On Wednesday at The Queen's Club in London, England, Andy Murray won his first grass-court tennis match of the season 6-4, 6-4 over a much lower-ranked opponent, Paul-Henri Mathieu of France.
Normally, this wouldn't register as news outside of the United Kingdom, but this particular victory made headlines because it was Murray's first under his new head coach, Amelie Mauresmo.
That's right, the defending Wimbledon champion, a member of the Big Four that has defined this generation of men's tennis, is currently coached by a woman.
Murray had been searching for a coach since he parted ways with Ivan Lendl in mid March and finally announced his partnership with Mauresmo -- currently for grass-court season only -- on the Sunday of the men's French Open final. Murray is only the third man currently in the ATP top 100 coached by a woman, and is, by far, the most high profile. Denis Istomin, currently ranked No. 49, is coached by his mother, Klaudiya, and Mikhail Kukushkin, No. 50, is coached by his wife, Anastasia.
Despite her lack of male anatomy, Mauresmo is beyond qualified to be an elite coach. As a player, the Frenchwoman won two majors and held the No. 1 ranking. Since retiring in 2009 she coached countryman Michael Llodra during the 2010 grass season, advised former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, consulted with Marion Bartoli during her run to the Wimbledon title and served as the captain of France's Fed Cup team. She's smart, she's beloved, and she knows her tennis. But, considering Murray is only the second top-10 player in ATP history to name a female coach, this decision is being put through the ringer.
In 2010 Mauresmo worked with Llodra for the summer's grass-court season. Result? Queen's QF, Eastbourne W, Wimbledon 2rd lost to Roddick— Angelica Fratini (@angelikf) June 10, 2014
The tour is in England for the brief grass-court season, and the insatiable British media has been flooding press conferences with questions about the hire. Many of Murray's peers have been supportive. Mathieu, Mauresmo's countryman and the Brit's victim Wednesday, called the decision "interesting," but thought it would work. "I think she [has] a lot of experience in the game, and for sure, I mean, she loves tennis … I think she can help him, yeah."
Others share Mathieu's opinion, including 17-time major champion Roger Federer. "I always enjoyed watching her play and she is a true professional. So from that standpoint, I think it's a great choice and I hope they're going to be a successful team together."
Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion and former No. 1, is looking at the big picture. "It's great for women's tennis. It shows we can be as powerful as males and maybe on the girls' tour there will be more female coaches now."
Pat Cash, who won Wimbledon in 1987, was supportive of the move, too. "Most people will probably be surprised but it may well work," he said. He did have one big concern, though: "I'm not sure how she's going to get in the locker room."
Predictably, however, not everyone has been as open minded.
Ernests Gulbis, who, like Murray, lost in the semifinals of the French Open, used the news to showcase his sense of humor. "I am waiting for a couple of good-looking tennis players to also quit so that I can have a new coach -- Sharapova, Ivanovic, Azarenka maybe," he quipped. The Latvian made headlines during his Roland Garros run for stating he didn't want his sisters to become tennis players. "A woman needs to enjoy life a little bit more," he said. "Needs to think about family, needs to think about kids." Gulbis was upset in the second round of the Aegon Championships by No. 66 Kenny de Schepper on Wednesday.
Marinko Matosevic, an Australian ATP player who was 0-12 in Grand Slam matches before winning his first (and still only) match at a major during this year's French Open, wasn't too impressed with the decision either. "I couldn't do it since I don't think that highly of the women's game," he said after his first-round upset over Marin Cilic at Queen's Club. "It's all equal rights these days. Got to be politically correct. So, yeah, someone's got to give it a go. Won't be me."
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Since the hubbub over the Murray and Mauresmo union began, two camps of tennis fans have formed: Those who are confused or curious about the decision, and those who are angry the decision is making news.
While it certainly would be nice to live in a world where a female being appointed as a coach for a top male athlete was just another bit of news to be skimmed over, the truth is we're not there yet. We're not even close. The fact this is a significant event might be eye-roll-inducing, but the reasons why it still has such significance in 2014 need to be discussed. Progress isn't made unless the underlying problems are addressed.
In the media circus surrounding this, the two concerns voiced most often have been Mauresmo's lack of locker-room access and Mauresmo's shortcomings as a player.
Journalists have been frequently asking players in press conferences what Murray and Mauresmo will do since she won't be allowed in the locker room, as if that will significantly disrupt their relationship. Of course, it simply won't. The male coaches on the women's tour seem to find a way to communicate with their athletes despite the fact they can't advance past the door that says "women." That's probably because the great majority of a player's day is not spent in a locker room, and these days, there are many forms of communication to use to talk with someone who is not physically beside you. At least Andy Murray didn't seem concerned with this issue. "[T]here's enough places where you can chat," he said.
Another common worry seems to be Mauresmo's résumé. Never mind she won Wimbledon and the Australian Open and rose to the top of the rankings. Occasionally, she choked in big matches. Plus, you know, those wins came on the women's tour, not the men's.
This, too, is a hard apprehension to justify. Most coaches were not great players. Lendl, Murray's former coach, was the exception, not the rule. Toni Nadal and Richard Williams were never professional tennis players at all. Of the professional tennis players who went on to be successful coaches, such as Brad Gilbert, Magnus Norman and Larry Stefanki, very few were even contenders at a major championship.
