INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Last Sunday, Marta Kostyuk and her coach, Sandra Zaniewska, were warming up for the Cymbiotika San Diego Open final. It was overcast and the palm trees at the Barnes Tennis Center were swaying in the steady breeze off the Pacific Ocean.

As it turned out, those were the winds of dramatic change.

On the next court, Katie Boulter and Anne Keothavong, Great Britain's Billie Jean King Cup coach, were deep into their preparations. When Boulter's personal coach, Biljana Veselinovic, joined them after rerouting from Indian Wells, the magnitude of the moment dawned on Zaniewska.

"Wow," she said excitedly to Kostyuk, "look at this. Two female coaches on that court and one female coach on this court -- what a day!"

While the number crunchers invariably can tell you, with a dazzling display of minutia, what actually happened on the court -- no one had an answer for this unique coaching configuration. Anecdotally, though, it seemed quite possible that no WTA Tour-level final had ever featured a strictly female coaching support staff.

"We were really, really happy," Zaniewska said in an interview at the BNP Paribas Open. "It's such a good sign for coaches and them breaking through and maybe players trusting female coaches a little bit more. They say, 'I've had men coaches my whole life, this is what I'm used to.'

"It's comfortable and maybe they don't even think it's a possibility."

Now, of course, it is.

The WTA's 50-year history -- in fact, its very existence -- is based on a series of gate-crashing, ceiling-smashing activism. But when equal prize money was attained at all four Grand Slams in 2007, the job wasn't finished. There are still inequities at the lower-level tournaments -- and, less obviously, in the coaching ranks.

Friday is International Women's Day, an appropriate time to visit the concept of women coaching women.

"San Diego was very cool," said Nicole Pratt, Head of Women's Tennis at Tennis Australia. "The first word that comes to mind is proud, very proud. It's been a long time coming, but I feel the visibility of the situation is really important.

"It shines a lot on the idea that women can coach. And I'm not even saying women can coach women. Women can coach, period."

'Getting there'

Of the 128 women playing in Wimbledon's main draw last year, only six had a woman coach; not surprisingly, none of the 128 men were coached by a woman.

Here at Indian Wells, the numbers are more encouraging. At least 15 of the women playing singles and doubles listed a female coach. The roster, in part: Conchita Martinez (Marie Bouzkova), Patricia Tarabini (Anna Kalinskaya), Lourdes Dominguez (Emiliana Arango), Maria Jose Lourda Pons (Elina Avanesyan), Martina Vejnarova (Brenda Fruhvirtova), Kirsten Flipkens (Demi Schuurs), Silvia Soler Espinosa (Sara Sorribes Tormo), Pam Shriver (Donna Vekic).


Martinez, an accomplished champion in her own right, was the 2021 WTA Coach of the Year for her work with Garbiñe Muguruza.

She was a ground-breaker in that she coached the Spanish Billie Jean King Cup from 2013-17 -- and the men's Davis Cup team from 2015-17. She's been coaching in various venues since she ended a Hall of Fame career in 2006.

"That shouldn't be surprising at all that those two were in the [San Diego] final and they were coached by women," Martinez said. "Listen, we do as good a job as the men. It's going to change more when the agents start recommending women's coaches to their players.

"With today's women breaking this barrier -- and players seeing other players hire women coaches -- that's going to help us step forward."

Shriver, a 22-time Grand Slam doubles champion, has been a member of the coaching team for the No.36-ranked Vekic, who recently knocked out World No.2 Aryna Sabalenka in the second round of Dubai. When Vekic then lost to Boulter, who went on to win the San Diego title, Shriver was impressed.

"Anne Keothavong was in the coaching box -- she and Biljana, they've done a great job with Katie," Shriver said.

"It's trending, it's good. It's getting there."

It remains a work in progress. The inertia created by the status quo and tendency toward "safe" hiring decisions is tough to shake. Interviews with several players and coaches yielded a few basic reasons for the dearth of women coaching women at the WTA Tour level, including logistical issues such as motherhood and players wanting to save money by using their coach as a hitting partner.

Pratt has spent the past four years researching and developing programs to support women coaches. She worked with Flinders University in South Australia on a seminal study.

"It's a societal thing," she said. "An individual female coach, without the proper support, will always feel that we could be better, or we're not enough. The individual lacks confidence and belief -- and that's a real obstacle."

“It’s about opportunities or lack thereof. The same jobs keep going to the same people."

- Nicole Pratt

A new approach

Sarah Kadi was a formidable college player at the University of Hartford in the 1990s and is coaching these days at the International Tennis Federation level. She considers herself fortunate to have been accepted into the inaugural class of the WTA Coach Inclusion Program in 2023.

She shadowed Zaniewska and Kostyuk last year in Cincinnati.

"Marta spoke about the importance of having a woman coach," Kadi said Thursday from the Dominican Republic, where she was preparing young players for an ITF event in Puerto Rico. "You don't hear enough about that."

