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Murray’s U.S. Open Triumph Suggests Mental Toughness is Coachable

Mental toughness. By the time you reach elite levels you either have or you don’t, right?

It’s a chicken-or-egg type of debate that can go on endlessly. However, Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl have scored a point, game, set and match against those who doubt coaching can make a difference.

Until this summer, Murray languished for several years in the miserable-making fourth position of international rankings, never having beaten the top three for a major tournament title, losing in four finals. Now suddenly Murray has bested two out of three of his rivals; Roger Federer for the Olympic Gold Medal, and Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open.

And he’s earned some rave reviews in the aftermath of the U.S. Open triumph:

“The most important aspects were his resilience, both mentally and physically. He remained calm and was able to produce the goods and really it was Djokovic who was struggling at the end,” said Tim Henman, Murray’s predecessor at British number one.

“He’s made a staggering improvement to the mental side of his game,” said John Lloyd, Murray’s former Davis Cup coach.

Lendl was his characteristically business-like self after the match: “Hopefully, we’re not anywhere near where Andy can get,” Lendl told reporters. “I didn’t come here to have a good time; I came here to help Andy win. He did, so it’s job done.”

So it just might be that Lendl, who only started working with Murray in January (2012), is making a difference. Lendl, 52, can already be proud of achieving what very few throughout history in *any* sport have managed; those who have reached the pinnacle of their sport and then helped someone else attain the same heights as their coach.

We can start figuring out how Lendl and Murray are succeeding by looking closely at an excellent New York Times Magazine article article from June.

Below I’ve extracted, condensed and reordered a few of the article’s key observations. In my opinion, the most important insight explaining the success so far is this one:

“…Those who hoped Lendl would go old-school on his cranky charge are overestimating Lendl’s attachment to his ideals and underestimating his craftiness. Rather than asserting his own point of view, Lendl has focused on understanding Murray’s.”

But first the backstory on how these two got together:

…Fans were weary of Murray’s big-match timidity and depressive on-court mutterings. Murray carried on about his hurting back so much after the Queen’s pre-Wimbledon tournament in June that the legendary Virginia Wade, commenting on the match for Eurosport Television, said that Murray was “a drama queen,” unprofessional and being unfair to his opponent. Murray, Wade said, “feels so sorry for himself he has no control over the fact he is not really acting in an adult way.”

Another legend, Martina Navratilova was on his case while appearing at the same tournament. It is time, Navratilova said, for Murray to play some brave tennis, and she hoped that Murray would accept from Lendl the advice he had ignored from so many others. “When somebody tells you to go for your shots, it’s one thing,” she said. “When Lendl tells you to go for your shots, you listen.”

But more than tactics, what seems to have improved most is Murray’s focus and determination, his ability to bounce back from adversity, what is often called Mental Toughness. And Mental Toughness can be understood as becoming increasingly effective at controlling one’s emotions. This was and still is one of Lendl’s greatest strengths. It manifests itself in Lendl’s famously imperturbable face.

Renowned tennis coach Wojtek Fibak gets credit for Lendl’s “intimidating game face.” Fibank says he “wanted (Lendl) to become a machine, to hide his feelings, to wear an unemotional mask on his face, not to react to anything.”

An interview with the U.K.’s Daily Mail in early July reinforces the point:

…Throughout his 14 attempts as a player to win Wimbledon, Lendl always hid his emotions, and so we should not surprised that he is similarly enigmatic when it comes to trying to coax a title out of Murray.

Whether the 25-year-old Scot is going through one of his spasms of angst or hitting a glorious winner, Lendl’s reaction is pretty much the same in the coach’s box.

…Since he retired as a player in 1994 one of Lendl’s main preoccupations since then has been developing three of his five daughters into top-class golfers, and the experience has taught him that you are always better off maintaining a poker face.

“I’ve had a lot of training for it with my girls playing golf (they are top-class college players in America), following them or caddying for them,” Lendl told The Daily Mail. “I’ve never showed any emotion because it can transfer to the players. It’s served me well with my daughters and I don’t see this as being any different..” Lendl added. “Yes, Murray’s a man and they were just children and this is a higher level, but the principle to me is just the same.”

Back to the account in The New York Times:

…Lendl floated the idea of coaching Murray to a London Times reporter at the 2011 Sony Ericsson Tournament, although Lendl has suggested in some interviews that Murray approached him first.

According to Justin Gimelstob, a former player turned commentator, these fine points are less about vanity than leverage. “Tennis is not like other sports where the coach is hired by an independent entity, and that makes a huge difference in the dynamic,” he says. “It means, especially with a top player, that you are only as good as you are independent of needing the job. Many tennis coaches are enablers. They need the job more than the player needs the coach, and if the coach needs the job more than the player needs the coach, he can’t affect change.”

…Lendl doesn’t speak about change lightly. “Changing anyone’s game at this level would be suicidal,” he told The New York Times writer. “When I started working with him, the British guys asked me, ‘Do you have a concept of how the game should be played?’ ‘Of course I do.’ ‘So are you trying to get Andy to play that way?’ ‘Absolutely not. That would be crazy.’ If I think the game should be serve and volley, does that mean Andy should start serving and volleying? That just doesn’t make any sense.”
Lendl knows that Murray is not good enough as he is now. And he did not take this job to fail. He
was at pains to point out (unnecessarily) that he is a “competitive bastard.” He also knows that if he pulls this off, it could rival his accomplishments as a player.

“…Instead of tough love or a tennis intervention, Lendl is offering tea and sympathy and a big Czech man-breast for Murray to lay his weary head on.

