Ivan Lendl puts faith in Andy Murray’s mental strength to retain title

Kevin Mitchell at Wimbledon
The Guardian
Andy Murray is put through his paces by his coach, Ivan Lendl, during a practice session.
Andy Murray is put through his paces by his coach, Ivan Lendl, during a practice session.

Andy Murray’s strengths extend some way beyond the wielding of a racket, as his coach, Ivan Lendl, points out on the eve of the Wimbledon champion’s fourth‑round match against the gifted Frenchman Benoît Paire.

From this point on until Sunday, the quality of the tennis will be taken for granted as the candidates are whittled down to the final pair, he says, and the difference will be manifest, as ever, in the mental struggle.

Lendl, no mean fighter on court himself, was pleased to see that quality emerge in Murray’s ugly battle to subdue the danger of Fabio Fognini over four sets in the gloom of Centre Court on Friday night, and he suspects there will be more of those moments to come.

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“It’s Andy. I mean, you expect it, don’t you?” he said on Sunday. “That’s how people win tournaments – they fight. It doesn’t come easy. You don’t always play your best and you have to get through that; fighting is part of it. Sometimes you feel tired and you have to push through that pain barrier as well. That comes with it.

“Unpredictability with skill is very dangerous. Fognini, I thought, played a very good match, with the exception of the third set, and, when you have an unpredictable player with skill, like him or Henri Leconte, they are very dangerous when they step on the court because it is not necessarily in your hands what is going to happen. You have to expect the unexpected and, when that guy is on, it’s difficult.”

He was giving nothing away, of course, about how Murray might handle Paire, who is 46 places below the world No1 but who took a set off him in their only Tour‑level encounter, on the clay of Monte Carlo last year.

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It would not only be a shock if Murray lost against him on the grass where he has won two titles but would be at odds with precedent: the lowest-ranked player he has lost to at Wimbledon was David Nalbandian, who was No19 in the world when he beat the Scottish teenager in the third round on his debut 12 years ago.

Having come to terms with the expectations of a nation after breaking that 77-year Wimbledon drought in 2013, Murray has enjoyed himself more at his home tournament. If he beats Paire, he will be in the quarter-finals for the 10th year in a row; only Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors (14) and Boris Becker (11) in the Open era have gone this deep at Wimbledon more often.

Novak Djokovic, who looked good again in handling the quirky challenge of Ernests Gulbis in the third round on Saturday, is reaching for his ninth quarter-final when he plays Adrian Mannarino.

If Murray defeats Paire, he plays either Sam Querrey, whom he leads 7-1 over their careers, or Kevin Anderson (6-2). On grass, only Federer is Murray’s statistical master with 160 match wins to his 106; Paire has won 18 matches on grass.

Whatever the power of numbers, Murray and Lendl respect the threat Paire poses and will prepare accordingly. “[The type of preparation] depends on what’s needed. When you have an opponent who comes in [as Paire does], we do more returning and passing shots; when it’s an opponent who stays back, we do more rhythm, go more towards the opponent.”

He is satisfied with the level of Murray’s tennis against three unconventional opponents in the first week.

“Andy is hitting it better and cleaner every practice now and getting his timing back and rhythm back,” Lendl said. “Rhythm was very difficult with [Alexander] Bublik and [Dustin] Brown.

“He’s in the second week so he is in with a chance – same as 15 other guys. All those guys, they are great players, anybody can win.

“By the end of [Monday], if there is no bad weather, there will be only seven left – and hopefully Andy. The top guys are top guys because they do things a little bit better than the other guys. Can they be beaten? Of course they can but, in the end, most of the time the top guys do win because they are a little better than the others. Whether it’s problem solving, whether it’s lack of matches for a while, dealing with distractions off the court – these guys are used to it. That’s part of the business.

“The top guys are better purely in stroke production, movement, physically. You put all that into a package and the package is slightly better than the guys below. Yes, they can get upset, or the others can upset them, but, if they play 100 times, they are going to win more than half and that’s because the package is a little more complete.”

The other imponderables on Monday will be the weather – there is a 64% chance of rain in mid-afternoon, about the time Murray and Paire are scheduled to go on court – and the diminishing quality of the grass. Lendl appears less worried than most about either.

“The weather obviously has a lot to do with how the courts play. It reminds me a little bit of ’87 when we had no rain and the courts played extremely fast. That’s not a question for me really; I am not the agronomist. I think those guys can answer those questions much better on how the grass reacts when it has no rain. And, even if they can water it, is it the same, isn’t it the same? I don’t really know. It’s something I can’t influence so you just worry about what you have to do with the conditions you have.”

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