Lendl v McEnroe in battle of the supercoaches at Wimbledon

Canada's Milos Raonic and coach John McEnroe during practice

Coach wanted. Very competitive salary. Negotiable hours. Travel the world. Ability to work under pressure essential. Only bona fide tennis legends need apply.

This is the age of the supercoach in men’s tennis. This afternoon Britain’s Andy Murray will take on Milos Raonic from Canada in the Wimbledon men’s singles final, but almost as intriguing is the strategic battle that will take place off the court. In one corner is Ivan Lendl, who has had an on-off relationship with Murray since 2012; in the other is John McEnroe, who hooked up with Raonic just a few weeks ago.

The fact that, as players, Lendl and McEnroe shared a thinly veiled dislike of each other should add piquancy to proceedings. They met only once at Wimbledon, with McEnroe winning the 1983 semi-final easily. But overall Lendl tended to dominate his rival.

Previous hostilities should not count for much this afternoon, but the pre-match contribution of these supercoaches could be telling. It was while Murray was working with Lendl that he scored the greatest successes of his career so far: victory in the Olympics and US Open in 2012 and then Wimbledon in 2013. The pair split in 2014 because of the relentless travel demands on Lendl and his desire to spend more time with his elderly mother and teenage daughters.

Murray, 29, often states that working with Lendl helped him to become a more aggressive player. He has certainly seemed to play with renewed intent since Lendl rejoined his coaching team in June. “I’ve obviously had the best years of my career with him,” said Murray on Friday night after beating Tomas Berdych in straight sets. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I don’t think he’d be doing this job if he didn’t believe in me and believe that I can win these events, because he doesn’t need to. That helps.”

The McEnroe effect on the 25-year-old Raonic has perhaps been even more dramatic. There had been speculation for years that McEnroe, the voice of tennis with his smart, wry commentary, would take up a coaching assignment, but he waited until May this year to commit. Ever the iconoclast, the 57-year-old – who stays clear of all social media – made the announcement while strumming a guitar on his daily Eurosport show during the French Open.

Like Lendl, McEnroe has encouraged his new boss to be dominant on court. Raonic, clean-cut and Playmobil handsome, has a huge serve but has not always been the most dynamic or resilient competitor. At this year’s Wimbledon, however, he came back from two sets down in the fourth round against David Goffin and in the semi-final overcame both Roger Federer and a fiercely partisan crowd in five sets. Today’s match against Murray is his first grand slam final.

Raonic credits McEnroe with making him more vocal and passionate on court – traits that the man nicknamed “Superbrat” when he arrived at Wimbledon in the late 1970s never had a problem with. “It’s something we’ve been working together at,” said Raonic, the world No 6, after beating Federer. “He’s definitely put an emphasis on it. He told me, ‘You tend to be too calm. Try to get the energy out of you on court and leave it all out there. Try to get the most out of yourself.’”

Historically, the best ex-players have not gone into coaching. There have been some exceptions – Billie Jean King advised Martina Navratilova, and McEnroe worked briefly with Boris Becker in 1993 after he retired – but the relationships have tended to be short-lived and sometimes acrimonious. McEnroe, who was going through a divorce at the time, told the New York Times recently that Becker “basically… didn’t listen to a word I said”.

But Murray’s success with Lendl seemed to encourage other players to seek inspiration from former greats. Novak Djokovic hired Becker in December 2013 and was soon dominating the sport. The Japanese star Kei Nishikori brought in the American former French Open champion Michael Chang. Marin Čilić engaged fellow Croat Goran Ivanišević. Even Federer, searching for ways to stay at the top, began a casual consultancy with the Swedish six-time slam winner Stefan Edberg. Of the top players, the only big name to buck the trend was Rafael Nadal, whose loyalty to Toni Nadal, the uncle who has coached him since childhood, has often been questioned as he has slipped down the rankings.

How the relationship between the player and coach works is up to the two parties to agree. Tennis players operate like private companies: Raonic describes himself, straight-faced, as “the CEO of Milos Raonic Tennis”. Typically, players do not pay a percentage of their earnings to their coach, but instead offer a set wage with bonuses for strong performances. It is unknown how much Murray, for example, is paying Lendl, but he earned £6.3m in prize money in 2015, so it could be a healthy chunk of that. Djokovic made more than £16m last year.

What’s unusual about the relationships now is the power the ex-players – perhaps because they are such a scarce commodity – have to negotiate. Lendl continues to live in Florida, and is allowed to cherry-pick which tournaments he attends. McEnroe has missed watching many of Raonic’s matches at Wimbledon because of his TV commentary commitments.

Raonic, a tad defensive, said that it didn’t bother him that McEnroe was dividing his attention at Wimbledon. And, to be fair, he has three coaches, including another former world No 1, Carlos Moyá, as well as a fitness trainer, physiotherapist and nutritionist. “It doesn’t really make a difference,” he said. “I understood that when we started. It’s the terms we came to. From the beginning we had a clear understanding.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the trend for the supercoach has not yet crossed over to the women’s game. Navratilova began coaching the Polish player Agnieszka Radwańska in late 2014, but split after a few months as Radwańska’s ranking slid. Mats Wilander, another former world No 1, joined forces with the American talent Madison Keys in March, but they parted company after just eight days. Amélie Mauresmo, who described Andy Murray as “complex” when they separated after two years in May, has not yet started working with a new player. The melding of two – sometimes considerable – egos is, it seems, not always easily achieved.

The profile of the coach and a player’s “team”, formerly little known, has increased dramatically in recent times. This is partly because of the television coverage, incessantly cutting to the players’ box for reaction shots. In the social media age, an immediate response is vital, even if viewers often have to settle for Lendl sitting stony-faced, looking as if he would rather be playing golf.

Murray disagrees that old rivalries between Lendl and McEnroe will have any bearing on this afternoon’s result. “I haven’t given it too much thought,” he said. “I think it’s more for you guys [the press] than for the players, because I’m playing against Milos – I’m not playing against John, and Milos isn’t playing against Ivan.”

However you look at it, though, there’s an added element of drama in today’s final. Raonic was asked, after beating Federer, if he might be sore that McEnroe comes in for a couple of weeks and is given the credit for him winning his first grand slam. He shook his head: “At the end of the day, I get to win Wimbledon. Who cares?”

THE CHAMPION MAKERS

FOUR PLAYERS WITH A SUPERCOACH

Novak Djokovic
Has won six grand slams since teaming up with Boris Becker in late 2013.

Andy Murray
Lost four grand slam finals before Lendl, far right, guided him to Olympic victory.

Marin Čilić
Hired Goran Ivanišević as his coach in 2013 and then won the 2014 US Open.

Kei Nishikori
Has worked with Michael Chang since 2014 and has risen to world No 4 and made the 2014 US Open final.

AND TWO PLAYERS WHO NEED ONE

Tomas Berdych
Approached Lendl to be his coach but was knocked back. Has a reputation for choking on the big occasion.

Nick Kyrgios
The wild child of men’s tennis takes advice from Lleyton Hewitt but could benefit from a formal arrangement.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Tim Lewis, for The Observer on Sunday 10th July 2016 00.04 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010