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Alix Ramsay Has Some Fun “Free” Thinking About Sascha Zverev And Ivan Lendl And Andy Murray From The ATP Tennis In London

Germany’s Alexander Zverev in action against John Isner of the USA during their Round Robin match at the ATP World Tour Finals tennis tournament at the O2 Arena in London, Britain, 16 November 2018.  EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER



By Alix Ramsay


It has happened to us all: that social gaffe that seemingly came out of nowhere but haunts you forever more.


Like the moment when, trying to make small talk, you mention to the boss’s new girlfriend that she bears a striking resemblance to someone you have met before.


“You could be his sister,” you say, lightly. “His name was Bernard. He came from Rotherham. Fitted my new kitchen last summer.” A deathly hush falls does not so much fall on the room as land with a deafening thud.


The boss’s new partner is indeed Bernard from Rotherham, the former kitchen fitter, but now she identifies as Bernadette and has been in a loving, mutually supportive and committed relationship with the boss ever since the boss’s wife left him over that unfortunate incident with the dental hygienist, the whipped cream and the rubber chicken. Your career flashes before your eyes. You may never sleep again.


And so it was that Alexander Zverev lobbed a conversational pebble into the pond at the ATP World Tour Finals and sent ripples of fear and dread through the O2 Arena.


Towards the end of his press conference following his 6-4, 6-1 thumping at the hands of Novak Djokovic, Zverev was asked about his relationship with his new disciplinarian coach, Ivan Lendl.


“He’s a good coach which helps me. I didn’t understand a lot of your question, I’m sorry,” Zverev said, looking a little confused.


‘Is Lendl strict with you?’ the interrogator asked again.


“No,” Zverev said. “If you’re going to be strict with me with rules and stuff, the relationship is not going to last very long.” And then he smiled. “He understood that very quickly, I think.”


Those in the room old enough to remember Lendl as a player feared for Zverev’s wellbeing after that throwaway remark. Those who knew him only from his coaching days with Andy Murray feared for the life of the partnership. You don’t say things like to or about Lendl. And by the way, that’s Mr. Lendl to you.


The German hope joined forced with the poker-faced coach in the summer and in their time together, he has reached the third round at the U.S. Open, the second round in Beijing, the quarter-finals in Bercy and the semi-finals in Basel and Shanghai (although his 6-2, 6-1 capitulation to Djokovic in Shanghai set tongues wagging). And now he says that he doesn’t really do rules “and stuff”. Oh, and he added, for good measure, that the season was too long and that he was tired. Gambling may be strictly verboten in tennis but it would be interesting to have a fiver on just how long Lendl puts up with the freewheeling – and exhausted – Zverev.


When Murray asked Lendl to help him at the start of 2012, he had spent the past three and half years in the world’s top four, he had reached three grand slam finals and he had won 21 titles, eight of them at Masters 1000 events. He may have been the least successful in the Gang of Four at the top of the rankings, but he was always in the mix. Those four were streets ahead of the chasing pack.


Andy Murray of Britain (R) with his coach Ivan Lendl (L) during a practice session at Melbourne park ahead of Australian Open Tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, 15 January 2017. The Australian Open tennis tournament will run from 16 to 29 January 2017.  EPA/FILIP SINGER

Andy Murray of Britain (R) with his coach Ivan Lendl (L) during a practice session at Melbourne park ahead of Australian Open Tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, 15 January 2017. The Australian Open tennis tournament will run from 16 to 29 January 2017. EPA/FILIP SINGER

Murray knew then that his tennis was good enough to win a major title – he had beaten Djokovic, Federer and Nadal in the past – and he knew he was physically strong enough to go the distance with anyone. What he did not know was how to put it all together in a major final. That was the missing magic that Lendl could provide. So when Lendl spoke, Murray listened. When Lendl said ‘jump’, Murray asked ‘how high?’. And in between times, Murray asked questions and soaked up the answers like a sponge.


Lendl’s eight grand slam trophies and 270 weeks at No.1 were earned on the back of an almost maniacal inner drive, sheer bloody-mindedness and eye-watering hard work. He was not the most naturally talented of his generation but he worked for success, he planned for it, he plotted for it, he researched how success was achieved. And finally, he got his reward. Once he had learned how to win grand slam titles, he was all but unstoppable.


Presented with this as a template, Murray did what his mentor told him. In their two spells together – 2012-2014 and 2016 – Murray won the U.S. Open, two Wimbledon titles and two Olympic gold medals. Lendl clearly knew his stuff but he also had a very good pupil to work with.


And then there is Zverev. He is certainly the best of the new wave of talent knocking on the door of the elite but, as yet, he has only reached one grand slam quarter-final in 14 attempts. Still, he is young yet (he is only 21) and there is plenty of time for him to make his mark. But it is the mental attitude to his job that maybe his greatest weakness.


To watch Djokovic find his way out of the wilderness and back to the top of the rankings is the perfect example for our wunderkind. For two years, the Serb flapped and fluffed his way around the circuit trying to rediscover his motivation and drive. By winning the French Open in 2016, he completed the non-calendar Grand Slam and achieved everything he had ever dreamed of. Now he was running on empty. But he never gave up.


Djokovic tried everything to reignite the flame that had fuelled his success. He fired everyone he knew, he hired people he did not know. And then he fired them, too. But he stuck at it. He had to learn new things (patience being one of them as he recovered from elbow surgery) and he had to look deep within himself to see what it was that he really wanted. When he found it, he started winning again and now he is back on the top of the world.


It is the same with Federer, Nadal and Murray. Together with Djokovic, they have dominated the rankings for a decade and more. All in their 30s and all multi-millionaires they are still working themselves narrow to eke every last drop out their careers. Injuries come and injuries go (in the case of the 37-year-old Federer, birthdays come and birthdays go) but with the hardest of hard work and a driving passion, they will leave no stone unturned to prolong their chance to do what they love best.


As Thomas Edison said more than 100 years ago, “Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration”. The Gang of Four know that; Ivan Lendl knows that. Perhaps Zverev ought to ask his coach about it someday.

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