It’s Sunday morning and the approaches to the All England Club are sleepily quiet. The ticket-touts, bible-bashers, water-sellers and local residents who charge for parking in their drives are all having the day off in preparation for Manic Monday – but on the practice courts Andy Murray is hard at work.
In today’s packed programme everyone who’s still standing plays and the defending champion will be second on Centre Court against the flamboyant, fiery Frenchman Benoit Paire. This is a man who, according to Murray, “moves well, has good hands, takes lots of chances” so practice at the furthest court at Aorangi Park is being structured accordingly. As usual it’s being done under the watchful eye of the supercoach in the wraparound shades, Ivan Lendl, pictured right.
What kind of threat will Paire pose? “I think you know better than to ask me to comment,” said the famously gruff eight-times Grand Slam winner. “With training it depends what’s needed. When you have an opponent who comes in, we do more returning and passing shots. When the opponent stays back we do more rhythm.
“Obviously I have my thoughts [about how to beat Paire] and Andy has his thoughts. We’re going to go over them in about 20 minutes but that’s going to stay between us.”
Famously gruff? He’s actually a bit of a card, is old Ivan, and a half-hour spent at Aorangi has the twin attractions of Murray scudding serves at strategically positioned ball-tubes, sometimes destroying them, and Lendl’s chirpy banter. When the first tube is obliterated, photographers put down their long lenses and applaud. “Really?” quipped Lendl. “It took him so long and you guys clap for that?” Aidan McHugh, the rising Scottish 16-year-old Scottish talent who’s been training with Murray at his first Wimbledon, joined the onlookers and at one point Lendl said to him: “Don’t they have sun in Scotland?” Then, when he welcomed world No10 Agnieszka Radwanska and her coach to the adjacent court, Lendl told the rest of Team Murray: “Of course you didn’t understand that. I was speaking Polish.”
Aorangi junkies reported Murray to be moving more freely than he did 24 hours previously. This may have been down to him still feeling the effects of his grinding Friday night victory over Fabio Fognini. Was Lendl impressed with his fight? “Yeah, but it’s Andy. I mean, you expect it, don’t you? That’s how people win tournaments – they fight. It doesn’t come easy. And you have to fight and you don’t always play your best and you have to get through that and fighting is part of it.”
Murray conceded he hadn’t moved well in the four-sets win and Lendl admitted the Italian had caused his man problems through a seductive combination. “Unpredictable with skill is very dangerous,” he said. “Fognini I thought played a very good match. When you have an unpredictable player with skill like him or say Henri Leconte they are very dangerous when they step on the court because it’s not necessarily in your hands what’s going to happen. You have to expect the unexpected.”
That could be said of all Murray’s opponents thus far. They’ve all had something about them, trick shots or wild hair, sometimes both. Lendl wouldn’t go as far as to call them mad but accepted that the off-the-cuff element to the matches had stalled Murray’s flow.
“Rhythm was very difficult, especially with the first two guys [Alexander Bublik and Dustin Brown]. But as you can see Andy is hitting better and cleaner every practice now and getting his rhythm and timing back.”
Paire, the world No46, sounds just as free-spirited. He once admitted to being a perfectionist about the artistry of tennis that “one becomes mad and destructive”. Losing in the third round in 2013 he smashed all his rackets against the wall of Court 18. Murray’s preparations for Wimbledon were disrupted first by defeat at Queen’s and then a hip injury, a stop-start build-up typical of his entire season. There’s no doubt he’s moving nothing like as smoothly as when he won last year but Lendl says the No 1 seed will battle on regardless. “Sometimes you feel tired and you have to push through that pain barrier,” he said. Was he worried about Murray’s physical condition? “Do I look worried?” he said. Ah, but he never did. “Okay, there you go.”
The supremely untroubled Lendl isn’t worried about the state of the courts, an issue for some. “This [year] reminds me a little of 1987 when we had no rain and the grass played extremely fast. But that’s not a question for me, really – I’m not the agronomist.” And he isn’t worried about the competition hotting up. Asked if Murray can retain his title he said: “Of course.”
Lendl added: “He’s in the second week so he’s in with a chance, same as 15 other guys. And by the end of tomorrow if there is no bad weather there will be only seven and hopefully Andy.”
Why is it that the same four players, Murray included, have shared the golden cup between them since 2002? It’s been a question much aired in the first week and Lendl had a go at answering it: “The top guys are the top guys because they do things a little bit better than the other guys. Can they be beaten? Of course they can but in the end most of the time the top guys do win because they are a little better than the others.
“Whether it’s problem-solving, whether it’s lack of matches for a while [Roger Federer missed the clay season to major on Wimbledon] or whether it’s dealing with distractions off the court – these guys are used to it and do it. That’s part of the business.
“The top guys are better purely in stroke production, movement, physically. Put all that into a package and it’s slightly better than the guys below. Yes, they can get upset, but if they play 100 times they’re going to win more than half and that’s because the package is a little more complete.”
And with that super-coach and champion went off to swap notes and smash a few more plastic cylinders.