Murray-Lendl had run its course; more mailbag

Wednesday March 19th, 2014

Andy Murray (left) won two Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal under Ivan Lendl.
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

What's next for Andy Murray?
-- Bobby R., Tampa, Fla.

The big tennis news Wednesday: Murray and coach Ivan Lendl have "amiably" parted ways. (Side note: We eagerly await a public statement declaring that a player and coach have dissolved their partnership on hostile and bitter terms.) This was less than a shock. "Zero surprise that Murray and Lendl have parted," ESPN's Chris Fowler tweeted. "It was a very effective team, but tension in camp lately was palpable."

For all intents and purposes, Lendl's work was done when Murray won Wimbledon last year. Choose your cliché: The burden was lifted. The dragon had been slain. The river had been crossed. After that triumph last July, as Murray's health and motivation slipped, what was Lendl to do? Spend months on the road, living out of a suitcase, with his player performing at a suboptimal level? (That's a lot of sacrificed rounds of golf.)

The obvious question: Who is the likely successor? We discussed this a bit on Twitter and names ranged from Mats Wilander (who has coached Marat Safin) to Darren Cahill (Andre Agassi's former coach has an Adidas connection) to Paul Annacone (yes, he is currently working with Sloane Stephens) to Hernan Gumy (who has partnered with Safin and Ernests Gulbis) to Larry Stefanki (who has guided Andy Roddick and Tim Henman, among others).

We'll see how this plays out, but I think Murray benefits from a "name." One of the great strengths of Lendl was biographical. He had been there and done that. He had overcome disappointments. He had won Grand Slam titles. Murray snapped to attention when Lendl spoke, and the partnership produced two Slams and an Olympic gold medal. This is no knock on Murray, but when you've won multiple majors, do you have full trust in someone who has never quite performed at that level? Stay tuned ...

This is why Roger Federer is playing the Sony Open rather than withdrawing: He's 105 points behind No. 4 David Ferrer, who's hobbled and has finals points to defend. He's feeling great about his game, so I think he'll be happy to win a round or three, get those points and resume his rightful place in the top four as he gears up for the French Open and Wimbledon. Thoughts?
-- Rick Muirragui, Los Angeles

• Not bad, but a little too calculating. I suspect Federer's thought process goes more like this: I'm feeling relatively healthy. I'm playing well -- a few points from winning my biggest tournament in a long time. This is a big event on the same surface. I'm back in the top five. Why would I relinquish this 2014 momentum? (The more cynical might add that IMG -- the management group that owns the Miami event and from which Federer parted -- has been folded into William Morris Endeavor, so any awkwardness or ill feelings have dissipated.)

Anyway, I've noticed that as his results improved, Federer has become a real Rorschach test for so many of you. For some, this surge is further proof of his greatness. Even at 32, he's beating the best, and is willing to make adjustments to sustain his standards. He doesn't belong outside the top five, and now that he's back in the club, stasis has been achieved, the unities of space and time have realigned.

For others, his inability to beat Novak Djokovic in Sunday's BNP Paribas final is further proof that the magic is gone (even though he beat Djokovic three weeks ago in Dubai); that time is still an undefeated opponent; that we are deluding ourselves waiting for another Grand Slam title. As someone wrote to me Sunday, "I am concerned with the three loose errors that showed up at 4-3 in the third set and the four loose points that led to the tiebreaker loss. The body language and mishits still suggest that the demons enter his head down the stretch against Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic."

I keep returning to the same set of talking points: These are unanswerable mysteries. At some point there will be resolution, one way or the other. For now, enjoy Federer while he's here. Be thankful he's back to playing at a level that makes it reasonable to discuss Slam possibilities. Eventually we'll find out the future.

NGUYEN: Highs and lows from Indian Wells

Didn't they teach you at SI that you can't allow player responses to cloud your analysis?? I do agree that it's inappropriate to comment on the health of a player's personal relationship. But it's completely irrelevant that Pete Sampras was "angriest" when journalists noticed that his slump coincided with something new in his personal life. When a professional athlete slumps just when he/she begins devoting substantial time to a new endeavor, then that topic becomes fair game for a relevant discussion of the player's slump.
-- Jaspreet Khurana, New York

• Didn't they teach you that it's possible to raise a valid question without a discourteous preamble? Weirdly, I got a number of hostile emails on this point about Sampras. After Sampras' second-round loss at Wimbledon in 2002, here's what Boris Becker said:

"I was in the middle of a talk with Vijay Amritraj for Asian TV and the picture flashed to Pete Sampras on No 2 Court plucking at the strings of his racket after his defeat by George Bastl on Wednesday. I had to stop the interview. 'That's it,' I said, 'he will not come back. That is the end of Pete." To me, his Wimbledon life stopped at that moment. We had a seven-times champion who had spent much of a second-round match reading a letter of inspiration from his wife -- out in the open, on a show court at Wimbledon, not at the dinner table in the candlelight. I could not believe the whole thing."

