Tennis may boast prizemoney parity but few women sit in the coach’s box. Linda Pearce looks at the challenges facing women at the elite level.
Back in 2014, when Andy Murray took what was then regarded as the extraordinary step of hiring Frenchwoman and former world No.1 Amelie Mauresmo to head his coaching team, the shock was palpable. The judgements overwhelmingly negative.
But, for some added context, consider this: then, as now, few of the leading women players employ female coaches, so why would men at the top of the game?
Indeed, for a sport that prides itself on the prizemoney parity it offers at its four biggest events, tennis is hardly a shining example of gender equality when it comes to another set of numbers: the coaching kind. In 2018, just eight per cent of the top 100 on the WTA rankings were coached, in some capacity, by a woman. This week, it was two of the top 20—No.10 Kiki Bertens (Elise Tamaëla) and No.15 Garbine Muguruza (Conchita Martinez).
So, why is it so? “It shouldn’t be a complicated question, but there’s a little bit more than meets the eye,’’ says former doubles star, now high-profile broadcaster Rennae Stubbs, who is currently working with fellow Australian Sam Stosur.
“It’s a myriad of different things,’’ adds respected Tennis Australia coach and former world No.35 Nicole Pratt. “It’s quite complex. In terms of culture, a lot of female players have only ever experienced male coaches, and at the end of the day if we want to stereotype, often females are having children and there’s complexities around juggling family and career.’’
Money a driver when it comes to coaches
One driver is financial, according to Stubbs, who is not afraid to describe many tennis players as “cheap”. Thus the appeal of economising by combining a coach with a hitting partner in a two-for-one deal, even if both credentials can therefore be questionable.
“Some feel that maybe a guy who doesn’t have anywhere near the experience or knowledge, or is in no way, shape or form a better ‘coach’, is a great hitter,’’ says Stubbs, whose highest profile client was former world No.1 and US Open finalist Karolina Pliskova.
“Which is not to say that I can’t hit, or Amelie Mauresmo can’t hit, or Conchi (Martinez) can’t hit or Nicole Pratt can’t hit, for example. But are they as good a hitter as a guy that’s 35, 40 years of age that can whack a ball a bit more aggressively, or get to a ball that maybe I can’t any more?
“So there will be some women players on tour who say ‘oh, it’s cheaper for me to have a guy that I can hit with’, and then you get some where you go ‘your guy can’t hit at all’, so there’s no excuse around this, right?’… I just think in the end it comes down to ‘you have to see it to be it, and you have to see it to believe it’.”
Tennis Australia’s focus on female coaches
Last year, Tennis Australia appointed Pratt to the new role of Females in Tennis—Coach Lead, as part of a federally funded program to address the gender imbalance by attracting, developing and retaining women coaches. The KPI: 10% growth in the next three years. Having acknowledged the important role females play in keeping girls engaged in sport during their teen years, there is also a Tennis Australia scholarship program in place.
The high performance situation is “better than it’s been in the past, but we certainly have a long way to go,” says Pratt, who has worked individually with the likes of Casey Dellacqua and Daria Gavrilova and remains in a hands-on coaching role with Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup team.
Stubbs recalls a conversation with Canadian Genie Bouchard last year, while the pair were working together temporarily, when the former Wimbledon finalist said female coaches often had a better emotional understanding of their players.
“I wish that more women would give women opportunities,’’ says Stubbs. “To these top players, if you’re not winning grand slams because you feel like you’re missing something, whatever it is, maybe it’s just the way someone talks to you, maybe it’s just the way makes you feel.
“When you make a player feel amazing, and you understand them, that sometimes is the difference, and with women a lot of it is definitely about how to approach them and how to talk to them. That’s important.’’
You have to see it to believe it
So back to Murray, proud feminist and son of a female coach, who will miss the upcoming Australian Open after contracting COVID-19 before the official charter flights delivered 1200 players and entourage members into hotel quarantine in Melbourne and Adelaide ahead of the February 8-21 event.
What if a similar appointment was made now? If, say, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic announced the appointment of a female coach? Would there be any less hysteria than back when Murray’s ground-breaking move came in 2014?
“Maybe slightly less, but doubtful,’’ says Stubbs. “If Roger Federer turns up in the Middle East with a woman coach everyone would be like ‘what the hell?’ That would be in the news for weeks, wouldn’t it?’’
Indeed, but as for whether Stubbs can foresee a time when that reaction changes, she is less confident than hopeful, while also able to list a handful of men she would love to work with “because some guys also need to be emotionally targeted, and challenged a little bit’’.
Stubbs’ list of sensitive souls includes current or former top-tenners Stefanos Tsitsipas, Grigor Dimitrov and Matteo Berrettini, young Canadians Felix Auger-Aliassime and, yes, combustible Australian Nick Kyrgios.
For Pratt, in terms of high performance, the greatest opportunity missed is the fact that male players don’t regard females as “viable” coaches. “That’s where I would love in the future to see a bigger shift. We’ve literally only ever had one female coach, and that was Amelie Mauresmo.
“I think people would still be shocked if a profile (male) player chose a female coach, but we need to normalise that, and the only way we normalise that is to see it more often.
“That’s probably the greatest challenge moving forward, and it filters down along the whole coaching pathway. Young boys think, maybe, that the better choice is a male coach, because that’s all they see at the top of the game. So we certainly need some role modelling to happen that can have an influence down the pathway.’’