Ivan Lendl watches Andy Murray train at the US Open
For a long time it seemed like Andy Murray would be the greatest player never to win a Major. But when Ivan Lendl was appointed his coach you just had the feeling it would work — after all Lendl also looked like he would forever be the runner-up.
A combination of factors saw Murray win his first Grand Slam at the US Open. Having lost his first four Major finals, he was already on the brink of greatness but he seemed to lack that extra level required to get him past the "big three".
So he's finally got there, and in no small part thanks to Lendl, with their work together fruitful in several diverse aspects.
Overall, his game has evolved. In previous years we could say that Murray's game lacked an offensive aspect, that he was too reliant on his opponents' mistakes, as befits someone with a naturally counter-attacking style and great tactical brain. Which was all well and good but, to win a Grand Slam in a golden era for men's tennis, you need to take the initiative, hunt and fight for the title, and he seemed unable to do this.
But for several months now Murray has been taking his game to its maximum, using his forehand winners and backhand returns to dictate the game, change the tempo, call the shots. He is also more aggressive on his returns of serve, which were already a strong point, and is much more attacking on his second serve, making him less reliant on his first serve. Each time he strikes the ball there is intent, not just to keep the point alive but to look for a winner. There are fewer neutral baseline balls — the sort he used to play often so as to drag out the point and wait for an error from the opponent, typical of a counter-puncher.
I have watched the training sessions with Lendl. They do a lot of 2v1, because Lendl wants Murray to become more consistent when faced with a rapid succession of balls, at pace, with a high level of intensity but minimising errors. He also wants to improve Murray's concentration, to make him aware of just what he can achieve if he focuses entirely.
He's making him graft on small elements, using marginal gains to transform his overall game.
LAST YEAR HE'D HAVE LOST TO CILIC
One year ago, Murray would have lost to Marin Cilic under the pressure he was facing in their US Open quarter-final. He was a set and 5-1 down in the second but turned it around in dreadful conditions. One year ago, Murray would have lost to Novak Djokovic in the final, having seen the Serb overhaul a two-set lead, again in poor conditions.
But we are seeing a new Murray mentally, not just showing the resilience that he
lways had, but the extra determination and fight that the likes of Djokovic and Nadal have made stock in trade. When Murray wasn't playing well or was suffering physically, he would lose matches. Now he is summoning extra reserves of willpower and strength to fight back against the odds, the mark of a true champion.
I'm sure Lendl has found a way to get Murray to motivate himself in addition to the technical improvements he has made — which, in turn, give a player that added confidence and belief. The mental, technical and physical all feed off each other.
Last January in Australia, Murray was not far off Djokovic in their epic semi-final. I remember that match from the first to the last points, and I was surprised at how dominant the Scot was, head and shoulders above the Serb at times. But he had a huge slide in concentration, probably as a result of fatigue, and he allowed Djokovic back into the match. It was not a match that Murray was able to control once Nole came back at him. It was the old Murray mentally, as he had only been with Lendl a few weeks, but the signs were already good. And after a few months, we have seen a huge shift in the balance of power.
At the US Open and Olympics we have seen that Murray, with his added mental and technical armoury, has the perfect game to beat Djokovic, who does not like a counter-puncher. Djokovic prefers quick exchanges, perversely suiting his game better to Federer.
The Australian Open will be a good test of how Djokovic is able to adapt to this threat, and I'm not sure that he has the weapons to deal with the new, attacking Murray.