Reports of a life-changing collaboration between Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray were bolstered after the Scot went five points short of defeating World no. 1 Novak Djokovic in an enthralling Australian Open semi-final last week.
Deliberately putting aside memories of their last encounter in Rome, where Djokovic was a mere two points shy of losing his first game of the season after 37 straight victories, countless observers praised Ivan Lendl for putting Andy Murray in the right frame of mind so he could finally harness his capabilities against the top 3 that blocked him for so long. As the Scot was thwarted in his 25th attempt at winning a Grand Slam (his fourth consecutive semi-final defeat, an achievement in itself), blinkered commentators managed to find something revolutionary in Murray’s game that apparently nullified Djokovic, while the Scot effectively ended up further from victory than 10 months earlier.
Murray did take two sets to a player who only gave one away on his course to winning the Australian Open last year. But that was not down to him playing at a particularly jaw-dropping level, rather to Djokovic failing to reach the quality that made his 2011 season perhaps the most dominant in tennis history. The Serbian made 69 unforced errors in the 2012 semi-final as opposed to 33 in the 2011 final, which if we make an ‘unforced errors/game’ ratio ranks his 2012 performance with almost three unforced errors for every two games lower than the 2011 match-up where he only committed one unforced error per game.
You could make a case for the same curb in the Serbian’s level bringing Rafael Nadal much closer to victory in the 2012 final than he ever came in the whole of 2011. The Novak of 2011 would have closed out the game at 5-5, 0-40 on the Spaniard’s serve in the fourth set, and talks of a rekindle in both men’s rivalry would not have been as grossly overstated as they have been in the sequel.
As it stands, the only reason Andy Murray came close not even to winning a Grand Slam, but to entering a final, was that his opponent was not quite up to par with what he proposed the previous year. Though this observation is of little importance by itself, as Murray would not mind entering his third consecutive Australian Open final thanks to a faltering opponent, it does make his recent semi-final performance subscribe to the same pattern he has been confronted to in the past four years, namely that to win a Grand Slam he will need all three of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer to shrink during the same fortnight, something which is yet to occur since the former two broke through in 2007.
As for Lendl, who looked more like a bamboozled spectator than a tennis coach during the game against Djokovic, the tactics he set up were merely on the mental side of things, as Murray talked after the semi-final of the motivational speech employed by the Czech-born American in the build-up to the game :
« You’ll win, but you’re going to have to go through a lot of pain to get there, so be ready for that. »
It does not take an eight-time Grand Slam winner to know that beating one of the most solid players ever is one hell of a task, especially on his favoured ground. What’s more, Lendl did not seem to have brought any ground-breaking innovations from a tactical viewpoint when it comes to Murray’s game. One of the most intelligent players on the tour, the Scot does not need any external help to detect the flaws in his own shot selection, and it was probably his own decision to attack Djokovic’s second serves more which yielded great results, as the Serbian only won 30% of points played after his second serve compared to 60% in the final, the year before. However, even that can be attributed to a less fluid serve throughout the tournament than it was for him in 2011.
Though a case can be made for Daniel Vallverdu, Murray’s coach-friend whose career high ranking of 727 ranks him even lower than Djokovic’s younger brother Marko (who reached the 628th position in November 2010), to not being suited to the needs of a potential World no. 1 in Andy Murray, there must be a middle ground between the overly friendly relationship between the Scot and his Venezuelian friend, and the strict working relationship he now experiences with Lendl. None of Djokovic, Nadal or Federer ever needed a former Grand Slam winner to reach the top, as they set their own standards regardless of past history. The mark of proper champions.
By hiring Lendl whose key features were losing three Grand Slam finals before breaking the ice, a path Murray craves to follow, the Scot has turned besotedness into obsession as winning a Grand Slam, something which should be the consequence, not the ground reason of your reasoning, has now become more important for him than improving his game. Rather than focusing on a faulty second serve or more penetrative ground strokes, his only thought waking up to see Lendl every morning is the wishful thinking of reminiscing the Czech regardless of the level required to do so. This is not the path his contemporaries took to make their name a household in world tennis.