Ivan Lendl stepped off the plane from Florida on Tuesday, only a few hours before Andy Murray announced himself on European clay by destroying Serbia’s Viktor Troicki 6-0, 6-3 in the second round of the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters.
"I told him he’s getting no credit for this one,” Murray said with a smile, revealing the endless, needling banter that goes on between player and coach.
The humor has become an integral part of a relationship that has been building since January, when Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam champion, became Murray’s surprise choice to try to take him to the next level. And that, if you are already ranked No 4, means the top.
Those who remember Lendl from his playing days always realized that the success of the partnership would hinge on Murray’s ability to handle and appreciate the older man’s frequently outrageous humor and storytelling. Lendl might have been Old Stone Face on court, but many a locker room has rocked to his jokes, most of which, as Murray has been at pains to point out, are not to be repeated in polite company.
As Murray has a dry Scot’s wit of his own, they seem to appreciate each other in that department. More important, they respect each other on the tennis court.
Asked whether Lendl helped him with the clay-court preparation they underwent in Florida, Murray replied: “He has been great on every surface. But, for clay, he’ll help me in the next five, six weeks. It’s probably not going to show this week necessarily. But the time I spend with him, the five or six days before Barcelona, the four five days before the French Open, these will be very, very beneficial.”
To an extent, the benefits are already evident. From the moment he walked onto the famous Centre Court at the Monte Carlo Country Club — scene of John Isner’s Davis Cup triumphs against France a little more than a week ago — Murray exuded an air of confidence.
And his excellent start — he broke Troicki’s serve immediately — was crucial.
“It was very good,” Murray said. “Sometimes, it’s a close, tight first set, the first match on clay, and then kind of anything can happen. You can start rushing. It’s very easy on clay to start rushing and making mistakes. But because I got ahead, I didn’t need to do that."
Troicki is no slouch on this surface. Although his victory in the deciding match that earned Serbia the Davis Cup crown against France two years ago was played on an indoor hardcourt, clay has always been his native surface. In front of a crowd of about 7,000 on a beautiful, cloudless Cote d’Azur day, the setting was more relaxed, perhaps fatally so, for Troicki, who had been inspired by the nationalistic fervor that surrounded the greatest win of his career, in Belgrade.
Looking less motivated than his opponent, Troicki found himself pressured by Murray’s powerfully accurate ground strokes from the first game. Murray did not allow Troicki a single break point on his serve, which was satisfying but not, according to Murray, the most important factor.
“It was what I was doing after the serve,” Murray said. “I was using it more to set the way I was playing the points, which sometimes on this court is important.”
Murray was also happy about the way he moved — sliding into his shots, as one must on clay. So all that preparation paid off.
“The sooner I can get on this surface, the better,” he said. “I think practicing on clay in the States was probably a good move.”
The first couple of those days were spent on green American clay at a club near his Miami apartment just off Brickell Avenue and then on red clay at Boca Grove, a appointed private club in Boca Raton. The only downside for Murray is that the Brickell club is being turned into a parking lot.
“I’m really disappointed they’re closing it down,” he said. “It’s always been busy when we go there, but I guess there’s more money in people parking cars than people running around tennis courts. Money talks sometimes, unfortunately.”
After Murray’s victory, France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga turned Davis Cup disappointment into an advantage as he overpowered Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-2, 6-4.
"I don’t know what I would have done today if I hadn’t played those (Davis Cup) matches,” he said. “I was able to get used to the clay and start sliding on the surface. Certainly, it was an advantage.”
It was also the big Frenchman’s 27th birthday — a fact not lost on the crowd, which sang “Happy Birthday” to him. He feels birthdays are more significant for athletes.
"You see time going by,” he said. “I know I’m now 27 and into the second part of my career. I’ve been on the tour eight years. I know I’m not going be on the tour for the next eight years. My destiny is in my hands.”
There was a sad end to Juan Monaco’s brave attempt to continue his winning streak, which saw him beat Isner to take the Houston clay court title on Sunday. Arriving here Monday night, Monaco was on court within 20 hours and seemed to be heading for victory against the Dutchman Robin Haase when he led 6-7, 6-0 3-1 after an interruption for an evening shower.
But the Argentine, who had also been a finalist in Miami, went over badly on his right ankle as he chased a wide return and needed lengthy treatment where he fell. After getting the ankle strapped, Monaco tried to play a couple of points but then, tearing off his headband in disgust, hobbled up to Haase to shake hands, forfeiting the match.