IF IVAN Lendl is looking relaxed, everything must be fine. And, as old Stone Face has watched Andy Murray prepare for the defence of his US Open title, he has been laid back to the point of torpor – so all is well in the Murray camp.
On Wednesday night, at a few minutes before 10pm, Murray finally got his US Open challenge underway. Television rules the roost around these parts and, in order to appease the schedulers, the defending champion was the last of the Gang of Four, the men who have dominated the grand slam circuit over the past five years, to get on court. The timing was not ideal but Murray was raring to get started and soon demolished Michael Llodra 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.
Murray looked sharp and fit and no matter what tricks Llodra had up his sleeve – he even threw in an underarm serve in the last game – Murray read it, chased it down and turned it to his advantage. After a week spent wondering what it would feel like to come back to the Arthur Ashe stadium and defend his title, the world No 3 was surprisingly relaxed.
“I wasn’t thinking loads about last year,” he said. “I just wanted to play the match. I’d been waiting for two days, pretty much, around the courts just wanting to play. I didn’t feel any different really coming in, which is a good thing. And I started the match well. There weren’t any extra nerves. Maybe if I had got behind, I might have felt that extra pressure.”
What pleased Murray most was the fact that so many people had stayed on to watch him. A midweek match featuring a foreigner does not usually whet the appetite of the New Yorkers, not when it starts late and they have work the following morning. But when Murray stepped out into the spotlight, the seats were full and the cheers were raucous.
“That was really nice,” he said. “It would have been easy at sort of 10pm to go home. It was probably three-quarters full, which was really nice, nice that loads of people stayed behind.”
As for Lendl, he barely raised an eyebrow. Of the grand slam campaigns they have fought together, this one has the least pressure. Last year, the impassive guru was trying to help his man over the final hurdle of winning a major title for the first time, while, two months ago, he was trying to weather the storm of helping a British player win Wimbledon for the first time in 77 years.
Murray said: “When he’s nervous he’s a lot more animated. I notice that a lot.
“During Wimbledon, he was pretty nervous towards the end. I think he felt like I had a good chance and I was playing well enough to win. But since we got here, no.
“We’ve spoken about what it’s like coming back to a tournament being defending champion. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of difference. I don’t think too many of the other players really care about it when they’re stepping on the court. It’s not like they’re walking round going, ‘Oh, he’s defending champion, he’s got a chance of winning again’. I don’t think it’s like that so you just have to put it to the back of your head, get back on the court. It’s good having Ivan around, having him to talk those things through with.”
The chat should be fairly straightforward before today’s encounter with Leonardo Mayer, the world No 81 from Argentina. Mayer’s main claim to fame is that he shares a birthday with Murray – apart from that, his links with the upper echelons of the sport are tenuous. He once stretched the Scot to three sets but that was back in 2009 in Valencia when Murray was coming back from a wrist injury. And Murray won that second round match – and the title.
“He’s a very talented player,” Murray said. “He’s got big sort of long, looping strokes. I think he plays his best tennis on the hard courts.
“He’s had quite a few injuries the last couple years and that’s why he hasn’t sort of got much higher in the rankings. But he’s very tough.”
He may be tough, but Mayer knows that Murray, the man with two grand slam titles and an Olympic gold medal sitting on his mantelpiece, is a good deal tougher. One glance at Lendl chilling out in the players’ box will tell him that.