Meet a man once described as “an equal opportunities offender”, someone who has been known to roller-skate around a practice court, and whose locker-room jokes were thought by John McEnroe to be “dubious at times”. Meet the man who has been hired to help Andy Murray win a grand slam.
Soon after Murray won the title at the Brisbane International on Sunday, he had this to say on BBC radio about his new coach, or ‘Mr Lendl’ as he has taken to calling him: “He has a similar sense of humour to me in many respects. He is a very funny guy; he has lots of great stories from when he was playing.” The caricature of Ivan Lendl used to be that he was grey, sour and humourless, a tennis obsessive who had all the charm of an Ostrava tower-block, but the reality is that he has always had a sense of humour. The difficulty used to be that his gags were delivered with a thick Czech accent. Or perhaps, back then, the jokes never used to be that amusing. As Richard Hinds, of the Melbourne Age, has recalled of Lendl during his playing days: “Occasionally you would see a picture of Lendl walking his German shepherds or read about his wicked sense of humour. But when he tried to tell a joke at a press conference it would fall so flat you figured he should have let the dogs do the talking.”
Is this the man who can make Murray laugh his way to a first slam title at Melbourne Park this month? A satirical website ran a story the other day about Lendl’s appointment as Murray’s new ‘misery coach’. “I have a sick sense of humour. I can laugh at a lot of things other people don’t find funny,” Lendl once told New York Magazine, with the profile piece noting that he was in the peculiar habit of laughing at his own nightmares, often waking from a bad dream with a giggle on his lips. As that article noted: “Humour seems to serve him in several ways. One is one-upmanship; it keeps him in control. Joking also provides a means of coping in social situations. But, most of all, Lendl’s teasing and sarcasm seem to be his odd way of showing affection. The closer the friend, the more relentless the ribbing he’s likely to get.” It has taken a while, but in recent years there has been a new appreciation for Lendl’s jokes.
Like his new coach, Murray has not always been admired for his sense of humour. Which is a pity, as he does have one. The ‘Anyone but Murray’ jihadists on the internet message-boards are only there because of a joke that the Scot made before the 2006 World Cup when he suggested, in Tim Henman’s presence, that he would be supporting England’s opponents. Doubtless that would have dissuaded him from trying to be funny for a while. Murray does like to laugh, though, and last year he played an April Fool’s Day joke with the hoax that he had hired his friend Ross Hutchins as his new coach because he wanted “another yes-man.” The thick and the witless did not find that enjoy that; the same group who had derided Murray for having no jokes in racket-bag were suddenly critical of him for daring to trick some news organisations by playing around on Twitter. Murray also has a quick wit - after breaking down during the prize-giving ceremomy after the 2010 Australian Open final, he returned to the microphone with this: “I can cry like Roger, it’s a pity I can’t play like him.”
Murray likes the company of comedians. He is friends with James Corden – the pair have been double-dating with their respective girlfriends at the London Nobu – and he was delighted one year at the US Open when Will Ferrell came to see him play. At last year’s Australian Open, Murray had Billy Connolly in his guest-box. This year he has another gagster, the player formerly known as Ivan the Terrible. There are two things that Lendl can do for Murray. He can give him the advice he needs to win a first slam. He can also let him know that, in time, the public could be laughing with him.
Murray’s victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov wasn’t the most telling moment of the weekend; it came later in his champion’s speech when he thanked ‘Mr Lendl’. In tennis, that’s not far off ‘Sir’. Murray never addressed his previous coaches as ‘Mr Petchey’, ‘Mr Gilbert’ or ‘Mr Maclagan’. Does this respect for Lendl mean that Murray will not be spewing verbal shrapnel at his corner during the Australian Open? It’s certainly a lot harder to scream at someone you are calling ‘Mister’.
There has been much debate about Rafael Nadal’s new gear for the 2012 tennis season. No, not the slightly heavier Babolat racket he will be swinging, to give himself extra power. But the trolley bag that he was using In Doha, to wheel his rackets on and off the court.