John McEnroe on why anger, Lendl and home comforts make Andy Murray Wimbledon favourite
The tennis legend talks about the world number one's golden rage
Rage. It’s never an emotion that sits easily at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. A fierce commitment to decorum makes Wimbledon the genteel highlight of the British sporting summer – at least until Andy Murray gets hot under the collar.
Murray’s outbursts may not match John McEnroe’s “You cannot be serious” for sheer rocker rebelliousness, but the world number one’s court chuntering still manages to cut through SW19’s decorous sheen. As recently as last year’s final, BBC cameras caught Murray shouting four-letter obscenities in the direction of the players’ box.
In the early days, that perceived teenage angst contributed to British scepticism about Murray. Now we love him for it, the peculiar mix of snarling and the sublime. When it comes to our Wimbledon hero, we’re living in a golden rage.
But does the anger actually help him? McEnroe, who well before Murray made the journey from enfant terrible to establishment, is still not sure – even after more than a decade of watching Murray at Wimbledon. “I can’t tell whether it’s helping or hurting him; whether it’s counterproductive,” the BBC commentator says of Murray’s bursts of anger. As if to further cloud the issue, earlier this month, at Queen’s, Murray crashed out in the first round.
But McEnroe’s hypothesis is that it doesn’t matter whether Murray is fuming or phlegmatic. What matters is who is on the receiving end of that anger in the coaching box.
“Murray’s best results have come when coach Ivan Lendl has been around, and that’s no coincidence,” he says. “One thing you notice when they’re working together is that Lendl doesn’t stand for any of Murray’s negativity on court. That helps Murray, because it forces him to tone down the frustration.”
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Lendl has accompanied Murray for all three of his grand slam wins; in that time, McEnroe argues, his stoicism has proved the perfect accompaniment to Murray’s emotion. “If Murray looks back in anger at his box, he won’t get a whole lot back! There aren’t many people who are able to look Murray in the eye and tell him to calm down.
“Most people will take the job and take whatever absuse comes their way, and figure out a way to remain part of the team. However, Lendl is different and this helps Murray. He won’t stand for it.”
Significantly, before the French Open, Lendl had only been at four of Murray’s matches this season, at the start of the year at the Australian Open. In Lendl’s absence, Murray endured the worst start to a season since 2008, only managing to turn things around when Lendl returned to watch him reach the seminals at Roland Garros.
“I remember the very first time I heard that Andy Murray had hired Ivan Lendl,” McEnroe says. “I thought to myself, ‘He hired Ivan Lendl? That’ll never work!’ And then I thought about it for a minute and it hit me: ‘Oh my God, that is going to work.’ It’s been a huge bonus for him.”
Does Murray’s success rely on Lendl’s presence? While acknowledging Lendl’s influence, McEnroe warns that it’s too easy to link Murray’s collapse in form to his coach. “I think it was pretty clear from the first couple of months that the amount of effort Andy Murray had put in to reach world number one had taken its toll,” he says.
Five straight tournament wins and a 24-match winning streak was a phenomenal finish to 2016 – but it could not last.
“I would have been surprised if it hadn’t caught up with Murray eventually,” McEnroe says. “Not even he thought he’d end up number one ahead of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It was an amazing accomplishment, so for a while at the start of this season I think he had to regroup.
“He’s had some issues physically, but he’s worked so hard on his fitness over the years that when it comes to the majors he’s so hard to beat. Since the French Open he seems far more settled and confident.”
And so Murray arrives at Wimbledon with his coach restored, and struggling rival Novak Djokovic out of the top two for the first time since 2011. Rafael Nadal’s tenth French Open title shows he’s still a threat, but his crab-like scuttling round the court becomes that much tougher on grass, where the reduced bounce forces him to crouch lower to the ground and strain his fragile knees.
Roger Federer, too, is plotting a Wimbledon resurgence, but there’s something Murray has that none of his rivals can count on.
“Murray has one extra advantage at Wimbledon: he can live at home,” says McEnroe. Murray’s home in Surrey is only half an hour away by car from the Wimbledon championships, and for a player who spends barely more than a month at home over the course of the season, returning to wife Kim and one-year-old daughter Sophia is a rare blessing.
“Murray’s under more pressure than any player I’ve ever seen at Wimbledon, handling the expectations of the home crowd. Everything is overanalysed and nitpicked. So he could use any advantages he can get.
"The major I won the most was the US Open when I could stay at home,” McEnroe says. “During the French Open, by contrast, I had to spend a significant amount of time in Europe. Going straight into Wimbledon, it ended up being ten weeks away from home, which is pretty tough to do.”
Last year, ahead of his second Wimbledon victory, Murray himself said how much family life had helped him during the course of the championships: “Beforehand, in the build-up to a slam final, I’d always just be thinking about that match. I don’t feel like that just now – I’m just looking forward to the next time I see Sophia and Kim.
“Sophia’s already watched a bit of tennis with Kim at home over these last couple of weeks and maybe when she’s older she’ll want to come to see me play,” he added. It won’t be long before Sophia’s old enough to sit and watch her dad from the players’ box. When that happens, Murray really will have to watch his language.