Discovered in the player garden at Flushing Meadows this week: Ivan Lendl and Jamie Delgado, the past and present coaches of Andy Murray. You might imagine that they were discussing some abstruse technical issue, but in fact the ever-provocative Lendl was just giving Delgado grief about his bald head.
Delgado simply smiled and took the ribbing in good heart. But then it is hard to imagine how you might successfully wind this man up. Softly spoken and endlessly patient, he has the reassuring mien you might look for in a driving instructor. This has come in useful over the past 13 months – a period during which he has helped Murray overcome the most debilitating injury of his career.
“It’s been tough for him, primarily,” said Delgado, once he had escaped the Lendl jibes. “But it’s been tough for everyone. You think back to January in Australia and there was a sense of excitement: fresh year, fresh start, new goals. And then he couldn’t play, and you never know how an operation will go.
“We stayed out there [in Melbourne, where Murray underwent hip surgery] for ten days, until he was able to fly back. That’s something I’ve learned through coaching. There’s so many different hats you have to wear. It’s not just forehands and backhands. When to push someone or just let them be, whether they’re having a good time or a bad time. You’re with these people a lot, you’re eating meals with them. And sometimes you’re just a friend.”
Happily, the period when Delgado and the rest of the team were primarily offering moral support is in the past. Training began again in March, and despite a sticky period in May – when Murray’s body grumbled so much that he had to stay off the court for several weeks – he has now played seven matches on the tour.
None of those, however, was at a grand slam. When Murray faces Australia’s James Duckworth on Monday at the US Open, it will be his first best-of-five set contest in 13 months. Thousands of hours of heartache and rehab have all led up until this moment.
“We’ve had some tough times, no doubt about it,” says Delgado now. “But he gives you confidence as well because of the mentality that he has and the fighter that he is. If anyone can turn this around or come through this you would bet on him.
“When I see him achieve some of the goals he has done already in the last few years, I am very, very proud of him. Because I know how much it means to him, how much he puts into it and how hard it is to do.
“I’m so happy for him to be playing again here because I know how tough it’s been, a lot of people writing him off. But I wouldn’t write him off – that’s for sure. Because his talent hasn’t gone anywhere, his desire hasn’t gone anywhere, he is working very hard. If his body can keep improving, even if it’s slow …
“Is he going to be playing 50 tournaments a year, winning every one? Probably not. But he can still peak for certain events, why not? And have some great moments.
“If Andy can really get back up there and compete with the best, in my opinion it would be the biggest achievement of his career. Obviously he has achieved so much already but this would be absolutely amazing.
“I’ve only been around him professionally for a few years, and he has won Wimbledon and the Olympics and been No. 1 in the world. But if he was to win something big now, the feeling of emotion would be way, way more.”
If sport is about making the most of what you have, Delgado showed similar tenacity. He reached No. 121 on the singles ladder, and No. 57 in doubles, but perhaps his greatest achievement was appearing at a record 23 consecutive Wimbledons before his retirement in 2014.
His easygoing manner means that he is extremely well connected. As a 10-year-old, he won a tennis scholarship from the former British Davis Cup player David Lloyd – also known as the founder of the sports-centre chain – to go to Reeds School in Cobham, where he was a couple of years behind Tim Henman.
The link with the Lloyd family has been re-established over the past year, since David’s son Scott took over as the head of the Lawn Tennis Association, and Delgado became one of his closest advisors. In April, he was announced as part of a three-person “Performance Advisory Panel”, alongside Henman and the former British No. 1 Sam Smith.
“The idea is to meet three times a year,” says Delgado. “Scott was around a lot when I was a kid, I’ve known him a long time, and he has just brought together a few people who he trusts.”
Delgado has thus been multi-tasking furiously since arriving in New York. Apart from supervising Murray’s practice sessions, he helped out as a locum coach for Katie Swan – the fast-rising 19-year-old who is part of Murray’s management stable – because the usual incumbent Diego Veronelli suffered visa problems that kept him out of the country.
And then there is Delgado’s work as an ambassador for Tie Break Tens, the short-form concept that staged its fifth major event in New York in March, featuring Serena Williams and Marion Bartoli. “I think the youngsters of today get a bit bored with long matches if I’m honest,” he says. “The idea of having short tie-breaks – shoot-outs that only last 15 minutes – I think is good fun.”
Primarily, though, this week is about Murray. “When you’re out there in the player’s box, you’re feeling all the emotions of every point,” says Delgado. “You’re living it with him but you don’t have much control over what happens. You’ve done your bit really, you have tried to prepare him as much as you can. Now it’s over to him, and it’s an exciting time.”
Tie Break Tens have launched a grass-roots movement in the UK called TB10 Play. Go to www.tiebreaktens.com