Interview: Ivan Lendl, Andy Murray’s Coach

tennis

Ivan Lendl in his playing days — despite his austere image, off court he was something of a practical joker.

Ivan Lendl is taking Murray through the trials of Wimbledon, the one Grand Slam tournament he never won himself.

Someone once said that Ivan Lendl doesn’t teach tennis — he teaches victory. The 57-year-old half-smiles at the idea. “I don’t know how you teach tennis to someone who’s already a great tennis player. All you can do is try to implement what you know. Is that about pushing for victory? Maybe.” Lendl is now a man known for coaching Andy Murray to glory, however, in his heyday, he was considered one of the greatest tennis players ever. He was world number one for 270 weeks, notching up 94 singles titles, including eight at the majors, and something of a cold-stone killer.

It’s a lesson Lendl, now in London to take Murray through the trials of Wimbledon, the one Grand Slam tournament Lendl never won himself, takes very seriously. The son of professional tennis players in Czechoslovakia, two of his own daughters have become pro golfers. The very definition of a competitive dad, he wouldn’t let them win at anything. It had to be by their own merits.

“When they were little I’d say ‘okay, first one to the garage door’ and if they beat me it was because they were faster than me, not because I let them,” he says. “Anything else is, I think, counter-productive. You have to feel good about what you’ve earned because you’ve earned it, not because someone gave it to you.”

Although Lendl is back in the limelight (enough that Italian sportswear company Superga has launched a line of shoes based on those he wore when he played as a junior) it’s golf that is on his mind much of the time. The desire to play more was one reason why he decided to stop coaching Murray, until the collapse of the Scot’s game had him pleading with Lendl to make a return.

His advice, no doubt, is invaluable, not least because Lendl is often credited with inventing the modern game. Remarkably, given that he only retired in 1994, before Lendl, precision nutrition and gym training were largely absent from professional tennis; it was Lendl who took a scientific approach, who hired one man to string all of his racquets identically, and who unwrapped a new racquet not when a string broke, but, methodically, with every ball change; it was Lendl who had the company that made the clay court at Madison Square Garden lay the exact same court at his home for him to practise on. “It made sense. I don’t know why people weren’t doing it,” says Lendl, matter of factly. “But then I never worried too much about what other people were doing.”

Such an approach is now standard. So today his advice is more about playing mentality than technique. “It’s all about preparation,” he suggests. “I’m not a psychologist but attitude is key. When I’m watching I can tell when a player is about to lose it; it’s in his facial expression, in his change of rhythm. Every player has his different ways and every one is emotional. They just have different ways of expressing it.”

It is, perhaps, an unexpected comment from a player who, in his prime, developed a reputation as being an emotionless robot with a destructive forehand. But this, other players have discovered, was only on court. Off court, Lendl had something of a reputation as an enthusiastic practical joker, although he has always denied shredding Pat Cash’s shoes after one match.

And yet, laughs aside, the desire to win, it seems, never goes. He once said that he would be a very unpleasant person if he didn’t get to compete. These days, Lendl takes a softer line. But only just. “You have to have goals. You should have short-term goals, medium-term goals and ultimate goals so you always have something to go for, for the motivation,” he suggests, switching into coach mode. “My goals today are mostly around golf. But if I go cycling and do a circuit in a certain time then I want to do it in a better time tomorrow. What can I say? I’m a competitive person.”

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