak and it stood out when placed in stark contrast with what had come just before.
Tennis, as ever, kept moving forwards, forgiving none that needed a breather.
Indeed, by the time Murray called time on his 2017 efforts, announcing that he planned to skip the US Open and all further tournaments in order to really try to tackle a hip issue that was scarily refusing to shift, Lendl was once again taking his leave.
Chapter 3 (?): The Veteran and the Veteran
And so that’s the story of Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl as it stands and likely how it will remain. I am not at all naive enough to believe that a third chapter of the Murray/Lendl story will go on to be written. These are two men stubborn in their ways and, while there exists only vague chitchat on why exactly they parted ways last time, it’s somewhat reasonable to assume that it probably wasn’t the easiest of mutual break-ups. When injuries come calling, you need a team close by and Lendl’s commitments elsewhere would have undoubtedly brought about a lot of difficult questions.
A massive amount of compromise on both sides would be required if this were to ever work again, a clearer image of exactly what Murray wants from this final few years of his journey and a blatantly obvious outline of exactly how Lendl would take him there. This isn’t the beginning or middle anymore, it’s the end of the road and it’s been bumpy for Murray so far. Lendl would need to adapt, something he may well find himself unable to do. Murray is no longer primed and ready for the big time with a body willing to sustain the heat. If it is the case that Lendl knows only one way to coach by way of thoroughly rigorous repetitive training cycles, this trilogy completion could never feasibly happen.
Murray needs to be clever and he needs someone on that same wavelength, able to chart out what he can still do to better where he finds himself now. This is less of an appeal for a Lendl return and more of an appeal for a big time hiring that indicates intent from Murray, something his most recent signings haven’t really offered as he struggles to find his footing in the top-flight again. This was fine while he was simply trying to work his way back from injury but it feels like now, he’s looking for a breakthrough performance to properly establish himself as someone to be feared on court once more. He needs to be able to lay out what he wants to achieve and have someone with him perfectly confident in being able to say “yes, I can get you there” and “no, you’re doing this wrong, let’s try this.”
And you know what? That person might not exist for Andy Murray anymore.
Or maybe, just maybe, they do, hidden away behind the vail of his past. This is absolutely the stuff of fanboy fantasy thinking from me here but at this point, what does Murray have to lose from taking a shot in the dark and firing off a text to the old Czech iceman? Ask him what he’s been up to! Ask him how the weather is wherever he’s at! Ask him what he’s having for dinner! Ask him how the family is! Ask him how the golf’s going!
And then ask him if he’s willing to give a bit of that up for one last try.