And Murray has been immediately appreciative: “He was at the top of the game for a while before he broke through,” Murray says. “He knows about all that stuff. That was the other thing — he understands and is very sympathetic, whereas a lot of people aren’t.”

Lendl adds: “I want Andy to tell me things that will help me work with him, and some of them are very private” and, he said later, “go very, very deep.”

In addition to coming on softly, Lendl limits his time with Murray. “I understand that previously that was one of the issues,” Lendl said. “There was too much time spent (by Murray and his coach) together, and that can get on everyone’s nerves.”

Limiting their time together off the court keeps things fresh, according to Murray, but for Lendl the short hours are the only reason the job was feasible at all. Lendl became hooked on golf while he was still playing tennis, and since retirement has played as many as 250 rounds in a year.

In Key Biscayne, Lendl often practiced golf before and after meeting Murray at the stadium, and according to Murray’s trainer, Lendl and Murray spend little time together except on the practice court or right before and after a match.

“One of the things we discussed,” Lendl says about his first conversations with Murray, “is do you expect me to be around and have dinner with you every night, . . . or can I, once you’ve finished your match and you’re O.K. and I’ve arranged for a practice court, just take off and go play golf? He said, ‘No, I’m fine with that.’ ” In fact, part of their negotiations included TV viewing of the Masters. Lendl was willing to miss the first three rounds, but he had to see Sunday. “I’m not watching it from tape, either,” Lendl said.

But when they are together, there is an intensity that is probably greater than Murray has had with any previous coach…. Lendl, standing a couple feet behind Murray as he hits balls, plays the role of (a psychotherapist). When Murray missed a forehand and said to himself, “Oh, Andy,” Lendl said: “This is nothing to get uptight about. We’re just getting loose. We’re just moving around.” And when, after another miss, Murray opined that the net was too high, Lendl turned to a spectator and asked what he would say about a player who after missing a shot suggested the net was too high.

…During a match, Lendl gives away nothing. He sits there like a mad man awaiting sentencing. But at practice, he is warm, convivial, crass, delighted to be back in the company of world-class athletes.
…Lendl stays focused on the big picture: Turning Murray into a ragingly confident, aggressive winner.
“I didn’t see any part of the match that was disappointing,” he said of a loss in game leading up to Wimbledon. Lendl added (prophetically) “I had a feeling that if Andy can win the second set he has a very good chance of winning.” Even Murray’s double fault at a critical juncture in the tiebreaker was a “good double: He went for it, it’s not that half-assed serve that goes into the middle of the net.”
…For Lendl, competition is a kind of religion. “If you lose, it hurts, but as long as you have fought hard, you can still feel good about yourself. The next day you go to practice and see what you have to fix,” he said. “It’s the only way I know forward.”

…Lendl has said that the only player he was interested in coaching is Murray. Maybe, but bear in mind that there are probably only five really lucrative coaching jobs in men’s tennis, and Murray’s was the only vacancy. Marian Vajda, who has coached Djokovic since he was 19, isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Nadal’s Uncle Toni. Federer’s bond with Paul Annacone is not on that level, but he’d hire Anna Wintour before Lendl, and Andy Roddick’s career is in decline. Most of those jobs are said to pay around half a million dollars a year, but because of Murray’s desperate desire to break through, coupled with the fact that adding a single major to his résumé could be worth tens of millions of dollars in endorsements, Lendl may well be making more than any of them.

Not that Lendl ever mentions money. Still, former players find that all the talk about what a great fit he and Murray are gets old. Asked about the pairing on Australian TV, Jim Courier said: “There is a reason, and it is a little bit more mercenary. He hasn’t been allowed to make any money from tennis for the past 15 years because he cashed in disability insurance. That’s the reason Ivan is back.”
At the time, Lendl responded: “That’s ridiculous. Jim shouldn’t be saying stuff like that. First of all, it’s wrong, and he doesn’t have the proper information. End of story.”

Courier and Lendl have declined to elaborate, but Courier’s claim is feasible at least from a timing standpoint. Citing chronic back pain, Lendl retired as a player in 1994 when he was 34, and didn’t gainfully pick up a racket again until the spring of 2010 for an exhibition against Mats Wilander. But it’s not clear why a disability payment would have any bearing on Lendl coaching. The fact, however, that Courier tried to make such a connection — Lendl’s agent, Jerry Solomon, acknowledges that there was a settlement but maintains that it “did not preclude Ivan from making money playing tennis” — is evidence of Lendl’s lingering disfavor among many of his peers.

…According to Lendl, achieving tennis immortality is a six-step program. First you have to be able do it in practice, then a match, then a big match, then in a slam, then in the finals of a slam, then at 5-all in the fifth set in the U.S. Open final.

And a final anecdote from the article that provides a revealing glimpse at Lendl’s personality and priorities: After playing golf with the The New York Times writer the previous day, Lendl tells him he is still angry with himself about the bad job he did of the 12th hole:

“You got to let it go,” the writer said, playing Lendl to his Murray.
“No. I got to get it right. Let it go, you just accept it.”

Of course Wimbeldon still looms large, and the next one is 10 excruciating months away for both Murray and Lendl. But if the two can continue making progress on Murray’s Mental Toughness victory is a strong possibility.

Background Fact & Random Tidbits

– Wimbledon hasn’t had a native-born male champion since 1936

– Lendl mysteriously exiled himself from tennis for 15 years

– Murray’s mother Judy was a former Scotland number-one player. Andy beat his mother for the first time when he was 11.

– Lendl’s mother Olga was a former Czechoslovak number-one player, and taskmaster on and off the court. An old profile of Lendl in Sports Illustrated describes a dining-room scene in which she browbeats her only son into eating his peas and carrots. Lendl beat his mother for the first time when he was 14.