NEW YORK, New York - There is a Top 10 player who has, not one, but two, female coaches. That’s not a common sight in the upper echelons of professional tennis. But it can be.
World No.8 Karolina Pliskova is accompanied by former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez at the US Open, and is also working with Rennae Stubbs, who is taking a backseat this fortnight due to her media commitments in New York, but will resume her coaching role with the Czech after the tournament is over.
Last year, Jelena Ostapenko won the French Open with two women in her corner, her mother Jelena Jakovleva, as well as Spanish former world No.16 Anabel Medina Garrigues.
Ex-world No.1 Lindsay Davenport helped guide Madison Keys to the US Open final last season.
Medina Garrigues has since moved on to a new role as Fed Cup captain, while Davenport decided to scale back her travel schedule and is no longer officially part of Keys’ coaching camp but continues to advise the American on a friendly basis when necessary.
In 2014, former world No.1 Andy Murray made waves on the tennis tour when he hired French two-time Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo as a coach, in a move nearly unheard of at the top of the men’s game. The Scottish star, a vocal advocate for women’s tennis and gender equality, later spoke out about the unfair judgment Mauresmo received when she was his coach, simply because she was a woman.
But his mother and childhood coach, Judy Murray, who is a British former Fed Cup captain and has years of coaching experience, believes Andy ended up inspiring others to follow suit – at least on the women’s circuit.
“I think the women’s tour is dominated by male coaches and it’s been that way for a long time," Judy Murray told WTA Insider. "But I think that after Andy started working with Amelie Mauresmo I think a number of the women saw that actually bringing somebody into their teams that had that experience of being successful at the top-end of the game as a player would be something that could help them in the major events.”
WTA legend Martina Navratilova had a brief stint with Agnieszka Radwanska, while Justine Henin had a spell as part of Elina Svitolina’s team. Seven-time Grand Slam champion Henin is now a consultant for Ukrainian teen Dayana Yastremska.
Besides Pliskova, other players in the Top 100 currently working with female coaches include Ekaterina Makarova, who has reunited with her long-time coach Evgeniya Manyukova and Petra Martic, who is working Sandra Zaniewska.
World No.49 Aleksandra Krunic, who won her first WTA title at the Libéma Open in s-Hertogenbosch in June, prefers to work almost exclusively with women.
She pays tribute to the male coaches she has had in the past and remains close with all of them, but she has her reasons for her preference and is currently coached by Biljana Veselinovic and Elise Tamaela. She won her maiden title with Sarah Stone in her box – an Australian who is the founder of the Women’s Tennis Coaching Association (WTCA).
“The only thing that I mind when working with guys is that they are trying to gain the authority by putting a girl down very often and I know it comes from their own insecurities, but I think what my ex-coach Sarah Stone is doing, just to bring awareness and educate male coaches to work with female coaches," Krunic told WTA Insider following her opening round win at the US Open on Tuesday.
"So WTCA is not only about – let’s just have all women coaches, no. It’s just about educating guys to work with girls because we’re more sensitive. And of course some girls they like tough coaches because they are used to it.”
“I feel more understanding and maybe it’s also because of the mother instincts that we have that is more accepting. It’s just what I like.”
While it seems that more female coaches are appearing at the top of the game, the numbers do not necessarily reflect that.
A mere 8% of the women in the Top 100 work with a female coach, in some capacity. Stone says that figure was the same for players in the Top 200 three years ago when she decided to launch the WTCA, an organization formed solely in support of coaches working with female players. In 2015, Stone was having a conversation with her friend, Nicole Kriz, who was coaching Destanee Aiava at the time, and they talked about how tough it was being one of the few female coaches on tour.
“The numbers were really low, we just thought, ‘What can we do about it?’” said Stone.
“A lot of the reason why female coaches don’t want to be part of it is that there’s not enough females, so that’s a difficult thing, and also they see that when they’ve tried to have a voice a lot of the time they kind of got shut down.”
Both Judy Murray and Stone cite the tough travel schedule as one of the main factors discouraging former players from taking up coaching. Makarova, who was coached by women for the majority of her career, admits she finds it hard to imagine becoming a coach herself after she retires.
“It’s tough to be a coach because you need to forget about everything you’ve done, yourself [as a player], and everything is about the player, not about you," Makarova said. "The professional career is very long and it’s tough to forget about yourself. But coaching is definitely an interesting option.”
Judy Murray is someone who is constantly playing an active role in finding ways to encourage more women to enter the tennis-coaching realm. She believes the issue is the absence of women from many leadership roles in the sport. In her estimate, the tennis-coaching scene is 85% and 15% women.
“You need more women in decision-making positions to make things happen for women,” Murray said. “All change comes from the top and what you tend to find is that people at the top of governing bodies are men, and men will think and act on behalf of men first and that’s why if we could have a women and girls strand to every development strategy that is headed by women, I think we’d make more of the right things happen to grow the female side of the game.”
It’s not just the sports governing bodies that don’t have enough women, it’s the industry as well.
“I talked to Anastasia Skavronskaia who is an agent from Octagon and she says it’s the same in her industry, there’s not as many female agents," Stone said. "So it’s kind of across the board. If the agents can keep promoting female coaches, [that can help]."
When it comes to female coaches, there is also sometimes a perception issue. Since the majority of coaches are men, players seem to automatically trust them more to work with.
