How Andy Murray Can Regain His Mental Strength and Win Slams Again

04/27/2016 11:32 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2017

Andy Murray's prodigious natural talent and commitment to physical fitness have never been sufficient in themselves to win him Grand Slam tournaments. To secure his first US Open and Wimbledon titles, he needed the intervention of 8-time major title winner Ivan Lendl, who served as his coach from late 2011 through early 2014.

Lendl helped Murray primarily by transforming his mental game.

Before the Lendl period, Murray reached three Grand Slam finals, but underperformed in each, losing in straight sets to Roger Federer (US Open 2008, Australian Open 2010) and Novak Djokovic (Australian Open 2011).

In his book Seventy-Seven, Murray reveals that in 2011 his self-esteem was low and that he felt like a loser. Haunted by a sense of failure, he knew that he had the ability to beat the best players, and he regularly did so at lesser tournaments.

In Grand Slam finals, however, he couldn't cope with the pressure, and allowed his rivals to dominate.

Everything pointed towards a mental block, and his rivals knew it. Following Murray's defeat to Rafael Nadal at the 2011 US Open, Novak Djokovic made clear that all that stood between Murray and his first Grand Slam win was his mental approach. Murray had spent much of the Nadal match shouting at his box, criticizing himself and generally exacerbating his negative headspace. He slumped physically and Nadal took advantage.

This pattern of negative self-talk leading to tentative play and disappointing defeat was typical of Murray on big occasions. Something had to change.

Murray appointed Lendl as his coach in December 2011. The next two years would be his most successful yet, and they remain the peak of his achievement. The Murray who lost in 2012 to Djokovic in Melbourne and Federer at Wimbledon was a reformed character. Yes, he still expressed emotion on court, but he no longer wasted mental energy by endlessly remonstrating with himself.

The new Murray was willing to dictate play, and his style shifted from defense to offense at the right moments. Only absolute brilliance from his opponents denied him victory.

His first Grand Slam success at Flushing Meadow in 2012 was gutsy and fully deserved. 2013 started well in Melbourne, where Murray beat Roger Federer for the first time at a Slam. Winning Wimbledon that year marked the pinnacle of Murray's career to date, and proved the ultimate vindication of Lendl's method.

What did Lendl do to bring about this remarkable improvement in Murray's mental game?

Above all, he taught Murray how to disengage from his unhelpful thinking and play in the present moment. Lendl himself had learned how to do this 25 years previously.

Like Murray, Lendl suffered a series of Grand Slam final defeats before finally winning his first major title at the 1984 French Open. Despite this breakthrough, Lendl continued to struggle to stay calm on crunch points in big matches.

In early 1985, Lendl consulted a sports psychologist who taught him a series of mental exercises which enabled him to focus on his experience from moment to moment and not get caught up in negative thinking.

One of Lendl's mental exercises aimed at developing concentration through observation of everyday objects. Another involved describing objects in detail to enhance mental focus. A third exercise involved developing detachment from thoughts and emotions through a process of observation and acknowledgement.

Today we would call this a form of mindfulness training. It was tremendously effective.

Lendl won his first of three consecutive US Opens in 1985, and in 1986 and 1987 he also won again at Roland Garros. Five Grand Slams in three glorious years, over which time he maintained a match win record of above 90%.

By observing and noting his thoughts and emotions, but not engaging with them, Lendl transformed his career. He passed these techniques onto Murray, even having Murray meet with the same psychologist who had helped him so many years previously.

Murray developed a new composure and confidence on court. He cut down the vocal self-criticism and negative body language. Instead of getting tight and defensive in tense moments, he was proactive and aggressive. His concentration improved. He seemed to be enjoying playing more. And he won Grand Slams.

Lendl left the Murray team in March 2014. Murray was deeply upset at Lendl's departure. His mental game began to deteriorate in the big matches.

Facing Grigor Dimitrov in that year's Wimbledon quarter final, Murray's negative chatter and body language returned in full force. In the 2015 Australian Open final, mental lapses from Murray let Djokovic off the hook and opened the door for the Serb to claim another major trophy. At the World Tour Finals, Murray lost his cool, talking down to himself and smashing his racket as Stan Wawrinka knocked him out of the tournament.

Fast forward to 2016, and Murray is still struggling with his mental game. A lackluster performance against Djokovic in the Australian Open final saw history repeating itself. Most recently, in the semi-final of the Monte Carlo Masters event, despite playing an astonishing opening set against Nadal, Murray got rattled by what he saw as the umpire's lenience towards Nadal's slowness between points. He wasted mental energy arguing with the umpire and lost his cool, never to regain his scintillating form of the first set.

Murray acknowledges that this behaviour is counter-productive, but post-Lendl, he has been much less effective in stopping it.

At last year's tournament in Rotterdam, Murray inadvertently left a tactical and mental checklist courtside following his defeat to Gilles Simon. At the top of the list, he had written the simple message 'Be good to yourself'. Murray's relentless on-court self-criticism indicates that he finds it very hard to do this.

Lendl taught him how to let go of his negative thoughts and emotions. Reconnecting with the mindful psychological techniques that Lendl gave him is the surest way for Murray to fulfil his potential and win more majors.

Neil Endicott is an author, coach and founder of Mindfulness-Based Tennis Psychology, an online mental training course for tennis players.

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