andy murray, tennis, grand slams, judy murray

Murray close to grand slam breakthrough

Can female coach aid Murray’s slam quest?

Simon Cambers @scambers73

As Andy Murray considers his coaching situation over the summer, it is worth remembering that the biggest influence on the Scot’s career has been his mother, Judy.

She moulded his game, drove him all over the country to play and helped to fund his tennis education. She is still the one he will turn to in times of need.

Murray watches as much, if not more, women’s tennis than any other top male professional player I know. It is never a good idea to presume anything where the Scot is concerned but as he weighs up his long-term options, could a woman do the job? And is there any reason a woman could not do it?

Well, it should not be forgotten that the person who taught Novak Djokovic how to play when he first picked up a racket was Jelena Gencic, a legendary figure in tennis in the former Yugoslavia, who was responsible for discovering Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic. “Pretty much what I know on court I owe to her,” Djokovic has said.

Marat Safin’s mother, Rausa Islanova, started her son on the road to two grand-slam titles, the world No 1 ranking and two Davis Cup wins, coaching him from the age of six to 13. Her daughter Dinara Safina also became a world No 1 and Islanova had an important hand in helping a host of other Russians, including Elena Dementieva, to reach the top of the game.

There are plenty of female coaches in the women’s game but while women are heavily involved at grass-roots level it is still rare to see a woman as a full-time coach in the men’s game.

The common feeling is that the men would not listen to a woman, feeling they need someone who’s been through what they are going through and understands the athleticism of the men’s game.

But is it really that important?

Perhaps Murray could ask Michaël Llodra. At 31, the Frenchman is playing some of the best tennis of his life, reaching the last 16 at Wimbledon this summer and still inside the world’s top 30.

Last summer, the gifted left-hander called on his old friend, Amelie Mauresmo, to help him out over the grass-court season. The two share a flair for the game and the former women’s world No 1 offered Llodra a different perspective from his former coaches.

“We have been friends for a long time and we love to drink wine,” Llodra told me at Roland Garros. “I thought that she could help me, not with hitting the ball but to prepare for the match. It was a beautiful atmosphere (between us).

“It’s quite different and they (women) see the game differently, especially Amelie. She loves to think before she talks and it was funny, every time we talked together, she got some paper out and wanted to write things down, do things in a certain way. It was a good memory.”

For Llodra, the most important thing about choosing the right coach is how they work, not who they are. “I think you have to know perfectly the person you want (as a coach),” he said. “When you talk about how you think, you have to know them perfectly. Amelie is one of my best friends so it’s easier when I talk to her. Also, she had some problems when she was a player, in the past, so it was a good period for me to talk to her.”

There is a little of Murray about Mauresmo, a player who at one stage was considered an unfulfilled talent at the top level despite her obvious ability. That changed in 2006 when she won both her grand-slam titles, at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and Llodra said going through that experience made her ideally placed to offer advice.

“She was No 1 and hadn’t won any grand slams so the whole press were thinking she was not ready for No 1, like (Caroline) Wozniacki at the moment,” he said.

“She worked with Loic Corteau and they talked about why in the slams it was difficult for her, and she won two slams. It’s never easy when you want to work mentally with someone. For me, it was more a mental thing, to work with Amelie. You have to be aware, to learn. It was perfect.”

In researching this piece, I tried to find examples of women coaching men in other individual sports and they are few and far between. Alan Wells, the 1980 Olympic champion, was coached by his wife, Margo, a speed-training expert who has also worked with rugby players, swimmers and skiers.

Figure skaters often have women as coaches but they usually work with a group rather than individually. Is it a question of ego? Is it that women coaches don’t want to travel as much? Or is that male players just are not used to dealing with women?

Llodra is not quite the exception to the rule in tennis, though. The Uzbekistan player, Denis Istomin, has been coached by his mother, Klaudiya for some time now, but in the top 100, only two others have used or continue to employ women as coaches.

Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan is coached by his girlfriend, and Sergiy Stakhovsky, who came through the juniors with Murray, recently turned to another woman of enormous international standing, Olga Morozova. Kukushkin’s girlfriend is described later.

Morozova, the former Wimbledon and French Open runner-up, has coached the likes of Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova to the top. Few men would have as much experience and when Stakhovsky needed someone for the weeks he lives in London (his fiancée is studying there), Morozova was more than willing to stand in.

Like Llodra, Stakhovsky is not concerned with appearances, simply with results. “It’s really great because she’s really passionate about what she’s doing and she’s full of energy,” he laughed. “There are many types of coaches on tour and I would say that it’s not about who is coaching you but about what he or she can say. How do they see your game, if they see it all. If you find smart people and it’s a woman, I don’t see anything bad in that.”

