Andy Murray may be managing his expectations as he attempts to reach the Australian Open semi-finals today, but Ivan Lendl certainly isn’t.
The stone-faced coach is not a man to cut anyone any slack, not even his own player in the middle of a comeback from back surgery.
“You know what my expectations are. Only the highest level is what I expect,” he said.
That is exacty what will be required, though, as Murray today faces Roger Federer, the 17-times grand slam champion and a man on a mission to prove that he can still compete with the younger men.
Clearly there is no warm and fluffy side to Lendl’s nature. When Murray was starting his recovery from surgery, Lendl was not involved in any way. He is employed as a coach, not as a nurse, so he was not about to concern himself with rehab and doctors’ reports. Only when Murray was fit enough to practise did Lendl turn up to crack the whip.
“We did pretty strong training in Miami,” said old Stone Face. “The understanding was that once he was ready for me, I come in and I don’t have to look over my shoulder at how his back is or anything. We did a really good block and there were no issues.”
Once a tournament begins, Lendl disappears behind a brick wall of grumpiness. Murray is always at pains to point out that his coach is a very funny man and is great company when the team is on the road. Alas, outsiders are offered precious little evidence of this and you will see more stones queuing up to be blood donors than you will find freely offered nuggets of Lendl’s wisdom. No matter, the arrangement works for Murray.
So far, Lendl has been satisfied with his charge’s progress and, following his four-set win over Stephane Robert on Monday, Murray is now through to his 12th consecutive grand slam quarter-final. That is a level of consistency maintained over three years, during which he has gone on to win two major titles and an Olympic gold medal.
“It’s much tougher to do that today than when I played,” Lendl admitted. “The depth is much greater than it was 30 years ago. You look at the players in today’s game and even guys ranked 200 are very good players, so you still have to perform well. Obviously they’re ranked 200 for some reason not because they’re great under pressure or they’re great all around, but you still have to play well to beat them whereas, in our times, when anybody was ranked 200, it was most of the time just glorified practice. That has changed dramatically.”
But today Murray is not taking on just anybody – he is playing a revitalised Federer. It will be a huge step up for the Scot as he tries to get back to his best after a three-month lay-off at the end of last season. Both pupil and teacher have much to be satisfied about in the way Murray has gone about his business over the past ten days. But happy? Lendl does not really do happy.
“I can always find thousands of things I would like to be better at, or Andy do better, but that was just me,” Lendl said. “There’s no question Andy had a very good draw and took advantage of it. So that’s very helpful. He played his way into the tournament nicely.
“He is doing everything fine, I don’t see any problems [with his back]. It’s definitely easier to come back from an injury at the beginning of the year than it is at Wimbledon when everyone has played for six months, no doubt about that.”
Murray, thankfully, is a little more forthcoming about his situation. He leads Federer 11-9 in their career rivalry and the last time they met was here in last year’s semi-final. Murray won in five sets but now he knows that he has a major challenge ahead. As to whether he is ready for it just yet, not even he knows.
“I’ll find out when I get on court,” he said. “It’ll be the highest level I’ve played at since the surgery. But I’ve been hitting the ball clean, I’ve been hitting the ball well, so far, but when you play up at that level, if there’s things that you aren’t doing at 100 per cent, players like Roger are going to exploit that and I’ll need to play a great match to beat Roger.”
At least Murray is physically fine. Coming straight into a grand slam and playing best-of-five-set matches just a couple of weeks into his comeback was like stepping into the unknown. But round by round, the Scot has pushed himself a little harder and, so far, has come through unscathed. Whatever happens today, that is still a positive result to take away from Melbourne.
“I’m OK,” he said. “I’m a bit stiff and sore, maybe sorer than I would have been in previous years because then I would have played a lot more matches. I haven’t played any particularly long ones yet. The last match was two hours 42 minutes which is the longest I played since my surgery so I’m naturally going to be a little bit stiff and sore. With each match, and sort of playing that length of match, my body will get adjusted to it again and, each day, I’ll be getting closer to 100 per cent again.”
That will come as a great relief to Leon Smith, Britain’s Davis Cup captain. Yesterday he named his squad for the World Group tie with the United States which will be played at the end of next week in San Diego. Murray leads the team with Kyle Edmund, James Ward and Colin Fleming standing at his shoulder. Dom Inglot will also travel to San Diego as reserve player.
Murray will not reveal whether he is ready to play doubles as well as singles on the Californian clay but the Americans are expecting him to be a thorn in their side on all three days.
“I don’t want to give away any tactics or anything that may go into the match, selections and whatnot,” Murray said cagily. “But I’ve spoken to Leon about it. I spoke to him about it a few days ago, had the discussion with him. We’ll see when we get there.”
In the meantime, Lendl is saying nothing, while Murray is just trying to improve day by day. And, if he can improve enough to beat Federer this morning, Lendl might just even crack a smile. Just don’t hold your breath.