For all the physical strength and technical brilliance of the world’s best players, tennis matches at every level are played between the ears. And it is as true for the club player desperately trying to win a point for his team as it is for a grand slam champion homing in on one of the biggest prizes in the sport.
If anyone knows this, it is Andy Murray. He has spoken to sports psychologists about it, he has talked to psychiatrists about it; he has worked with former players and champions and he has sought advice from his mum. He knows that if at that moment when the stomach ties itself in knots, when the throat closes and the heart pounds he can find some calm and belief, then he can beat anyone. In particular, he can beat Novak Djokovic.
Of all the advisors Murray has turned to, it is Ivan Lendl, pictured, who seems to hold the most answers. In the two years and three months that the two men worked together before, Murray had the most successful spell of his career. Beginning at the start of 2012, it took Lendl six months to get Murray to his first Wimbledon final and then another two to heave him over the final hurdle and win his first major trophy at the US Open. Add in the Olympic gold medal and Wimbledon the following year and this was Murray in his pomp.
Since they parted company in March 2014, Murray has improved hugely as a clay court player but he has lost another three grand slam finals – all of them to Djokovic. His defeat to the world No 1 at Roland Garros eight days ago was his eighth grand slam final loss in ten appearances. As a mark of his consistency at the very top of the game, it is an impressive record. But it is a record Murray wants to change and improve, hence his return to Old Stone Face.
Murray refers to Lendl as “a leader” and it is true that no one tells Lendl what to do, not if they wish to walk unaided in the future. But Lendl is also a kindred spirit to the Scot in many ways.
Despite his fierce and intimidating exterior, the former world No 1 could be racked with nerves. When he won his first major title, beating John McEnroe at the French Open in 1984, he spent the next hour in the gents throwing up. Somehow he had held body and soul together to get the job done but, once the cup was his and the relief set in, he was a wreck.
Like Murray, Lendl lost his first four grand slam finals and by the time he hung up his rackets for good, he had lost 11 major finals. But he also won eight titles and it is because he managed to find a way to overcome his doubts, conquer his nerves and establish himself as a serial champion that Murray wants him by his side. Lendl knows how it is done and Murray is desperate to learn the trick.
It may seem strange that, after a lifetime as a player and 11 years as a professional, a 29-year-old man with 36 titles to his name needs someone to talk to when the going gets tough, but Murray is not alone – Djokovic was in the same position when he turned to Boris Becker at the end of 2013.
In 2011, Djokovic was on top of the world, winning three of the four grand slam titles. But then his confidence wavered. He won one major trophy in nine attempts between the French Open in 2012 and the same event two years later and lost five grand slam finals in that span. As he approached Wimbledon in 2014, he openly admitted that the problem was mental and emotional: he wondered if he could win another grand slam. But, by then, he had Becker in his team and the fact of having someone to talk to, someone who had experienced the same feelings and fears, made all the difference. Two weeks later, Djokovic was the Wimbledon champion and comes into this year’s Wimbledon as the holder of all four major titles.
As Becker explained to Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year: “Having played a few grand slam finals myself, I was thrown back to the days when I played. I think Novak benefits from that: that I feel in tune with his emotions when he’s entering the last part of a grand slam.”
If Lendl can recreate a little of the magic he found in his first spell with Murray and if he can do for the Scot what Becker has done for Djokovic, then this next phase of Murray’s career could be very interesting indeed.