Ivan's mind game: New coach helps Murray build up mental strength
Early spring 2007 and Ivan Lendl visited the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida to assess his Czech compatriot and friend, the top 20 player Radek Stepanek.
Stepanek played two sets against a scruffy teenager called Andy Murray, who was more than holding his own while cursing and chastising himself whenever he missed a point.
‘The boy is going to be a great player,’ said Lendl to the few onlookers of the unfamiliar youngster at the finish, ‘but he has got to get his focus sorted out.’
I've got my eye on you: Andy Murray is watched by Ivan Lendl during practice
Nearly five years on and the Murray temperament is on Lendl’s plate, the eight-time Grand Slam winner having been brought in to advise the world No 4 on how to produce his best for the precise situation he finds himself in.
We know Murray can reach the deep end of Grand Slams, we know he can win the other big tournaments on the ATP Tour and he has proved he is physically capable of beating phenomenally tough opposition.
What we have not seen, though, is the kind of career-defining performance he is going to need inside the Rod Laver Arena.
Before walking out on court, Lendl will pull Murray to one side and offer one nugget of encouragement. It is one of the things he has been doing as part of the subtle culture change he has effected around Murray since they teamed up before this event.
Who knows, it might be along the lines of one of Lendl’s public utterances this week: ‘Djokovic is ranked No 1 so people think he can win, but I think every-one is beatable. If you don’t think everyone is beatable then you shouldn’t be playing the game.’
Taking the pressure off Murray is
clearly one way in which Lendl thinks he can help. We have not seen much
of the 24-year-old Scot and his team this fortnight, another innovation
Lendl is responsible for.
Pumped up: Murray has made smooth progress to the semi-final stage
Djokovic leads 6-4 on head-to-head — and has beaten Murray in their last four meetings.
On court, the Lendl influence can be seen, with Murray playing a more assertive game and the eradication of any ranting and raving at the box.
Murray got slightly agitated in the first round against American youngster Ryan Harrison and at one point towards the end versus Kei Nishikori. But he is like Bjorn Borg compared to his former self — the boy Lendl saw in Florida five years ago has grown up.
Lendl’s heart is in it to the point where he has already become defensive about his charge and he draws upon the fascinating parallels between their careers and Slam final experience up until the age of 24.
‘Look at the quality of opponents Andy has lost against in finals,’ he points out. ‘I first lost to Borg on clay in the French Open final when I was 21, it was an upset I got to the finals. Then I played Connors in New York, who’d been in five US Open finals, and here I played Mats Wilander and I didn’t know how to handle the surface (grass in those days).
Old foes: Murray and Novak Djokovic will renew their rivalry in Melbourne
‘Then I beat McEnroe from two sets down in the French final and suddenly I’m the guy who never gives up. Did I deserve that reputation or the other reputation Not completely either, but that’s the perception.’
Lendl is right that the top four right now are truly outstanding, although whether there is as much depth as is claimed is more open to debate. The result is that for the first time in modern history the top four players are in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam for a second successive time, meaning that if Murray could beat Djokovic he has only done half of a tough job.
If he wins, he becomes the first man to make three consecutive Australian finals since . . . the bloke sitting up in his box.
TV: LIVE on BBC2 from 8.30am and British Eurosport from 7.45am.