Recognizing the need for more female coaches, the WTA offered a 2022 pilot initiative, which accepted five applicants. The idea was to fashion an apprenticeship-style program to attract, develop and retain more women in coaching. There were 10 participants in 2023 and 10 more are enrolled this year.

The program, run in partnership with the United States Tennis Association, Professional Tennis Registry, and the Gooding Todero Academy, aims to promote professional and grassroots coaching as a compelling career choice to current and former women athletes and coaches. It does so by offering an online Level 1 Performance Coach Certification course as well as hands-on experience shadowing coaches and players. 

Among members of the 2024 class are 10-year WTA player Melanie Oudin, who reached a career-high No.31, Drake University women's coach Breaunna Addison and Denise Dy, the Fresno State coach. Diversity is a hallmark of this group.

"You can't be what you can't see."

- Sarah Kadi

Fanni Varga, a former Hungarian national doubles champion and singles finalist, was in Los Angeles this week, working with some top juniors from Southern California at the Weil Tennis Academy. Last year she spent time in Charleston and Montreal, following Shelby Rogers and her coach, Piotr Sierzputowski, as well as Daria Saville and Jay Gooding.

"It was such an invaluable experience," Varga said. "We had the chance to work with the top coaches around the world. It increased so much our knowledge and awareness. I think it raised our confidence as well, thinking that at some point in our career, we can be coaching on tour."

Zaniewska feels a responsibility to pay it forward. A tour player herself, she got into coaching "completely by accident." Petra Martic, against whom she competed from the age of 11, asked if she'd help out for a few weeks. Two weeks turned into full time, and full time turned into Martic becoming a Top 15 player. Suddenly she was at the top of her profession.

When Zaniewska encountered Kadi in the shadowing process, she was astonished at her coaching resume.

"I talked with her about her experience, and she had so much more experience than me -- it was insane," Zaniewska said. "I was sitting there, saying `Wow, I can learn from you. You shouldn't be learning from me.'

"And then I realized what female coaches are missing the most is the confidence."

Managing off the court

In professional tennis there's a fine line between winning and losing … the difference between terrific and terrible isn't just three letters, but sometimes a single shot in a two-hour match.

Coaches, who must be an expert in so many facets of the game, can make a huge difference.

"You need to be highly skilled technically and tactically," Pratt said. "You need to have an understanding of physiology and psychology. And then there's time management skills, mentoring, being a friend and mentor at the same time.

"When you talk about coaching, you're teaching people, often new skills, how to deal with pressure."

Are women more empathetic toward women -- because they are women?

"I don't want to get into stereotypes," Zaniewska said. "I don't know if it's empathy, but I do think you can just relate a little bit more to the feelings. Female friends talk more about female stuff. With men, it's the same. They talk differently amongst themselves.

"A lot of players tell me they feel like I understand them. Not only am I female, I also played. I went through a lot of the same feelings and emotions that they do."

For Varga, the eye-opener was the off-court expertise required.

"Player management … managing your player's ups and downs, creating trust in the relationship," Varga said. "Dealing with pressure from sponsors and potential prize money. Communication -- I feel like that comes before everything else."

Creating support

Pratt, who coaches Daria Saville and Storm Hunter, sees a strength in the growing numbers. In San Diego, she had dinner with Judy Murray, Noelle van Lottum and Keothavong. Women's coaches, Pratt insisted, need to support each other.

"It's uncanny we're talking about this," she said, "but I've been motivated the last two days to start a WhatsApp group with all the women coaches -- and I'm actually going to do it.

"The power of creating a group and a sense of belonging and togetherness has been extraordinary. That's what we've lacked."

Zaniewska is thrilled the issue of female coaching is enjoying "a really good moment." It's not only important for former players to see the possibilities, she said, but for coaches already toiling in the field with juniors and young professionals.

"Maybe people thought there was no space for them because you have only so few female coaches on tour," Zaniewska said. "But now maybe they will think, `Hey, great. I can be there too.'"

Two of the graduates of the WTA's coaching inclusion program see that path -- and are committed to taking their version of it. Varga, 30, sees herself working with juniors and helping them transition to the pros. 

Kadi, 44, wants to focus on helping collegiate players make the leap to the tour. 

"I love the problem solving aspect of coaching," Kadi said. "Everyone is so unique, you have to figure out what works for them. I felt super privileged to be part of the program, the level of care and commitment was extraordinary."

It is an exceedingly small shop, something all these women are keenly aware of. On Thursday, Zaniewska was sitting in the Indian Wells player's lounge, sipping an "Original Green" smoothie.

She spotted Veselinovic, her opposite number in that historic San Diego final, and yelled, "Hey we were just talking about you."

Both women smiled and pointed at each other. This is their moment, and they're truly hoping others will follow.