In a country known for its hyperbolic headlines, it would be hard to overstate the magnitude of Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon last summer. (Or the gratitude the rest of us feel that the oft-repeated refrain “No British man has won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936” finally can be put to rest.)
Of course, a Scottish bloke ending the 77-year drought was never going to go down quite so smooth for the English, what with the centuries-old simmering resentment toward the Scotch (“Braveheart” didn’t help). A Wimbledon victory it was, however, and an unlikely one at that from a man who didn’t seem to have a big enough game, mind or set of shoulders to carry the hopes of the empire.
That is, until Ivan Lendl entered the picture.
You’ll remember Lendl as the former world No. 1 from Czechoslovakia who dominated the tour for much of the 1980s with his strong serve and forehand, winning eight majors and causing John McEnroe to lose his temper even more. But there was one kingdom that Lendl never conquered — Wimbledon.
It became an annual tragedy of sorts to watch Lendl, in his latter years on tour, skip a major he had won three times (Roland Garros) in order to spend more time practicing on grass for a major where he had lost twice in the final (Wimbledon). Unfortunately, preparing for success didn’t lead to it at the All England Club. Shoot, even a kid from Minnesota beat him one year in the third round on Centre Court.
The problem for Lendl was that he was playing in the BC era of Wimbledon, as in, Before Change.
Change began to take place in 1995, when Wimbledon made, in its words, “a very minimal alteration in compression” to the balls. Then in 2001, the grass was modified from a mix of rye and creeping red fescue to 100 percent rye “to combat wear and enhance court presentation and performance without affecting the perceived speed of the court.”
Don’t let propaganda get in the way of the facts — after decades of serve-and-volleyers winning Wimbledon, every champion since 2002 has done so from the baseline. Lendl tried admirably to become a serve-and-volleyer to win Wimbledon. In the new era of slower balls and higher-bouncing lawns, Murray never had to.
When Lendl took Murray’s reins at the dawn of 2012, he inherited a charge who moved great and missed little. Wonderful qualities, except for the fact that allowing one’s opponent to dictate the outcome of the point is typically a recipe for coming up short in the business end of majors.
Which is exactly what Murray had been experiencing — three major finals, all losses — until Lendl came along and pushed the Scot to become more aggressive and positive. What could have been another devastating loss in the final of Wimbledon six months into their partnership turned into Olympic gold a few weeks later, then a U.S. Open title, followed by the historic win at Wimbledon last summer. That is what I call “a good hire.”
Apparently Murray’s Wimbledon crown was vicarious thrill enough as Lendl resigned his coaching duties this spring, leaving Murray, as he described it, “gutted.” Aside from reaching the semis of the French Open two weeks ago where he was summarily dispatched by Rafa Nadal, Murray has been underperforming or injured since his shining moment last July.
He enters The Championships as “the holder,” meaning his title defense will begin Monday at 2 p.m. London time on Centre Court, where he will walk out feeling the weight of national and personal expectations. He also will enter with a new coach, the 2006 ladies champion, Amelie Mauresmo, a surprising and intriguing choice.
Murray’s teaching pro mother said she hopes Mauresmo will encourage him to be more creative and “use more drop shots.” That is a little like advising the Twins to bunt their way to the World Series. But what do I know? I never thought I’d see the day when slugging it out from the baseline would be the norm at Wimbledon.
While seven-time champion Roger Federer and two-time winner Nadal have something to prove after early exits last year, my favorite is Novak Djokovic, the 2011 champion. And although 2004 champion Maria Sharapova is coming off an impressive French Open win, I still wouldn’t bet against Serena Williams to lift her sixth plate.
Both Djokovic and Williams have the shotmaking, experience and toughness to navigate through the fortnight on the game’s grandest stage. Plus, I’m pretty sure their mothers aren’t urging them to hit more drop shots.
Minnesota’s David Wheaton beat Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi on his way to the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1991 before falling to Boris Becker. Wheaton is now an author and radio host. Find out more at davidwheaton.com.