The following year, back on the grass courts in Great Britain, Murray became the first man from his nation since Perry 77 years earlier to win the sport’s most prestigious crown at Wimbledon. In the final, he played what must be regarded as the match of his career to defeat Djokovic in straight sets. Securing the two largest titles in tennis— along with a gold medal at the Olympics—was heady stuff for Murray, and proof that Lendl’s influence as his coach was immense. Lendl was not only brilliant in a tactical sense, but he singularly understood Murray. Like Murray, Lendl had lost the first four finals of his distinguished career across 1981-83 before breaking through mightily by toppling John McEnroe from two sets down in the 1984 Roland Garros final. He would eventually collect eight majors in nineteen finals, sweepingly turning his career and reputation around.
The acutely intelligent and often sardonic Lendl seemed to make Murray a more self assured and considerably better big match player. They seemed likely to continue the partnership for a good number of years. How could either one of them argue with the progress made by Murray during their brief time together? Why would they not want to build on what they had done and try to make a habit out of winning when it mattered the most? What could possibly stop these men from remaining as a partnership indefinitely?
We will never fully know the answers to those questions. For a variety of reasons, they chose to go in separate directions. I heard from reliable sources that the two strong-minded, obstinate and sometimes cantankerous individuals had a continuous struggle with their communication. They clashed with some regularity, did not always see eye to eye, and, perhaps, agreed to disagree more than they would have liked. After those magnificent pair of years together, they split up.
Murray, who had back surgery in the September of 2013, struggled inordinately for most of 2014. He did manage to make the semifinals of the French Open that year and advanced to the quarterfinals of the three other majors, but not until the very end of the season did he seem to recover his confidence and restore his faith in his game. A strong finish enabled him to set the stage for a much more productive 2015 campaign, which included a final round appearance at the Australian Open, a semifinal showing at Wimbledon, and, most prominently, an unbeaten season in Davis Cup competition, culminating with a triumph over Belgium in the final. Almost single-handedly, Murray engineered that victory. Not since 1936 had Great Britain been triumphant in that incomparable team forum.
In the middle of the 2014 season, Murray brought on Amelie Mauresmo as his new coach, a bold move in many ways. For a top male player to hire a female in that role was a ground breaking development; undoubtedly, having a mother (Judy Murray) who played such a critical role in his shaping as a player opened Murray’s mind to working with a woman, They had some success. He appeared in back to back Australian Open finals, starting in 2015. He reignited his game across the board. He seemed to make significant strides in his propensity to volley with more feel and conviction.
And yet, it was announced in May that Murray and Mauresmo were parting ways. She had a baby in 2015 and was not spending as much time out on the ATP World Tour with the British superstar. The Frenchwoman later made some pointedly critical remarks about Murray and how difficult it was to get her ideas across to her player. Furthermore, she was not wild about his abrasive on court behavior, which Mauresmo believed contrasted sharply with his classier conduct off the court. Reading between the lines, it seemed as if Mauresmo felt it was as if she was dealing with two different people.
Meanwhile, before the departure of Mauresmo, Murray had hired Jamie Delgado as his assistant coach. Delgado will remain part of the Murray team as Lendl takes over the reigns as head coach this week at the Queens’s Club.
Can Lendl rekindle the magic of the 2012-2013 seasons when Murray was able to claim three prestigious prizes? It will be fascinating to follow. In certain respects, Lendl’s job was less complicated when he was hired at the end of 2011. At that time, his task was to inspire Murray, to get a great player to believe in himself at the times of consequence, to use his own stature as Murray’s yardstick toward higher achievements. Lendl was exemplary during those couple of years, never calling attention to himself, always urging Murray to strive for nothing less than the best. Lendl was deliberately cold and calculated in his professional approach with Murray, at least in the public arena. He was the ultimate task master, all to the benefit of his pupil.
And yet, apparently, the dynamic duo wrestled with some issues that were coming between them. Perhaps both men believed they had realized their largest goals, and felt less of an incentive to maintain their working relationship. Philosophically, it seems they had some serious differences about the most sensible way for Murray to proceed after his two big years and three towering accomplishments over the course of the 2012-2013 seasons. Whatever the reasons, they mutually agreed it was time to move on, and that is what they did.