“I know a lot of girls don’t like working with females but I also know they never gave it a chance and they don’t respect females the same way," said Krunic. "But they have to understand that they are females as well, it doesn’t make sense."
“I don’t think that respect should be gained by gender. Why would it? Why would I respect a guy athlete more than I respect a girl athlete or vice versa? It’s the same. I think we’re all trying to do our best out there and everyone should be given a chance, we shouldn’t make any stereotypes because I think that’s only stopping us, and putting us in a frame, and I don’t like being in a frame, especially with my mind.”
Judy Murray believes there is also a financial element to it. She says a lot of the female players hire men as coaches so they can double-up as hitting partners, and that if they hired women, they wouldn’t be able to hit as big as the men.
Stone agrees with Judy but doesn’t believe it should be a deciding factor for players when thinking of hiring a coach.
“A lot of girls are looking for more like a hitting partner in the coach so maybe they don’t feel like the female coaches hit as big a ball," Stone said. "But you can see from the success of [80-year-old] Robert Lansdorp with Eugenie Bouchard and how successful she’s being and how unbelievably well he’s done as a coach, he doesn’t hit."
“So this hitting myth, I really don’t think it exists. But there are a lot of players that only want to hit with their coach. I think it’s a little bit of misconception that’s out there.”
Russian-born Australian player Daria Gavrilova, who has worked with Nicole Pratt and Veselinovic in the past, said her experience with female coaches was a positive one, and in her case, it may have even saved her some money on hotel rooms.
“It’s just probably like female things," said Gavrilova. "You can probably be a bit honest with like little things that no one needs to know about in the press."
“It’s different. I can share a room with a female coach.
“But in terms of work on court, it’s similar. Everyone goes about their business.”
Lucie Safarova, who also worked with Veselinovic, echoed Gavrilova’s sentiments about being able to share certain things with female coaches, and added: “I wouldn’t be opposed to have again a woman coach.”
While personalities obviously differ, Judy Murray sees many advantages to working with women.
“There are certain skills that women possess that I think are historical nurturing skills,” said the Scot. “I think the whole thing of listening, emotional intelligence, the caring thing. But listening is a big thing and I think often these skills are underestimated in favor of somebody who used to be a good player.
“I think there are skills that women bring to the party, particularly with younger players and females, they are sort of those mothering instincts and it’s a big part of it.
“And because the life of a tennis player is so much away from home, I think we need more women around.”
Another issue Murray points out is how tough the job market is for female coaches.
“There aren’t jobs, there aren’t salaries," she said. "If you go into tennis coaching, at whatever level you go in at, you are self-employed, you have to run your own business."
“For women, there are no jobs in coaching, you have to start your own business, so there’s no security. So we actually have to do a better job of promoting coaching to women as an industry and that means not just showing them how to teach tennis but also how to run a business. The things that you can make money on. How to deal with big numbers, it’s not just one-on -one or one-on-two or one-on-four, how to run parties, trips to tournaments, etc.
“The WTA have started a program to try and encourage some of the female players who maybe are working towards retirement to give them the tools to go into coaching and I think that’s a good step forward.”
The Pro Course Judy Murray refers to is a four-day course that offers current WTA players and legends skill-building benefits and opportunities to learn about various careers in the tennis industry. Course graduates earn coaching certifications with the PTR and USPTA, which could potentially put them on the path to coaching jobs.
Stone is working on raising awareness for all issues facing female coaches, and putting the conversation out there on social media. She believes the key is for men and women to work together.
“I think the strong male coaches are true advocates for women’s tennis and equality, which will make an environment where female coaches can thrive,” says the Aussie.
“Our conversation is always about men and women working together. And the good guys are actually the ones being more supportive about bringing more female coaches into tennis. Vlado Platenik, Belinda Bencic’s coach is a super nice guy and he’s very supportive of female coaches, Michael Joyce is very supportive of female coaches.
“When it’s a community that supports it then you get more women willing to come.”
Although it’s an option that is more feasible for top players with bigger budgets, incorporating more than one coach within a team can help pave the way for more part-time female coaches, who would like to avoid traveling all year round.
Conchita Martinez has had great success already following that model, as she helped Garbine Muguruza win Wimbledon last year, stepping in for Sam Sumyk, who couldn’t be there for personal reasons.
Martinez is doing the same now with Pliskova this fortnight in New York.
“I think women can understand women better, for sure,” Pliskova told reporters after her US Open first-round win over Zarina Diyas.
“Also I think they [Stubbs and Martinez] played before, so it's little bit different. Also their style was not really a women's style.
“Rennae, she was playing a little bit not like [half men’s style], she was using the court, trying to serve, trying to play volleys. It's a combination of some styles what they play, what I play.
“For me, I think it can only be good because I can practice a little bit different things than I was doing before, maybe a little bit more approaching to the net to play some volleys. There's a couple of things where we want to get better. Hopefully we will together."
The numbers may still be low, but there are several women making an impact as coaches at the top of the game over the past two seasons. Following her successful stint with Ostapenko last year, Medina Garrigues is proud of playing a role in this recent movement.
“For me it’s unbelievable,” said the Spanish Fed Cup captain, who is playing the final professional doubles tournament of her career this US Open.
“At the end, something always starts at a point, so being part of this start, it’s nice.”