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Tennis News • Lendl And Zverev Split • Sasha Stabbed A Stick Into The Hornets Nest

Alexander Zverev of Germany and his coach Ivan Lendl, during a training session at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, on Thursday, June 27, 2019. EPA-EFE/PETER KLAUNZER EDITORIAL USE ONLY; NO SALES, NO ARCHIVES

By Alix Ramsay

 

Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Back in November last year, we suggested that Sascha Zverev and Ivan Lendl was not a match made in heaven.

 

Back then, as the tall German blond was on his way to the biggest title of his life at the ATP Tour Finals in London, we pointed out that Mr Zverev was playing with fire when he suggested that his coach was a bit bossy but that he, Sascha, would put a stop to that.

 

“If you’re going to be strict with me with rules and stuff, the relationship is not going to last very long,” the young and the bold one said then. “He understood that very quickly, I think.”

 

Sascha was right, too. The relationship did not last long at all. Once London was done and dusted, the two set out on the 2019 season more in hope than expectation. Sascha bombed out of the Australian Open in a truly horrible loss to Milos Raonic, he won just one match in the Sunshine Double of Indian Wells and Miami and once onto the clay, he spluttered and stuttered his way around the European circuit, winning the title in Lyon and reaching the quarter-finals at Roland Garros. Those were the clay court highlights: his losses in the early rounds elsewhere took the shine off that record somewhat.

 

The split came later than many expected – it happened last week in Hamburg – as there had been no sign of the Lendl during the clay court run. So when the announcement finally came, it was no great surprise, particularly as Sascha had again stabbed a stick into the hornets’ nest by claiming that Lendl needed to be more “committed” to tennis. Apparently, Old Stone Face spent a lot of time talking about his golf and his dog during their training sessions. Sascha was not impressed.

 

After the split, there were the customary compliments from both sides: Sascha had total “respect” for Lendl; Lendl had great “belief” in Sascha. But obviously there was not enough of either for them to continue to work together. As for that last jibe from the German, Lendl was terse in his response.

 

“When it comes to work ethic, I am quite comfortable that my record speaks for itself,” he said. So there.

 

Ah, yes, Lendl’s record. It was Lendl who led Andy Murray to all three of his grand slam titles. Then again, he knew what he was taking on with Murray. By the time they joined forces, the Scot had reached three major finals and had been established in the world’s top four for years.

 

In Murray, he saw a man who had all the attributes to be a grand slam champion – a superb athlete, a man who read the game better than almost any other, whose defence was all but impenetrable and who was willing to walk on hot coals if it would make him a better player – he just needed to prove it.

 

Lendl, then, had a Formula 1 car to work with (strong chassis, powerful engine) and all he needed to do was tinker with the on-board computer and all would be well. Sure enough, in their first stint together, Murray played seven grand slam events, reached four finals and won two titles. Not a bad win-loss record for either coach or player.

 

But Murray is not of Zverev’s generation. Murray is of the Nadal, Federer and Djokovic era: all very different men but all very hard men in their own way. They have worked and sacrificed, they have endured miserable lows and bounced back stronger, tougher and better. They have invested everything – and asked their family to do likewise – in their careers and all of it done in order to succeed. And how have they succeeded.

 

When Rafa beat Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon, he was asked what he thought the Australian could achieve if he were able to fight for every point in the way that Rafa fights.

 

“If, if, if,” Rafa said sharply. “Doesn’t exist. As I said plenty of times, he’s a very top, talented player. But there is a lot of important things that you need to do to become a champion, no? He has a lot of good ingredients.

 

“But, of course, remain an important one sometimes, and that is the love, the passion for this game. Without really loving this game that much, is difficult to achieve important things.”

 

Rafa’s love of tennis came through hardship. Not the regular sort of hardship – he comes from a well-to-do middle-class family, his father is a hugely successful businessman, his uncle Miguel-Angel was a hugely successful footballer – but the hardship of injury, of Uncle Toni’s sergeant major approach to training when he was a kid, of pushing himself to the very limit every day. For Nadal, to suffer is, eventually, to succeed. The two go hand in hand. And you cannot endure the suffering without the deep, overwhelming love for what you are doing.

 

Djokovic, too, gave up everything to be the best he could be. At just 12 years of age, he packed his bag and went to the Niki Pilic academy in Germany. Murray headed to Spain when he was 15 to work at the Sanchez-Casals Academy. Young lads, close to their families, moving to a new land and a new language to try to become the best.

 

And then, of course, there was Lendl himself. The product of his mother’s tough-love school of coaching in communist Czechoslovakia, who worked harder than anyone on tour to become fitter, faster and stronger and who lost his first four grand slam finals before turning himself into the ultimate winning machine. He knew how to suffer and how succeed.

 

Does the new generation have it within them to follow such examples? On the current evidence, it seems not. Zverev claims that he wants to go back to the old days and ways, with his dad coaching him and surrounded by the people who love him. Who wouldn’t want that? But will it win him any of the titles he craves? Maybe he should ask Rafa or Novak or Andy.

 

Better still, maybe he should have asked Lendl.

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