Lendl had not only provided invaluable advise on how to confront the big occasions and the way for Murray to move past his disappointments, but he also altered Murray’s approach to playing the game. Murray had frequently been a victim of his excessive caution, and Lendl knew how much that was getting in the British competitor’s way. So Lendl groomed Murray to be selectively more aggressive than he had ever been from the backcourt, particularly off the forehand side. Murray transformed his thinking in some fundamental ways; it was not as if he totally altered his thinking, but he was more willing to blast away with controlled aggression, and let the chips fall where they may.
After Lendl left, Murray seemed to drift away from the changes he had made in his match playing methodology. He clearly did not abandon it altogether, but never quite found the same formula. The fact remains that Murray has improved markedly after his less than stellar 2014 campaign, when he concluded the year at No. 6 in the world—and only after a furious finish over the autumn that brought him back into that territory.
As I already mentioned, his 2015 results were impressive as he finished a year for the first time at No. 2 in the world. He has more than validated that status across the first five months and beyond this year, reaching the finals of the Australian and French Opens, winning the Masters 1000 title in Rome, keeping his standards remarkably high for the most part. He has played some outstanding tennis these last couple of years, but clearly Lendl’s chief priority will be to guide Murray back into the country of major champions.
The only yardstick by which this renewed alliance can be measured is whether or not Murray comes through to win at least one more Grand Slam championship, and perhaps more. That is unmistakably why Lendl is there. He realizes that Murray has been beaten in eight of ten finals at the majors, including five of seven title round meetings with Djokovic. When Murray won Wimbledon three years ago with Lendl by his side, surely both men hoped and expected that this highly charged and deeply motivated performer would be holding the big trophies numerous times over the next several seasons.
Murray was 26, and his best seemed quite possibly yet to come. None of us can know for certain what might have been if he and Lendl had continued their partnership. But now their challenge is substantially tougher. Why is that case? When Murray took his two majors and the Olympic gold in 2012-2013, he upended Djokovic in all three events. After Wimbledon in 2013, Djokovic held a narrow 11-8 lead in his career series with Murray, but now the Serbian has advanced to 24-10 over his old rival. Djokovic has struck down Murray in 13 of their last 15 meetings, including victories in the finals of the Australian and French Opens this year.
For Lendl to succeed in his venture now with Murray, he has to figure out a way to solve the complex riddle of Djokovic, a surpassing figure who has swept four majors in a row and six of the last eight. In my view, Djokovic is fundamentally a better player than Murray, sounder off the forehand, a superior strategic server who has more variety, depth and bite on his second delivery, more flexible on the return of serve, and able to handle wide balls off the backhand with much more authority. Murray almost automatically goes to the sliced backhand when pulled off the court, while Djokovic has the capacity to drive his two-hander and then get back in control of the rallies.
Moreover, Djokovic has demonstrated that he is mentally tougher than Murray. Lendl surely has some strong notions on how Murray can turn that rivalry around, but it remains to be seen if even a coach of Lendl’s keen insights, unique perspective and agile mind can change the situation. Djokovic is at his absolute zenith. He has taken not only his talent but his tenacity to a level he never knew before, and his dominance of the game has not come about coincidentally. He is not simply the sport’s greatest player, but he has morphed into a competitor of the highest order, right up there in that department with the redoubtable Rafael Nadal.
Nevertheless,Lendl will inevitably bring some fresh notions to his charge about how to shape the right strategy for turning the tables on Djokovic. Lendl’s presence in the coaches box should be inspiring for Murray again, providing a striking reminder of what they once shared, making both men believe that the British player can indeed reproduce the triumphs of three and four years ago.
The window of possibility for Murray and Lendl to realize their goals will not be open for more than a couple of years. Murray is now 29, and it will be up to him to maximize his opportunities between now and 2018. Lendl gives Murray the best possible chance to succeed. The former world No. 1 has no intention of allowing Murray to settle for anything less than the highest honors the game has to offer. But the fact remains that both Murray and Lendl will find out it is no facile task translating large aspirations into towering victories.