Lendl exit untimely as Murray aims for top return

Andy Murray and coach Ivan Lendl.
Andy Murray and coach Ivan Lendl.
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One of the most productive relationships in British sport came to an abrupt, yet amicable end yesterday in a move that casts doubt over Andy Murray’s ability to reach the very top of men’s tennis.

The Wimbledon champion has announced that he will no longer be working with Ivan Lendl, the former grand slam winner, who had been in the Scot’s corner since the end of 2011.

Lendl said he wants to “concentrate on some of my own projects, including playing more events around the world”.

To that end, he does not feel he can give his pupil the adequate time required to help steer him back towards the game’s summit – indeed he has not been present to watch Murray play since he lost in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open in January.

Murray said in a statement: “I’m eternally grateful to Ivan for all his hard work. We’ve learned a lot as a team and it will be of benefit in the future.”

Coaches come and go, but the Murray and Lendl partnership seemed a match made in heaven.

Before the ice cool Czech arrived in Murray’s box, the Scot was regarded throughout tennis as talented enough to break into the dominant triumvirate of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, but not quite in possession of the mental fortitude to actually make that step.

At home, the British sporting public still viewed him as the brash upstart who might never have the temperament to become a grand slam great.

What made Lendl so appealing to Murray was that those same doubts from peers and punters had haunted the early days of his own career.

Murray had lost in four grand slam finals before linking up with Lendl, the same amount as the Czech had suffered before he finally broke through.

Murray would have to endure another major final loss, at Wimbledon in 2012, but that torment, when he broke down in his acceptance speech, would prove a watershed moment.

A month later, with Lendl back in his corner, he returned to the All England Club and avenged his defeat to Federer by beating the Swiss in straight sets in the Olympic final.

Within a matter of weeks Murray finally had a grand slam title, after recovering from losing a two-set lead to regather his thoughts and prevail in five sets over Djokovic in the final of the US Open.

Last year came his finest hour, and arguably the greatest day in modern British tennis history, when he swept Djokovic aside in straight sets to win Wimbledon, so ending the country’s 77-year wait for a home winner of the men’s singles title.

“He’s made me learn more from the losses than I did before and he’s always been very honest with me and believed in me when other people maybe didn’t,” Murray said of Lendl.

“Ivan’s been very patient, as I’m not always easy to deal with. He’s also honest with me. If I work hard he’s happy, if I don’t he’s disappointed and he’ll tell me. He has got me mentally slightly different going into big matches.”

On the back of his momentous Wimbledon triumph Murray climbed to No 2 in the world.

He said he would approach grand slams with less pressure on his shoulders now he had finally won the big one. But that has not come to fruition.

In fact, Murray has not won a tournament since Wimbledon or gone beyond the quarter-finals in the two subsequent majors.

Back surgery that put an early end to his 2013 campaign is a principal reason, but since his return he has not been the same, with his shock exit at the hands of the erratic Milos Raonic at Indian Wells last week the norm rather than the exception these days.

In that time he has dropped to No 6 in the world rankings.

There is nothing to suggest disquiet between Murray and Lendl for the former’s dip in form or the latter’s departure.

But it took Murray five coaches – Leon Smith, Mark Petchey, Brad Gilbert, Miles Maclagan and Alex Corretja – before he settled on the man who brought the best out of him. Hidden behind sunglasses and an expressionless face when watching his charge, Lendl looked almost impassive. But the influence he exerted on his protege was immeasurable.

Yesterday’s break-up took even seasoned tennis correspondents by surprise, and amid Murray’s slump in form and the issues over the true strength of his back, it is only natural that questions now start to surface about whether he can regain the levels of consistency and results he managed at the height of his alliance with Lendl.

Murray defends his Sony Open title in Miami next week with on-the-road hitting partner, assistant coach and close friend Dani Vallverdu the first man to be tasked with filling the enormous void left by Lendl.