Ivan Lendl was once asked about his relationship with Andy Murray, his answer was succinct: “We crack jokes at each other... without smiling.”
Even as Murray and Roger Federer battled to a standstill during the ‘Vimbledon’ final, as Lendl would say, it was interesting to watch the former world number one, who now coaches Murray, in the Scot’s box. He didn’t smile, he didn’t talk and he rarely ever moved. The sunglasses would go up and then would come down.
Every now and then the camera would pan on to him and the commentators would crack a joke or two each time they caught a glimpse of emotion on the former world number one’s face. But not once did he smile. Not even when Murray was leading in the first set.
But Lendl does have a sense of humour – a pretty vicious one at that. In the book, Courts of Babylon, veteran tennis writer Peter Bodo recalls an incident that’s downright scary.
‘One thing I wouldn’t do was put a tennis ball in my pocket at Lendl’s request. When Gunther Breswick, a former coach of Jacob Hlasek and Boris Becker, did that during a visit, Lendl gave his dog Cayden a covert fetch command. Cayden bolted from the margin of the court and pounced on the ball, which was still situated in the front pocket of Bresnick’s track suit.’
Lendl, even then, barely smiled.
He wasn’t one to cry either. Two days after winning the 1984 French Open – his first Grand Slam title – Lendl lost in the first round at Queens. His response was typical: “The defeat is not going to send me into a corner crying.”
He’s now older, not as fit as he once was but he’s still the same old Lendl -- ruthless in his pursuit of victory. There was a time when he was known as “the choking dog” in press circles. Of course, that moniker had a lot to do with his record on Grand Slam finals, which was an awful 1-6 then.
But he figured out a way to end that dreadful sequence. By the time, his career ended, he had won eight Grand Slams, one more than John McEnroe and the same number as Jimmy Connors. And here’s the really important statistic: After the 1-6 start in Grand Slams finals, Lendl eventually ended up with 8 wins in 19 finals.
And it is this turnaround that Murray is seeking. The first time Lendl saw Murray play, he recalled thinking to himself, ‘How many shots can he could hit and how clean he hit the ball.’
But this is a difficult era in men’s tennis. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have won 29 of the last 30 Grand Slams. It is the kind of extended domination that tennis has never seen before. And Murray is trying to break into that exclusive club and with every step, he seems to be getting closer. However, is that good enough?
Lendl isn’t one to beat around the bush. He’s never been that kind of guy. Instead, he is the kind of guy who grows on you. When he first came on to the tennis scene, he was the guy every writer liked to bash; he was the kind of guy who would give Wimbledon a miss and say that ‘Grass is for Cows’ but by the time he was done, his determination had won the crowd over and they cheered for him as if he was one of their own.
His methods will grow on Murray and change him. But every year new challengers crop up -- how long can he afford to wait?
For now, though, Lendl is fighting a different battle. He isn't on court but his goal still remains the same – to win seven matches, to win a Grand Slam, to win ‘Vimbledon.’ Then, and only then, we might just see them both smile.
It’ll be worth the wait too.