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.