Morozova said women coaching men was nothing new in Eastern Europe. “In Russia it’s completely normal,” she said. “Even now, all of the juniors are coached by women when they are young. And I think they do a better job because they are mothers. They can actually do it the way they do it with (looking after) children. They are more gentle. Being a tennis coach is like a mother, you have to think about everything.

“I think you have to be a good coach, that’s it. But, to coach men, you have to understand the game because the guys train completely different from the girls, they need more competitive situations.”

Mention Judy Murray and Morozova goes back to perhaps the first high-profile instance of a woman coaching a top player, to the 1980s when the Russian Andriy Chesnokov, paved the way for others by using Tatiana Naumko as his coach. “Chesnokov is the one,” Morozova said. “I have to say she (Naumko) was incredible. As a coach she was so strong, you could not believe it. She could make anyone do anything, but in a very nice, soft way.”

Tennis players love nothing more than to wind each other up, so having a woman as coach might seem to be a fast track to inviting abuse. But Kukushkin has taken it to another level, hiring his girlfriend Anastasia Ulikhina, a post-graduate PE student.

The two have been coach and player for more than two years and the Kazakh has been delighted with the results. “It’s helped me to improve my game – I improved by 100 spots in the rankings,” he said. “We have a good relationship and we try to really separate the relationship on the court and outside of the court. The point is to help me to improve my game.

“Some players need to have a strong coach, who follows him, who will watch and will tell him what to do. But I don’t need it. I just need the person who really wants to help, and not because of the money. I need to feel a good relationship between me and the coach.”

With his mother always there to call on if he needs her, Murray does not have to hire a female coach. But it has done wonders for Llodra, Istomin, Kukushkin and Stakhovsky, four men not afraid to be imaginative. Maybe he should not rule it out just yet.

If you enjoyed this, then check out Simon’s fascinating features “Feats of Clay” & “Technology in Sport”

10 Responses to “Role Reversal”

  1. Charles Perrin July 29, 2011

    I think Murray would be wise to entertain this idea as he needs a fresh perspective and it can’t harm him in his quest for his maiden Grand Slam title.

    I do have reservations about parents coaching their children, but clearly Judy has been a positive influence on his game in his early years.

    However, I’m not a massive Murray fan and I don’t think he can or will for that matter win a Grand Slam. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the all-round game like Nadal, Federer or Djokovic to actually win one. It is this trinity that have raised the bar and Murray is unlucky to be playing in an era when the men’s game is so strong and has real depth in terms of pool of talent floating around.

    Reply
  2. Chelsea Blue July 30, 2011

    Female coach? Get a grip. He is a huge joke as it is. He needs toughening up not mothering.

    Reply
  3. Simon Cambers July 31, 2011

    It’s just a thought, Chelsea Blue. Just interesting to see that it has worked for other decent players. Never say never.

    Reply
    • Chelsea Blue August 1, 2011

      Simon,

      You know more about tennis than I ever will. But I think too much is made of coaches in individual sports like tennis. Fed coached himself pretty much, in his pomp am I right in saying? Surely Murray needs a shrink not a coach. Has the game but not the toughness. No more excuses of coach changes just toughen up.

      Reply
  4. Simon Cambers August 1, 2011

    Agreed that he needs to take more responsibility for his actions – and I think he has admitted as much himself lately. Coaching is a strange beast. Some players just need a sounding board to bounce ideas off, others need real help with the mental side of the game and others just like the company. Each to their own. He has the game to win a slam – everyone knows that – he just needs that little bit of luck to get it done. And if he does win one, I’d expect him to win a few more.

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  5. I agree with Chelsea Blue. Sports psychologists will often identify the difference between the champions and the rest lying in their mental fortitude. Federer and Nadal share a common ability to remain indifferent to the fluctuations in both luck and their own form during the course of the seven matches played in a Grand Slam. And it’s noticeable that the progression of Djokovic from semi-finalist to champion has coincided with a new emotional maturity. Andy Murray possesses, beyond any reasonable doubt, the game to beat any player on his day. But he surely lacks a Grand Slam tournament mentality to match. Without it I fear he’ll always find himself emotionally drained come semi/final time and up against one of those mentioned above who, comparatively, remain balanced and focused. The emotional strain he puts himself under will result in Murray giving an erratic performance at the end of a Grand Slam, probably in the semi, possibly in the final. His opponent will perform at the same level they have shown in every other round. And they’ll beat him. One footnote to all this is whether Andy Murray actually cares enough to make the change. I get the sense of a young man who enjoys a much more rounded, inquisitive and expansive view of the world than is usual among top sports people. Maybe he’s actually content with what tennis has given him and doesn’t feel driven to surrender his natural instincts in the pursuit of the biggest prizes.