If I'm Sampras, I'm livid. Blame me for any losses. Credit me for wins. (Including the U.S. Open two months later.) But leave my spouse out of it.

Seems like you're getting "Slammed" for suggesting a U.S. Open rotation that would include Indian Wells. Why not leave the Indian Wells where it is on the calendar, expand the draw and keep the men at best-of-three (how many fans can or want to sit through four- or five-hour matches?) It is played at the perfect time of the year. Who knows, it might grow to be bigger and better than the Slams and could be the "Super Slam."
-- Dick Walther, Natick, Mass.

• I'm sticking to my suggestion. Once every five years, the USTA leaves The Republic of Hedge Fund and takes the U.S. Open to Indian Wells. The West Coast feels included. It's the same surface as the one in New York, but there's a different vibe, different climate, different time zone. What you lose in attendance -- and you'll still draw commensurate with the French Open -- you'll make up for in novelty.

Short of that, Dick is right. Indian Wells will evolve and continue to establish itself. The players will come (and relish best-of-three sets). The television footprint will grow. Do I think Indian Wells will be a Super Slam that supersedes the other four? No. But if I were buying stock in a tennis event, would this be the one? Yes.

Could you rank the best Big Four matchups? I think the most pleasant is Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic because it's an ordinary contrast matchup that always unfolds well no matter the winner. It's very different from the bizarre contrast of Rafael Nadal vs. Federer, for example. We still have the muscle rallies of Nadal vs. Djokovic or the passive-aggressive Djokovic vs. Andy Murray. Which ones you like better and why?
-- Igor Wright, Braselia, Brazil

• I am partial to Nadal-Federer. I do think that context matters, though. A lot. When Djokovic faces Nadal in the French Open semifinals with the Serb seeking his first title at Roland Garros, as was the case last year, it's different from when they play, say in the U.S. Open. Likewise, when Murray plays Federer at Wimbledon, it's different from when they play in Melbourne.

Camila Giorgi upset Maria Sharapova at Indian Wells but lost in qualifying in Miami.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

How do you go from beating Maria Sharapova one week to losing in the first round of qualifying next?
-- Les Banas, Denver

• Les, of course, speaks of Camila Giorgi, who defeated Sharapova at the BNP Paribas Open before losing to No. 105 Zarina Diyas in Sony Open qualifying this week. The 22-year-old Giorgi is at the "any given match" stage. For one day, she can look like a world beater; for one day, she can look like a journeywoman. She beat Caroline Wozniacki in the third round of the 2013 U.S. Open; in her next match, she put up little resistance against Roberta Vinci. She beat Marion Bartoli at the Strasbourg International last year; in her next match, she mustered three games against Genie Bouchard. The next step in her evolution: Back up one good win with another.

Best photos from Indian Wells

Some Tennis Channel commentators have been lamenting the state of the U.S. men's backhand, let alone the scarcity of top-100 players. However, the previous generation's members all sharpened up their weakest link while on tour (the Andy Roddick and James Blake backhands, the Mardy Fish forehand). Are we a Robert Lansdorp clinic away from some backhand drives or are we more like a Mikhail Baryshnikov clinic away, given the need for fancier footwork on tour?
-- Andrew Miller, Chevy Chase, Md.

• Interesting. Leaving aside the issue of the dearth of Americans near the top of the ATP rankings, it is interesting to note how many of them have a stronger forehand than backhand. You mention backhand drives. But to me the issue is internal drives. And I'm not alone. Here's USTA director of coaching Jose Higueras to the Los Angeles Times:

"We are lacking competitiveness in our players. They've got good backhands and forehands and serves, but they lack an understanding of how the game needs to be played. We have good coaches, but the culture of our players needs to improve.

"I won't use the excuse you hear all the time about all the good U.S. athletes playing football or basketball. Sure, if we didn't have football and basketball in this country, there would be more guys playing tennis. But it's an easy crutch.

"If our players were European, things would be different. Being No. 80 in the world wouldn't be enough then. ... When a high percentage of the coaches want it more than the players, we have a problem."

That, as the kids say, is known as "shots fired."

The French are correct: Be careful what you wish for ... I have been waiting to see Alexandr Dolgopolov live up to his potential. Lo and behold, he does it by knocking Rafael Nadal out of Indian Wells. I do hope his run of form continues, as it is good for him and a small bright spot for his native Ukraine. However, I am really concerned about Nadal. He does not look 100 percent. I don't know whether his rather tentative movement is because of actual physical discomfort or fear of what might happen. Your thoughts?
-- Margaret, Philadelphia

• For loyal readers, you'll recall that Margaret's bucket list includes success for Dolgopolov. She wrote in after he lost to Nadal in the Rio Open final last month, and now she's celebrating his run to the Indian Wells semifinals and rise to No. 23.

