A GREAT man casts a big shadow and in Andy Murray’s professional life, they do not come much bigger than Ivan Lendl. The effect his grim-faced former mentor had on Murray’s tennis, career and, therefore, the rest of his life is immeasurable; the effect their parting has had on his form has been plain to see.
As the world No 6 goes through his final preparations for the French Open, he is officially without a coach. But this week, he is not the rudderless ship he appeared to be just a couple of weeks ago at the Madrid Masters – he has his team around him and he has some of the best coaching advice on tap should he need it. Not only can he call upon the services of Darren Cahill, once the coach of Andre Agassi and now a part of the Adidas player development programme, he has Lendl on the end of the phone should he want a swift pep talk.
“I’ve messaged him a little bit and he actually called me the day after my match with Rafa in Rome,” Murray admitted. “He spoke to Dani [Vallverdu] and then fired some messages my way. I might call him today or tomorrow just to have a little chat.”
That match with Rafael Nadal at the Italian Open last week was the first sign that Murray was ready to compete for the major titles again. It was one of his best clay court performances and, as he led the “King of Clay” by 4-2 in the deciding set, he was within touching distance of victory. He could not close out the win but the way in which he had Nadal on the ropes for the best part of three hours – and ran away with the first set 6-1 – impressed Lendl and rejuvenated Murray.
“Ivan said a few things before the match,” Murray said. “He obviously messaged Dani before the match and then afterwards. He was saying that the first set for me was obviously great tennis. That it was very close and I should be encouraged by that coming into this event. It is just the details I have not spoken to him about.”
Replacing a figure as important and powerful as Lendl was never going to be easy – even Lendl knew that. The player-coach partnership has to work on many levels, from adviser to friend to travelling companion; from technical expert to tactical wizard to motivational speaker. Then there is the business of finding someone who is available to take the job and who wants to commit 25 or 30 weeks of his year to schlepping around the globe from practice court to hotel to match court. But the real key is to find another character who can inspire Murray in the way that Lendl did, who can ignite that spark within him and push him on to win more grand slam titles.
“I spoke to Ivan a about it at the time when we originally split up, just before Miami,” Murray said. “Dani asked him a couple of questions about it when we were actually there in the meeting, about people he would recommend to do the job. I obviously listened but ultimately it needs to come from me.
“But everything was very fresh at the time. I don’t know how much thought Ivan had given to that question because the decision to stop working together all happened pretty quickly. The people he suggested are people I respect, and they are very good coaches as well, but I don’t think it will be one of them.”
Murray does not seem unduly worried by his current position. Before he joined forces with Lendl, he turned to Cahill for advice and support and he is happy enough to do so again until he find a permanent coach. The two men get along well together and, like most players, Murray is a creature of habit: he prefers to go back to the old routines rather than try something different, especially before a grand slam.
He has also spent time without a coach before so the thought of going into the busiest time of the season alone, with two major championships to take on in the space of six weeks, does not faze him. In fact, it could be the kick-start he needs to get his season back on track.
“In some respects, depending on who the coach is and what their stature is, Ivan in some people’s eyes added pressure for me,” Murray said. “In some other people’s eyes he took pressure off because some of the pressure was almost on him in a way. But I think not coming with a main coach, maybe there is a little bit more pressure on me.
“But I feel like even when I’ve not been playing so well, when there has been pressure on me, when I’ve felt like there’s been a lot of pressure on me, it’s helped me raise my game, it’s helped me get nervous and excited to get going. So I hope that’s the case here.”
Murray ought to dread coming to Roland Garros as, if anything can go wrong, it will whenever he comes here. In his first main draw appearance back in 2006, his back seized up against Gael Monfils. Three years ago, he sprained his ankle playing Michael Berrer but somehow played on and eventually reached the semi-finals. He even chipped a tooth on an elderly baguette that year. Then, in 2012, he was felled by back spasms against Jarkko Nieminen but, again, struggled through to win. It seems the karma ain’t great for Murray in Paris.
“The other thing that’s a bit strange is my record on my birthday isn’t so good.” Murray mused. “On top of that the two times that I withdrew [with injuries in Hamburg in 2007 and in Rome last year] were both on my birthday. This year, though, Rome was obviously much, much better for me.
“I’m not superstitious about it. I don’t think like that because I’ve had some good memories from here as well. I’ll probably remember them a bit more. And even the stuff that happened with Berrer – I went on to have my best result here. And I also did OK after what happened against Nieminen. So, no, I’m not really superstitious.”
And whatever happens in the coming two weeks, Murray knows that there is always a familiar voice with its mittel-European accent and dodgy jokes the end of the telephone line. Lendl may have gone but his shadow lingers on.