Friday, 13 June 2014

Ivan Lendl - The Man Who Made Murray

It is dangerous to go through your life with the same opinions on someone or something that you have always believed to be true. So as my life has progressed, I have always tried to educate myself on matters that I feel need addressing. Obviously with me that involves sporting issues rather than sensible, grown-up things, but what do you expect?

Therefore, reading Ivan Lendl - The Man Who Made Murray by Mark Hodgkinson was a valuable experience for me, a real eye-opener. Previously I had held the firm belief that Lendl was dull, cold, boring, and seriously lacking on the personality front. As I read the book, I discovered that I was not alone in this view, after all, Lendl was hardly Mr Popular on the international tennis scene in the 1980s. But in his excellent and engrossing book, Hodgkinson sets about tackling the misconceptions and myths surrounding the man, who would eventually win eight Grand Slam singles titles, and as the title suggests, help Andy Murray to realise his ambitions.

As with most biographical accounts, the book starts with Lendl's upbringing, but Hodgkinson does not detail the usual smooth rise to stardom that you sometimes see in sporting stories. Lendl's life in Czechoslovakia was not lacking in terms of the materials aspects, yet Hodgkinson stresses that Lendl was emotionally deprived. A determined mother shaped Lendl, telling him to never show emotion in public, and to never accept defeat. Driven is as good as any word to describe Olga Lendlova.

Lendlova forced her way up to number two in the Czech tennis rankings, and did not think it unreasonable to tether her young son to a net post so that she could practice without interruptions. Once free from the rope, Lendl began to catch the tennis bug, and was a ball boy by the age of six. But it was with a racket in his hands that he began to plot his future path. Of all his victories though, Hodgkinson indicates that the one that gave Lendl the most satisfaction was the day he beat his mum for the first time.

If Lendl's mum could be a slightly overbearing presence at times, then this was nothing compared to the pressures involved in becoming a major sports star in Communist Czechoslovakia. For most of his career, Lendl knew he was being watched by the Statni bezpcenost (StB), the state secret police, with his closest friends, members of his first tennis club, neighbours, and parents' colleagues delivering info to Big Brother, his every move seemingly monitored (indeed the Czechoslovakian Davis Cup team rooms were bugged before a home match against France). Hodgkinson has viewed Lendl's StB file, and is obviously in awe of a man who could come through the Socialist Republic system and make it to the international tennis tour.

The book is enlightening in many ways. For example, I did not know that it was in fact Martina Navratilova's decision to defect to the US in 1975 that actually improved the situation for Czech players, the authorities rightly surmising that more freedom and a higher share of their own earnings would hopefully prevent more players from following the Navratilova path. Lendl was still frowned upon by the Czech authorities though, his apparent pursuit of money a much more capitalistic approach than the expected communist ideals. Strangely he was seen as a poster boy for both worlds, yet was never fully accepted by either.

As the book moves on to the early part of Lendl's professional career, Hodgkinson delves deeper and deeper into the characteristics of Lendl, and attempts to tackle some of the perceptions and impressions that the world held about the man who gained some of the most unwanted nicknames in sport: Dr Gloom, The Choking Dog, The Choker-In-Chief, The Choke-Slovakian, and Ivan The Terrible amongst many that must have been so hurtful to a man who you gradually warm to as the story develops.

In an era of McEnroe, Connors, Becker, and Cash, Lendl was painted as a robot, a man who never smiled, unattractive, artless and grim, dull, uninteresting, and in the Cold War years the very representation of an Eastern Bloc villain. "What the public craved were players who moved them, who infuriated them, who made them feel alive and exhilarated, who left them sucker-punched with emotion, whether that emotion was love or revulsion", writes Hodgkinson, and there was no doubting that Lendl fitted neatly into the latter category.

Hodgkinson mounts a serious case for Lendl's defence though: "As with all the other Lendl myths, it's not the reality that matters but the perception". Throughout the book, you learn that Lendl was human like the rest of us, wearing what Wotjek Fibak (Lendl's first coach) describes as an "unemotional mask on his face", frightened that if he let it slip, then the world would discover that he was full of "doubts, insecurities, fears and concerns". "The Ivan Lendl you saw in the stadium, or on your television screens, was, to an extent, an act," declares Hodgkinson. If it was, then I fell for it good and proper.

In fairness, Hodgkinson also describes a man who was an intimidating presence in the locker room, using aggression, sarcasm and humour to psychologically undermine opponents that were beneath him in the world rankings (interestingly, he never tried the same tactics with McEnroe or Connors, which does unfortunately paint him in a bad light). His politically incorrect humour was seen as inappropriate by many in the locker rooms, even in the 1980s, and Hodgkinson wonders how Lendl wasn't punched in the mouth for some of his comments. On one occasion, he ripped up a pair of Pat Cash's shoes and almost paid the consequences, Lendl apparently unaware that this act would prompt such a furious response from the Australian.

The book does not provide an in depth look into each of Lendl's eighteen Grand Slam finals, that would be a whole book in itself, but three of the key sections of Lendl's career are discussed: his quest to win a major and rid himself of the choker tag; his breakthrough win at the 1984 French Open; and his period of success from 1986 onwards. As you read about Lendl's struggles, you begin to figure out the many similarities with Andy Murray, and how their partnership was an inevitability, a match made in the 1980s.

