Is Ivan Lendl a strategic and psychological Svengali who can lead Andy Murray out of the Grand Slam wilderness to his long-awaited first win in a major championship?
Or is he just a crutch – a Buddha-like figure who sits courtside with the gravitas of an eight-time Grand Slam champion hoping to create a more intimidating persona for the No.4-ranked Scot?
In his youth, Lendl left his homeland (then Czechoslovakia) to find fame and fortune in the United States. It wasn’t easy for a foreigner barely out of his teens to play an American original like Jimmy Connors who was known to bark “communist” at the young Czech when they changed ends during matches.
Lendl developed a tough outer shell, and was known for drilling opponents – a la Nicolas Almagro – like John McEnroe or Vitas Gerulaitis when they were at the net.
But beyond the chiselled, sinewy physique and the terse answers during press conferences was a man who possessed a wicked wit and was ready to exchange verbal barbs, in his second language, with anyone.
Murray has a public image that is more stern than the approachable, genial guy his fellow players know in the locker-room.
Novak Djokovic, his opponent in tonight’s semifinal, has said all the right things about Lendl: “It’s good to see a legend, one of the greatest players to ever play the game, being around the tour again.”
A year ago, the Serb defeated Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 in the final, a match when the Scot may have been carrying a thigh strain from his semifinal with David Ferrer, which would help explain his widely criticised, dour demeanour after losing a tough first set.
He and Djokovic, who first met as 12-year-olds at a tournament in France, have not played that often of late – once in 2009, not at all in 2010 and just three times last year, with their meeting in the Cincinnati final clouded by the Serb retiring (shoulder) in the second set.
Their best match was Djokovic’s three-hour plus, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(2) victory in the Rome semifinals on clay.
Djokovic basically does many things – forehand, backhand and quickness – just a little bit better than Murray. The 24-year-old Scot, seven days older, can potentially serve better and has a better volley.
But it will take more of a mental effort to overcome the sublime Djokovic of the past 12 months – and maybe that’s where Lendl comes in.
Djokovic showed vulnerability in failing to close out the third set against Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round, and looked to be physically on the ropes at times in the second set against Ferrer in the quarterfinals.
The weight of expectation may be beginning to tell on him, and Murray should capitalise with an unexpected win tonight.
One hopes injuries aren’t a factor in the match. Murray woke up with a sore neck before his quarterfinal against Kei Nishikori. Djokovic grabbed the back of his left leg after feeling a “sudden pain” in his quarterfinal with Ferrer. As well, he experienced obvious breathing issues. “The whole day my nose was closed a little bit,” he said.
Looking ahead, he insisted he had “no concerns of recovering for the next matches. It’s just a matter of breathing better through the nose”.
If it’s as simple as that, there are probably 15,000 people in Rod Laver Arena tonight qualified to offer some helpful advice.