First, his third-round upset of Nadal last week was a huge win for Dolgopolov. His problems closing out matches surfaced again when he was broken while serving at 5-3 in the third set, but he rebounded to win the decisive tiebreaker. That Nadal match marked a real mental milestone. Also, reluctant as we are too talk too much about equipment, the effects of his racket switch do seem fairly conspicuous.

As for Nadal, in a vacuum, I agree with you. But how many times have we seen this? His body betrays him. Then his body cooperates and he is back to playing Grade-A tennis.

What happened to the Bausch & Lomb green clay tournament in Florida that was the final North American event every spring? Why was it canceled and what has replaced it on the schedule?
-- Przemek Pawulski, Poland

• Sadly, this was still another inclusion in the Incredible Shrinking Slate of American Tournaments exhibit. The event was downgraded, relocated to Ponte Vedra, Fla., and then euthanized. In its prime, this was a great event -- widely adored by players -- and the perfect transition from hard courts to clay. It was also the site of one of my favorite tennis stories. That the sponsor specialized in vision products makes the error all more delicious.

How about some love for career doubles players? The Indian Wells men's draw was stacked with top-10 singles players (including Roger Federer, Stanislas Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray), but the top two teams in the rankings -- Bob and Mike Bryan and Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares -- ended up in the final. Kudos to the career doubles specialists. #CrowforMcEnroe
-- John Rizzo, Clifton, N.J.

• Again, I love the idea of singles players playing doubles and commend Indian Wells for making it happen. But, yes, props to the doubles mainstays who more than held their own.

I know Indian Wells has risen in status over the years. It's even getting that fifth-major vibe. But can IW really be viewed as something of a fifth major if you don't do a 50 parting shots, like you do for the four Grand Slam tournaments? IW needs you to get over the hump!
-- Dean, Austin, Texas

• Done. Look for it in 2015.

Shots, miscellany

• It's often tough to condemn "tennis parents." Your "overbearing" is my "assertive." What is "helicoptering" to one person is "attentiveness" to another. For every player hampered by the propinquity of kin, there is another (Monica Seles, the Williams family, Nadal) who thrived by keeping it in the family. Still, one worries that Wozniacki is being held back by her father, Piotr. Wozniacki recently parted with Michael Mortensen in her latest coaching change. His money quote: "I can't do much more right now. It's better if the two of them continue working alone." It's easy for the cold and indifferent outsider to recommend a personnel move for Wozniacki or Bernard Tomic or Donald Young. It's surely harder for a child to, in effect, fire mom or dad. Yet to quote a wise British man, If you love somebody, set them free.

Wozniacki plunges to six-year low in rankings

• "Twenty is the new 30" has hardened into tennis cliché. We got another example last weekend as 32-year-old Flavia Pennetta won the BNP Paribas Open, the biggest title (and payday) of her career. On a related note, a statistician at the RAND Corporation has examined why the average age of top men's players has increased.

• Add Federer to the army of fans and observers who dislike on-court coaching. Federer was asked about the possibility of the ATP's following the WTA's lead and allowing on-court coaching during tour events.

"If it does happen, it's hopefully after I'm done playing," he said at Indian Wells. "I really don't think it's necessary. I don't think it's fair maybe necessarily, because not everybody can afford a coach. It's just not right. We'll see girlfriends walking out, we'll see parents walking out. It's not going to be pretty. It will look amateur‑like. Yeah, I hope we'll stay as far away from that idea.

"I just think tennis is one of those sports ... it's cool to figure it out yourself. You can look over to your coach for comfort and support, but other than that, tennis could or should be one of those unique sports where you don't get coaching."

• Our friend Franklyn of Melbourne: "When the history of tennis is finally and comprehensively written, the amazing resurgence of Roger Federer in 2014 will be directly and single-handedly attributed to the eerily predictive November 2013 article titled 'Roger Federer and the cycle of life and sport.' There is no other plausible explanation, and if probed and asked to be completely honest, Federer himself will have no choice but to acknowledge that fact." Here's his piece.

• Doug Messenger of Los Angeles: "A technical tidbit: Notice that Federer has changed his backhand stroke. His grip is more on top of the racket and he is going through and up on the stroke, more like Richard Gasquet, than in the past. Until recently, he flipped the wrist at contact and rolled the wrist outward (supination). Now, the racket most often remains at a near-right angle to the forearm, ending up high rather than high and wide (off to his right side) as before."

• Racket clap to Rich Kaufman, longtime U.S. Open head of officiating, who resigned last week.

• Racket clap to Gina Clement, a pro's pro, who leaves the WTA after a decade of service.

• We know from photo bombs and video bombs, but here's a presser bomb.

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