Four times Lendl had lost in Grand Slam finals before his first triumph, his public image suffering as he was labelled as a serial loser, his watchful mother undoubtedly frustrated that her son could not deliver on the biggest stage. Sounds familiar? It should do. It's little wonder that when Murray was on the search for a coach in 2011, that the road led to Lendl. If there was one man who must have had a rough idea of what Murray was going through then it was the man from Ostrava.

Throughout Lendl's career he had always been seen as an innovator, a pioneer for a lot of what has followed in the modern era. As well as a coach - firstly Fibak, and then Tony Roche - Lendl surrounded himself with other experts; a nutritionist in Dr Robert Haas, who implored Lendl to chew his food so much that it almost turned into saliva; a faith healer who magically fixed Lendl's collarbone injury after the 1988 US Open; a psychologist in Alex Castorri, a ballet enthusiast who put Lendl through his paces in both body and mind; and his very own racket man Warren Bosworth, who ensured Lendl's rackets were configured to the perfect specification.

But that was in the past. Hodgkinson points out that a great player does not necessarily make a great coach, and Murray and Lendl met on quite a few occasions before confirming their union on New Year's Eve 2011. Murray had all the tools for the job, but mentally he needed that little bit extra, the ability to take him past the likes of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal at the back-end of Grand Slams, and this is where Lendl was perfect for him.

By convincing Murray to be more aggressive and to hide his emotional distress from his opponents, Lendl was putting the final building blocks in place for Murray's triumphant 2012, his year of Olympic gold and first Grand Slam title. But you get the impression that it was Murray's tearful defeat in the 2012 Wimbledon final that proved a turning point; Lendl's assertion that he was proud of Murray boosted the Scot, and the fact that Murray had at last competed in a major final, convinced the pair that the good times were ahead.

Hodgkinson rightly informs the reader that there is one thing which Lendl could not tell Murray about: winning Wimbledon. In a fascinating and slightly poignant chapter entitled Obsession, Hodgkinson explains the trials and tribulations faced by Lendl at SW19. His two finals - 1986 Becker and 1987 Cash - are discussed, the former seeing Lendl helpless against a German wunderkind, with the second match leaving Lendl trapped on centre court whilst Cash began the inaugural winners' journey up to the players' box.

Other key issues are tackled; how Lendl had to try and turn himself into a serve-volleyer for the grass court season; how Lendl missed two French Opens to try and concentrate on his desire for the famous gold trophy; how the unpredictable bounce at Wimbledon upset the ultimate control merchant in Lendl, and even how the shorter points played on grass negated Lendl's superior fitness.

Just like Lendl, Hodgkinson rightly states that in the eyes of the British public, Murray would also be judged by his success or failure at Wimbledon. Thus Murray's 2013 win was a seismic moment, not only for the player, but for coach too. Lendl may have hated the Cash celebration in 1987, yet when Murray mimicked the Australian, Lendl was the first man that Murray embraced (memorably he almost forgot to acknowledge his mum). "This one is for Ivan because I know he did everything to win it when he was playing, so I'm glad I could help him out when he was coaching," gushed Murray, after that famous win.

After that high there was very little that the pair felt that they could accomplish together, the project had a sense of completion. As Hodgkinson put it "Most tennis lives, and partnerships, end in failure; the Lendl-Murray project didn't". And so a very enjoyable story ends, such a free-flowing and easy-reading book that you pick it up and before you know it you have read 50 pages.

I was a little unsure what to expect when I first started reading Ivan Lendl - The Man Who Made Murray. As an 80s sports enthusiast, I had always held a respect for Lendl and his achievements, but like many, I was of the opinion that trying to make a book about Lendl entertaining would be a challenge and a half. But Hodgkinson has managed to achieve this. Such is his success, that he even manages to soften your attitude towards Lendl, a man who I had always held very definite opinions on.

The biggest endorsement that I can give the book is that you don't have to be a tennis fan to enjoy it. Any sports lover with an interest in the history of a sporting great, the underlying personality of that individual, and the way in which this person then used their experiences gained in sport and life to coach a future champion, will find this a fascinating read. Mark Hodgkinson should be commended on his efforts. If he has got me to revise my opinion of Ivan Lendl then he must have done a fine job.

If you're interested in further Ivan Lendl related material, then please visit my Guardian blog on his memorable 1989 French Open clash with Michael Chang:


  1. Interesting stuff, will defo check the book out!

  2. Sounds a very interesting read, just do not like the Title, makes it sound as if Andy Murray was not a brilliant tennis player before Lendl came on the scene, Yes he helped get over the hurdle to win a slam by tackling his demure on court and to attack more but Andy already had all the shots.

  3. I am reading this book, currently out of my local library, and so far I don't mind that I am supporting my library first and Mark second. It is a good piece of collated interview material and documents but has a somewhat self-indulgent writing style which at best annoys and at worst comes across as pompous. I had high hopes for the book after the first two chapters but the defensive need to portray the current top pros as the best ever and (somewhat subconsciously) today's media portrayals as fairer are making every other page troublesome.

  4. I also think Mark is letting his preference for more creative and extrovert players like SuperBrat subvert whole chunks of the book. By most objective measures, Lendl achieved more of his potential than McEnroe, but the book is in two minds about it and desperately paints Lendl's maiden Slam win as luck, even if it actually parallels Murray's 'throw-the-kitchen sink' win over Djokovic in New York.