Sports

Wanted: Women to Coach Female Tennis Players

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But a number of new initiatives, many of them coming from governing bodies, are focused on implementing change.

“I think the biases have been too deeply ingrained in society, so I don’t think it’s been questioned much until now,” said Martin Blackman, the general manager for player development at the United States Tennis Association. “But I really do think we’re going to see some changes with more female coaches of top-100 players. I think federations are starting to get it.”

Players may be starting to get the message, too.

It starts with emerging talents like Daria Gavrilova, a 22-year-old Australian who has long been coached by Nicole Pratt and has added Biljana Veselinovic to her team, and Ana Konjuh, an 18-year-old from Croatia who reached the quarterfinals of this year’s United States Open under her new coach, Jelena Kostanic Tosic, a former top-50 player.

“I think it’s important because men haven’t played the women’s tour,” Konjuh said. “The tennis is different, and Jelena’s been through all that, and she can help me that way. For a men’s coach, he might have watched all that on the side, but it’s not the same as being on the court and playing.”

Could there be a generational shift in attitudes?

Kathy Rinaldi, 49, a former top-10 player from the United States, is one of the most prominent female American coaches. Working at the U.S.T.A., she is the lead coach for the women on Team U.S.A., helping young Americans outside the top 100 try to make the transition to the elite.

“When I first started with the U.S.T.A., I was basically the only female coach there,” Rinaldi said. “And when I would go with the youngsters or with the pros to the tournaments, I was one of the only female coaches.

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Biljana Veselinovic with Lucie Safarova after Safarova’s victory at the Fed Cup in Prague in 2012.

Credit
CTK, via Associated Press

“Now, when I travel whether it’s junior Fed Cup or events for even younger players, you are seeing so many more female coaches, and I also think female coaches are reaching out to other female coaches.”

There is little leverage to impose change on individual players. They are independent contractors who have the right to choose their own private coaches, whatever their gender. National federations — often publicly funded — are a different matter. The U.S.T.A., Tennis Australia and Tennis Canada are among those attempting to recruit more female coaches, and the French Tennis Federation has embarked on a formal study of the subject.

In August, before the U.S. Open, Blackman and the U.S.T.A. invited 40 leading female American coaches at all levels to a two-day symposium in New York. The U.S.T.A. plans to implement some of the recommendations from that meeting and to share the findings on Monday with the participants in a webinar.

“We have a role to play in breaking down barriers and confronting biases that exist in our sport and the coaching community,” Katrina M. Adams, the U.S.T.A.’s chairwoman and president, said in an email.

Blackman, who played tennis at Stanford, said one of the obvious moves was to reach out to American college and professional players and make them more aware of their coaching options at an early stage. The U.S.T.A. also plans to expand its small fellowship program for female coaches and to make hitting partners available on the road, which could encourage more women to hire what Blackman calls “a female master coach.”

“Given the increase in prize money across the board, I also feel more players will now have the ability to really determine whether it’s the most important thing to have a male coach who can hit,” said Pratt, 43, a former top-40 singles player who retired in 2008. “Because of the money, players will be in a position where they can choose the coach for being a coach, not for being a good hitter.”

Blackman agrees and wants to accelerate the hiring of female coaches in the U.S.T.A.’s player development program. But Pratt and others emphasized that change would start with having more female coaches at the introductory levels.

“It almost has to start from the grass roots because I think a lot of these kids grow up with men’s coaches and sort of go from man to man as they move up,” said Chris Evert, a former No. 1 player.

The issue is global, said Luca Santilli, executive director of tennis development at the International Tennis Federation. Santilli was part of a junior tennis task force in 2014 involving 10 nations, including Argentina, Australia, Britain, France, Japan and the United States. Santilli said the share of coaches in those nations who are women was about 20 percent over all.

Tennis Australia now has a scholarship program for female coaches at all levels.

Steve Simon, the WTA Tour’s chief executive, said the WTA was about to begin a program designed to raise the profile of tour coaches and educate current women’s tour players about how to pursue a future as a coach.

“The hope is this could become something viable for them as another option when they decide to end their playing career, rather than just going and doing broadcast work or something else,” Simon said.

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Lindsay Davenport in Madison Keys’s players’ box at last year’s Australian Open. Keys is making her debut in the WTA Finals this year.

Credit
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

For now, the only members of the WTA’s top 50 who list a primary female coach are Ekaterina Makarova, Jelena Ostapenko and Gavrilova, although Ostapenko recently worked on a trial basis with Wim Fissette, a prominent male coach.

Other players have female coaches as part of their teams. Elina Svitolina, the talented Ukrainian ranked 15th, is working part time with the former No. 1 Justine Henin.

Two women who have qualified for Singapore this year have had prominent female coaches: Agnieszka Radwanska briefly worked with Martina Navratilova on a consultant basis in 2015; Madison Keys, an American who will be making her WTA Finals debut, was coached by Lindsay Davenport last year, with help from Davenport’s husband, Jon Leach, and Lisa Raymond, a former WTA doubles star.

But with four young children, Davenport has expanded personal commitments, so Keys has hired one of the most successful male coaches in the women’s game: Thomas Hogstedt, a former coach of Li Na and Maria Sharapova.

The combination of family responsibilities and the demanding travel on tour is a major factor dissuading women from coaching. “The men can still go on the road if they have a family and not disrupt the family,” said Evert, who has advised many female players at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., and is now mentoring CiCi Bellis, a young American.

Evert added: “It’s much harder for women. It’s 35 weeks a year, the weeks on the road and the weeks off the road training with your player.”

Pratt, now the head of women’s tennis at Tennis Australia, has tried to limit the absences by taking her partner and her young twin daughters with her to Europe for part of the year. But she will not be coaching Gavrilova on the road next year because she cannot commit to that level of travel.

“At this moment, I can’t commit to that level of travel I have in the last eight years, and I’m fortunate I have been given a role where I can have the broader brush,” she said.

Pratt said she remained convinced female coaches are an essential, undervalued resource who can provide a tactical advantage. She sees a double standard in women being dismissed as potential coaches on the men’s tour because they lack understanding of the men’s game while men are routinely hired to coach in the women’s game.

But for now, when the cameras in Singapore zoom in on the on-court coaching breaks during changeovers, it will be men doing the advising.

Brad Gilbert, a veteran men’s coach, said he thought that would change.

“I really believe,” he said, “that 10 years down the road, it could look a lot different.”

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