From a coaching perspective does it matter if you're a man or woman? A lot of coaches on tour haven't even played tennis before— Heather Watson (@HeatherWatson92) June 8, 2014
At the best, these concerns display ignorance. At worst, these are just excuses to cover up the real issue: People aren't comfortable with the idea of a woman coaching a man.
Some may simply call it a preference, or even admit that, like Matosevic, they just don't respect women's tennis. But for many, it's part of a much bigger issue, a symptom of a society where women are often still expected to be supportive and submissive, and therefore, among other things, are routinely overlooked for leadership positions.
Conscious or not, gender bias is prevalent and harmful.
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Even in women's tennis, the biggest professional sport in the world for women, female coaches are scarce.
Last year's Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki is coached informally by Martina Hingis, but her father also shares in the duties. She's the only player in the top 20 who has a female coach on her team. Ekaterina Makarova, who currently sits at No. 23, is coached by former player Evgenia Manyukova. Of the Americans, Serena Williams still lists her mother as a coach, but she primarily works with Patrick Moratoglou these days. Rising star Taylor Townsend, the 18-year-old who made waves at the French Open, is coached by both genders: Zina Garrison and Kamau Murray. These examples are hard to come by.
Two years ago, Bobby Chintapalli of USA Today investigated why the women's tour didn't have more female coaches. Lifestyle was the most common explanation, followed closely by the fact women coaches often can't double as hitting partners.
But other reasons were suggested, too. "I think sexism is at work here, in a much broader and deeper way than some might think," Diane Elayne Dees of Women Who Serve said. "If men leave their families and travel for their work, they're considered 'good providers.' If women do, they're considered 'bad mothers.'"
Of course, tennis isn't the only sport missing female coaches. Christine Brennan of USA Today reported that in college sports, Title IX has helped female athletes, but hurt female coaches. "As women's team coaching positions become more visible and powerful, from graduate assistant to head coaches, women less frequently occupy those positions of authority," said Nicole M. LaVoi, associate director of the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.
Last month, Helen Costa made news as France's first female coach of a top male professional sports team when she was appointed the coach of Clermont Foot, a second-tier professional football team. While speaking to an over-packed room of reporters about her new position she said, "I understand your surprise and the quantity of press and the impact but, we are in 2014, it should be a normal thing."
When asked in March about the lack of female coaches, tennis legend Billie Jean King spoke frankly to BBC's tennis correspondent, Russell Fuller. "It's a big mistake because we are a great resource, and they should ask. Nobody ever comes to me and says 'Will you help me with my game?' anymore.
"We've been taught that we're not as good at things," she said. "That's the way world culture works. I don't think it ever crosses their mind.
"We grew up seeing the world through men's eyes. You can say it's good or bad -- it doesn't matter -- but the point is we have. That's the way we perceive the world because men wrote the stories and decided what would be on television."
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On Thursday, Murray suffered his first loss in 20 grass-court matches, falling in straight sets to No. 42 Radek Stepanek, 7-6 (10), 6-2 in the third round of Queen's Club. In the first set, he failed to convert eight set points. He looked lost, like he had not yet transitioned his tactics from clay to grass. It was simply a bad day at the office.
Even though it's far too early to evaluate whether Mauresmo is an effective coach for Murray, some fans and journalists have already taken to social media to question the partnership. There was even an expected #backtothekitchen quip.
Fair or not, there is a lot of pressure on this union.
As with any glass-ceiling case, it will be seen as a test subject, not an individual situation. If it succeeds, it could help more women find coaching opportunities in tennis. If it is over quickly, it will be seen as a setback. But Murray and Mauresmo are trying not to get caught up in all of that.
"I guess it is a big story to write on and a step forward," Mauresmo told reporters. "But honestly, it's not my big concern right now. I'm happy about this new challenge. I want to help Andy. It's the only thing that I have in mind."
Murray is the perfect person to lead this charge. His mother, Judy, coached him and traveled with him as he grew up, and she is currently Britain's Fed Cup coach and a huge proponent of female coaches in tennis. Andy has always shown an affinity for women's tennis, much more so than many of his peers, at least. He frequently tweets about the female players and talks fondly about the WTA Tour.
But don't mistake this as a social justice move. It's not the time for that. The Brit currently has two major titles, a big deal for a guy who was once the most famous bridesmaid in men's tennis. However, since winning Wimbledon last year, Murray has struggled. He was off the tour due to back surgery last fall, and his comeback has been slow.
"The fact that she's a woman really wasn't something I considered much once the decision was made," Murray wrote in a blog on his website. "I've brought in Amelie because I feel like I need something extra. I've won Grand Slam titles now and that's the level I want to get back to."
Murray is not focused on being proper to placate Mauresmo's "feminine sensitivies," as Neil Harman of The Times suggested. He surely doesn't care about how she does her hair. At 27, the Brit is very much in the prime of his career, and his only focus is on becoming a better player and adding to his major tally.
Murray is looking for some guidance at a crucial stage in his career, and he thinks this is the coach who can help him. The gender may be groundbreaking, but the goal is not. Like all of the other coaches and players in professional tennis, Mauresmo and Murray just want to win.
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