In Andy Murray’s section of the men’s singles at Melbourne Park, oestrogen levels could hardly be any higher. Murray reached the last 16 at the Australian Open by beating Michael Llodra, a Frenchman who has used Amelie Mauresmo, a former women’s world number one, as a coaching consultant. His next opponent is Mikhail Kukushkin, a Kazakh who is coached by his wife, Anastasia Ulikhina.
And while Murray has a new man in his corner, Ivan Lendl, there can be no doubt that the Scot’s mother and first coach, Judy, still has some influence over her son’s tennis life. Sexism on the men’s tour? It’s going the way of white tennis balls and flannel trousers. At the highest levels, men coaching women is so commonplace as to be totally unremarkable. Women coaching men, while still unusual, is no longer as rare as it used to be (there are, of course, examples from yesteryear such as Gloria Connors guiding her son Jimmy). Donald Young, the talented young American, is being coached by his mother Ilona, while Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin also has his mum, Klaudiya, as his coach. Sergiy Stakhovsky, of the Ukraine, has taken advice from Olga Morozova: “There are many types of coaches on tour and I would say 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.”
These examples will be of interest to Judy Murray, who when she agreed to become Britain’s Fed Cup captain, disclosed that one of the reasons for taking the job was that she wanted to counter “a little bit of sexism” and encourage and promote more female coaches.
Kukushkin said that he and Anastasia have managed to separate their business and personal lives. “Working with her has helped me to improve my game – I improved by 100 spots in the rankings. We have a good relationship and we try to separate the relationship on the court and outside of the court. The point is to help me improve my game. Some players need to have a strong coach, who follows him, who will watch and 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,” he said.
Llodra, whose working relationship with Mauresmo has been based on psychology, preparations for matches, and a shared love of wine, suggested that women have a different take on tennis and give a player a new perspective. “We have been friends for a long time and we love to drink wine. I thought that she could help me, not with hitting the ball but to prepare for matches. It was a beautiful atmosphere between us. It’s quite different and 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’s a good memory.”
Of course, there are some who are still surprised that a male tennis player would be coached by a woman.”Sometimes I get a look like, ‘How is this possible?’ I don’t think there is a problem,” Istomin said. “A player will practise with his father if he is the coach. I am happy she is my coach because she wants to see my results, not take my money. She works with me because I am her son. We have a good relationship and we understand each other. Sometimes, the woman knows better.”
A good number of the leading players will have been coached, when they were juniors, by women. Novak Djokovic has said of his first coach, a Jelena Gencic: “Pretty much what I know on court I owe to her.” Marat Safin’s tennis education was started by his mother. Morozova has said that women coaching men is nothing to be alarmed at: “In Russia it’s completely normal. 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 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 differently from the girls, they need more competitive situations.”