Andy Murray has been called many things in his time, but one accusation you can’t level at him is that he’s a slave to convention. In his restless quest to be the best tennis player on the planet he will think the unthinkable, not least when it comes to choosing a coach to mastermind his game.
Hiring Ivan Lendl two and half years ago – one of the greats of the game, but previously a coaching novice – was a considerable risk; it was a project that could have exploded in both of their faces. Never before had a multiple grand-slam champion gone on to have a successful second tennis life as a coach. And yet on that sun-buttered Sunday last July, with Lendl looking on from the players’ box on Centre Court, the partnership peaked when Murray became the first British man for 77 years to win the Wimbledon singles title.
Murray’s straight-sets victory over Novak Djokovic would have given Lendl a sense of completion; it was he who triggered the break- up, telling Murray over dinner in Miami last March that he no longer had the time to do the job properly (though it had never been a full-time gig). Wimbledon champions don’t tend to get dumped by their coaches, but that’s what happened here, and it understandably came as a shock to Murray, who for some time afterwards felt bereft, “gutted” even.
Rarely had a tennis coach been as scrutinised as Lendl (would he smile or wouldn’t he?), but now it’s happening again. The Scot has returned to the lawns of the All England Club with all eyes trained on the new former world number one in his corner: Amélie Mauresmo, the first female coach of an elite male player of modern times.
Murray had no head coach throughout the clay-court season, but that didn’t stop him reaching the semi-finals of the French Open. So when he announced he was to link up with Mauresmo during the grass-court season – if the trial period goes well, this will become a full-time arrangement – there were a few sceptical voices. One belonged to the Australian Marinko Matosevic, who said he “couldn’t do that since I don’t think that highly of the women’s game”. For several days after the announcement, some on the tennis circuit sidled up to Murray to ask him whether it was really true.
Of course Murray hasn’t selected Mauresmo, the 2006 women’s Wimbledon champion, because he wants to play sexual politics on Centre Court. It’s true that Murray, whose mother Judy was his first coach, has had a strong female influence during his career. Certainly the Scot, probably more than any other leading male player, shows a considerable appreciation and knowledge of the women’s game.
But none of the above would have had a bearing on Murray’s thinking – all he was concerned about was finding the person, male or female, who would give him the best chance of retaining his Wimbledon singles title.
“This has nothing to do with gender,” Judy Murray told me. Her view is that her son hired Mauresmo because the Frenchwoman is one of those rare figures who appears to understand the Wimbledon champion’s varied game.
And attitudes will change, not least because Murray now has the power to influence tennis culture. He has already started one trend in tennis – he was the first of this generation to hire a former legend. Now it is standard practice for those who can afford it.
A Centre Court meeting this fortnight between Roger Federer, with seven Wimbledon titles, and Novak Djokovic, who has one, would be enough of a grass-court spectacle for any tennis enthusiast. But there would be the bonus of enjoying Stefan Edberg versus Boris Becker by proxy. Because in Djokovic’s corner this summer is Becker, who won the Wimbledon title in 1985, retained the trophy the following year, and scored a third victory in 1989 by beating Edberg in the final. While in Federer’s entourage sits the same Edberg, who won two Wimbledon titles, both victories over Becker, in 1988 and 1990.
Michal Chang, a former French Open champion, is another face from the past who has re-emerged. He mentors kei Nishikori, who this year became the first Japanese player to break into the world’s top ten.
Chang says that the modern generation have realised that “having a former champion around is a shortcut to learning and experiencing things. If you’ve got a coach who’s been there before, and knows about the pressures and the expectations, and all the things that go with it, there’s a certain calm that comes with that.”
Jim Courier, a former world number one, says Murray and Lendl “paved the way”. “Ivan showed that you can have a full-time impact on a player with a part-time travel and time commitment,” explains the former Wimbledon finalist. “The coaches aren’t on the road at every tournament, just at the key ones, and that’s very appealing.”
So, if Murray’s partnership with Mauresmo bears fruit, will we see more female coaches on the men’s tennis scene?
“Today, we’re part of the new generation – we don’t really care whether our coaches are women or men,” France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, told me. “It doesn’t matter if your coach is black or white or yellow or green, or a woman or a man, or whatever.” So what if Mauresmo will be denied access to the men’s locker-room at Wimbledon; the same restrictions apply for the male coaches of the leading female players and they seem to cope.
In many ways, gender is a distraction. So much of the success of a partnership rests on the personalities. Lendl and Murray are tennis obsessives who bonded over bad-taste jokes. Djokovic and Becker are deep-thinkers as well as extroverts. Federer and Edberg both have an elegance and a calmness to them. Even before Murray and Mauresmo started working together during the pre-Wimbledon tournament at Queen’s Club, it was plain that they had common ground.
Their career narratives aren’t that dissimilar: both Murray and Mauresmo have suffered from self-doubt, and for a while both attracted accusations of faltering in the white heat of grand-slam tournaments; they won their first grand-slam title at a relatively late age. Murray also likes the way Mauresmo goes about her business: “Amélie is very calm and a good listener.”
It seems Murray and Lendl’s player-coach relationship – which also brought the Scot the Olympic title, plus his first grand-slam success, at the 2012 US Open – ultimately ended because of Murray’s triumph at last summer’s Wimbledon. Murray had paid Lendl to help him “get over the line”, and that’s what happened; they realised they would never again experience an emotional high like the one they enjoyed together on Centre Court last summer.
But Lendl’s departure has led to Mauresmo’s arrival. And she is no stranger to coaching success at Wimbledon – she was part of Marion Bartoli’s team last summer. A year on, can Mauresmo have Murray touching the Centre Court heights again? If she can, that would complete a remarkable coaching double.
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