Let us begin our round-up of the favourites for the upcoming Australian Open with Andy Murray.
So far, and so close
The Scotsman has never been so far away from winning his first Grand Slam title - but also never so close. Let's not forget that he has already reached three finals - twice at the Australian Open and once at the US Open - but failed each time at the last step. But time could now be playing against him: the more he fails, the more this situation leaves its marks upon him and the more he will feel that he is destined to be the outsider. But he is also close because his game level seems on the rise: he is securing steady results and not giving quite as much to get them anymore. He has started the year in the best possible way, with a title in Brisbane that saw him playing better in each match to finish strongly.
Andy finally took the important decision of hiring a coach with great experience: Ivan Lendl. At least he picked someone - we were getting used to seeing him surrounded by friends more than coaches, something not appropriate for such a player. He was choosing friendship over experience. The new approach is a risk for him: he is leaving his comfort zone. But simultaneously sending out a very clear message: he intends to do everything possible to finally win a major. I am pretty surprised by his choice, despite the huge respect I have for a former champion like Lendl. I have two issues:
-In the history of tennis, there has never been a star who has translated that success into coaching. It is one thing to become a consultant and another to coach. This commitment requires being at the full service of someone else, to think only about the player's success. It is a special state of mind, nearly the opposite of that which is usually cultivated, out of necessity, by a champion.
-I am always surprised to see professional players searching for former professional players in order to solve issues that are linked to coaching. When Lendl was facing up to his four failures in Grand Slam finals, he called Tony Roche and their collaboration changed his career. Therefore learning from the Lendl situation does not mean Murray should call Lendl - but rather someone like Roche himself. The man is the most successful coach in the world, with 14 Grand Slams achieved with three different players.
Could I be proven wrong?
It is hard to justify calling up an ex-player for help when this ex-player has never coached anyone and been out of the Tour system since he retired... but the personality of Ivan Lendl could see me change my mind. This man has a special ability that could make the difference: he has - because of his record and his personality - an aura that could make Murray listen to him. When we are talking about players with as strong a temper as Murray, that can be a huge advantage. Ivan is also a very hard worker, with a love for detail, and a great professional in all the activities he commits himself to. So this new approach could yet see Andy take the next step: he already has the talent needed to beat the best players and a very good tactical sense. But he needs a mentor, someone who gives real meaning to his overall game which is brilliant but nevertheless lacks organisation and direction. The first step awaiting them is the Australian Open; there is not much time for them to get to know each other, so they will have to be very efficient if Lendl is to make a difference so quickly.