• Tennis

Murray looking for a new leader

March 20, 2014
Ivan Lendl helped guide Andy Murray to the 2012 US Open and last year's Wimbledon crown © Getty Images

Perhaps the timing was right.

After all, how long was the Andy Murray-Ivan Lendl relationship really going to last? It had always been an interesting marriage, two dour personalities coming together for the singular purpose of winning majors. No matter how you slice it, figuring out how to weave Murray through all the obstacles that awaited him during the daunting two weeks of a grand slam wasn't going to come without its share of setbacks.

Murray, who had been shut out in his first four trips to slam finals, had long been dubbed the petulant one, scorning officials and swearing on the court as his game went awry. Lendl was an eight-time champion, but aloof, at least on the surface, and seemingly never the guy who traded beers and barbs with his cohorts after a long day on the court. It sure seemed like this was a bad match-up when they joined forces on December 31, 2011.

But oddly, if not surprisingly, the partnership worked. You might even say it exceeded all expectations, if multiple grand slam titles and an Olympic gold medal mean anything. You rarely see a high-profile coach/player combo in any sport that works as successfully as this one did.

What wasn't to love about this relationship?

While Lendl and Murray might not have been practicing cartwheels on a regular basis, there was plenty of entertainment and laughs between them, especially considering the number of trophies that were starting to mount.

"Listen, people don't know it, but we have a good time," Lendl told ESPN's Greg Garber before last year's US Open. "Everybody in the box, we make fun of everybody.

"Like everyone else on this team, my job is to prepare Andy the best I can to have a chance to win the majors. We do all we can to prepare him to have a chance. When he wins, we all feel the same satisfaction that we did our job. Andy took it and ran with it. As far as the dynamic of me not winning and then feeling satisfaction of winning, well, you can ask all the people writing about it, not me."

Andy Murray's first grand slam under the tutelage of Ivan Lendl was the 2012 Australian Open © Getty Images

For about five years, Murray was that guy. You know what we're talking about. The guy who almost won the US Open in 2008. The guy who nearly won the Aussie in 2010 and 2011. The guy who was so close to winning Wimbledon in 2012, losing to Roger Federer and famously breaking down in tears afterward. Yeah, that guy.

But then something happened.

"The loss at Wimbledon helped Murray more than anything," said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who coached Murray for 16 months in 2006 and 2007. "Lendl had a chance to explain what happened, what went wrong and how [Murray] could get better and learn from his loss."

The rest is history. Murray captured the US Open a few months after his setback at the All England Club, and nearly 10 months later, he became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years.

Clearly, Lendl was going through his own emotions that day. He had successfully engineered a plan that helped a great player become a champion, and at Wimbledon no less, the one major Lendl never won.

Game, set, marriage.

But last season, Murray ended his campaign on an operating table, which prevented him from competing in the year-end championships among other tournaments. Although we're not exactly sure the extent of his back injury, Murray seemingly came back to this year's Aussie Open healthy and ready. He navigated his way to the quarter-finals, but Federer was waiting and booted him out of Melbourne. Since then, Murray has reached only a single semi-final and has strung together a middling 14-5 record.

So perhaps the timing was right for Murray and Lendl to part ways.

The circumstances of their split are fuzzy at this point. Maybe Murray needed a change; perhaps Lendl wasn't present enough. The coach did make it clear he wasn't going to travel full time with Murray, and you have to imagine that what the 26-year-old Scot needs more than anything at this point is, well, full-time guidance.

In a way, the three other members of the Big Four have been so utterly dominant in the past decade, with Rafael Nadal absorbing one French title after another, Federer dominating at Wimbledon and Novak Djokovic owning Australia, that sneaking through a two-week crucible with this level of competition is nearly impossible.

There was no apparent dissonance between Lendl and Murray. Lendl, if anything, had a calming influence on his pupil. As a matter of fact, their high-profile relationship started a movement that saw other stars align with former all-time greats. Djokovic teamed with one of Lendl's archrivals Boris Becker in early 2014 and Federer with Stefan Edberg soon after.

Lendl left Murray with a winning pedigree, and ultimately, that's part and parcel of any coach's gig. But now Murray will fly solo, at least for the time being.

The Miami Masters seems like a good place for Murray to begin his coachless campaign. First, he is the defending champion there. Second, Miami is by all accounts Murray's de facto home city. He lives in a penthouse apartment there, just a shanked forehand away from other notable athletes, including Juan Martin del Potro. The logistics of travelling to and from the tournament couldn't be more seamless. A good pair of binoculars and Murray could probably see the centre court from his living room.

But on the flip side, considering Murray won the title there last year, he now has a thousand points to defend. Given Murray's year, his slide to No.6 in the world and the fact that the fourth- through eighth-ranked players are separated by fewer than a thousand points, a sub-par performance in Miami could see him drop even further down the hierarchy of men's tennis.

It's a little early to start speculating what's next for Murray in terms of coaching, though he has a pretty healthy camp.

"I'm eternally grateful to Ivan for all his hard work over the past two years, the most successful of my career so far," Murray said on his website. "As a team, we've learned a lot, and it will definitely be of benefit in the future. I'll take some time with the team to consider the next steps and how we progress from here."

At the end of the day, whatever the circumstances were that led to this decision are secondary to the success and evolution of Murray under the direction of Lendl. Murray is a fixture in today's upper echelon and a player who now understands how to parlay talent into titles.

"He's complicated," said Gilbert. "But he's a genius."

This article originally appeared on ESPN.com

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