    Reply
  6. Lucy 'Deuce' August 2, 2011

    Why not indeed? So refreshing to see a tennis writer (enjoyed all your Wimbledon articles in the Observer on the women’s draw Simon) thinking outside the box and realising women know tennis as well as men.

    The coaching issue across all sport is a moot point. Men have coached Female sports people and teams for decades. Why not vice-versa?

    The old pathetic arguments of banter and male nudity are finally being rubbished. It is 2011 not 1980.

    If Agassi got with Steffi ten years earlier he might have won more slams.

    Now she would be some coach for any top 10 male star!

    Bravo Simon.

    Reply
  7. I think the most interesting thing about the responses so far to this piece has been that there seems to be a perception that a female coach will mother him. I don’t think that would necessarily be the case. Having spent time on court with both Judy and Olga, neither of them took the mothering approach towards players.

    I think the key ingredient will be having some one in place who can command his respect and give him their honest point of view, even if it conflicts with Andy’s own feelings. I feel up until this point Andy has worked with coaches that are happy to be there (Gilbert apart). They listen to what Andy has to say and then give him some feedback, in a sense a “Yes man (woman)”. I feel he would be better served with a coach on the front foot who is the one to come up with tactics and match feedback without worrying about upsetting him. Someone to tell him how it is, but Andy has to be listening.

    There is no doubt that Andy can beat anyone and win anything. Maybe we are searching for answers that aren’t necessary. Perhaps all he needs is a bit more luck. How often has a draw opened up for him at semi-final or final stage? He always has a hard route in front of him late on in the tournament, he forever seems to be coming up against an inform Nadal, or an on song Djokovic or ruthless Federer. Granted you have to beat the top guys to win a slam, but you don’t always have to beat all of them.

    On the main point of a female coach, I think if it was someone Andy genuinely respected and admired as a player it could work. The type of player being someone with a bit of style and charisma, but knew how to work out their opponents effectively. Andy is one of the games great thinkers and I think if he had the right person in place he could talk tactics and strategies all night long.

    Two potential candidates spring to mind. Firstly Martina Hingis, she enjoyed a similar relationship with her mother as Andy does and also she was very good at probing her opponent’s weaknesses and exploiting them to the maximum, something Andy is very good at. I think you can draw a lot of similarities between the two of them, and being a grand slam winner from such a young age, she would be someone Andy would respect.
    The other female player I would suggest from the modern era is Justine Henin. A good counter puncher and in an era of women’s tennis dominated by the Williams Sisters she was able to pick up a few trophies and reach the number one spot. I think her outlook and the way she played would go down well with Andy. To achieve what she has she had to be a great shot maker and tactician.

    I think Andy has always tried to have coaches he likes on and off court whereas maybe now he needs to revise that strategy. Maybe he needs to employ someone to be his coach and not so much his friend. I fully understand why he has gone down the route he has, its difficult to spend 11 months of the year with someone who is maybe a good coach but has zero personality. Not everyone at Man Utd will like Sir Alex, but at least if there is an issue there are other players to help you out. On the ATP Tour there is no one else to help out and take some of the strain.

    Whatever he does, I am still confident he has more than one grand slam title in him and I cannot wait to see him lift his first major trophy.

    Reply
  8. Simon Cambers August 4, 2011

    Excellent point about mothering and no surprise that Judy and Olga didn’t feel the need to go that way. Really like the idea of Murray consulting someone like Hingis or Henin, but like you said, he’ll only do it if he feels he needs it, certainly not just because people tell him to. He has to believe in his coach and I think Darren Cahill is an excellent coach and could be the man to help him win his first grand slam. And I absolutely agree that a bit of luck could go a long way. Fingers crossed.

    Reply
  9. Michael August 4, 2011

    Great article. To answer the direct question: should Andy hire a female coach? Why the heck not?!? A good eye for the game is not the domain of one particular gender.

    Would he do it? I doubt it. He seems to like his set up as it is and believes he can win a slam with it. He’s been pretty close before and will be again. I actually disagree with the inevitability of Andy winning a slam. I think he lacks a real weapon on court. Rafa’s forehand is feared much as djokovic’s backhand is too. For Andy? I don’t think he has that one big shot that others fear. His two handed backhand was that shot when he first started to make big strides in the game. He seems to have stopped developing that shot. A good coach, male or female, that works on that could help him realise his dream!

    Reply

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