Where Are The Women?
Collaboration piece by Laura Vallverdu x Racquet Magazine As a coach, I always emphasize effort and commitment from my players, whether things are going their way or not. In coaching, fluctuating fortunes call for patience, listening to your players, analyzing the situation, and then igniting change to create better results in the future. This year, the pandemic has tested the tennis world, forcing both an abrupt stop to how we conduct sports as well as an awakening inside sporting organizations now grappling with change and experimenting with better ways to continue the journey. Among the many changes being discussed are potential talks around strengthening ties between the WTA and the ATP and working on a more unified front.
It’s about time. As a former high-profile junior/college/pro player and current coach for many years, I’ve experienced many different levels of the sport—and varying degrees of parity among male and female players. Ever since the beginning of my coaching career back in 2013 as the associate head coach for the University of Miami women’s tennis team, I’ve been curious to understand why the coaching demographics are not representative of the population of recreational or pro players in the sport. Not only that, but why does tennis, a female/male game that is historically ahead of most sports in terms of gender equality and inclusion, not have more women coaching in the higher and/or elite competitive levels?
Of course, things started to change in 2014, when then world No. 2 Andy Murray made a stir by bringing on two-time Grand Slam champion Amélie Mauresmo as his primary coach. Soon after, Anabel Medina Garrigues guided Jelena Ostapenko to the 2017 French Open title, and a proliferation of former professional WTA players coaching top-ranked players became evident: Rennae Stubbs and Conchita Martinez working with Karolina Pliskova; Lindsay Davenport coaching Madison Keys; Sandra Zaniewski with Petra Martic; Biljana Veselinovic and Nicole Pratt with Daria Gavrilova; and others.
But still, by the end of 2018, a scarce 8 percent of the women in the WTA top 100 were working with female coaches. And despite a few high-profile partnerships—Conchita Martinez rejoining forces with Garbine Muguruza last year; the ATP’s Lucas Pouille working with Amélie Mauresmo; and Denis Istomin being coached by his mother, Klaudiya Istomina—compared with sports like the NFL, which has empowered women in high-level leadership positions since 2015 with Jen Welter making history as the first female coach hired, tennis falls short in the efforts of normalizing the conversation.
The NFL has worked hard to expand the number of female coaches, with currently at least 16 women officially hired. In April 2019, Sam Rapoport, the NFL’s director of football development, shared with ESPN that such efforts are just “a drop in the bucket as it pertains to where we can potentially be in the future.” She continued explaining that “the 10-year plan is to normalize women on the sideline in football. We’re not focused on the first female this and that. We’re not focused on the first female head coach or the first female GM. We’re focused on normalizing it so we stop talking about it.”
During the recent pandemic and the ATP/WTA merger conversations, my curiosity sparked an urgency to find out more about this, so I spoke to lifelong friend Nicolas Pereira, who has played on the ATP Tour, joined ESPN back in 2000 as a tennis commentator, and currently works as an analyst at Tennis Channel. “If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that tennis as a whole has to be more unified,” he said. “If women and men gravitate in the same space with a potential merger, I certainly think there will be a much bigger chance to increase the numbers in female coaches in our sport.
“If there are more men and women events combined, it would be easier to sell, attract more advertisers, more sponsors, because it would definitely be more appealing to their customers—therefore, bringing about more of an opportunity for women to be considered for more jobs in the industry,” Nicolas continued.
Through the years, a tough travel schedule, perception issues, financial elements, lack of inclusion, and potential motherhood interruptions have been discouraging factors for female players to take up coaching. Rennae Stubbs, retired Australian tennis player, elite professional coach, and full-time tennis commentator for ESPN, seemed like a great fit to comment on the issue at hand. She said: “First, I think that there is no question a lot of ex-players or potential female coaches on tour certainly get interrupted by having families. Not everyone has the financial ability to bring family over to travel with them. Second, some players look for the ability a male coach has to hit with them—they try to get a two-for-one. In my opinion, it’s not easy to hit and coach at the same time; some coaches can, but that’s definitely a variable playing a part in this. Also, there is a stigma attached to the whole thing still, about ‘taking the risk or chance to try it.’ The more players do it, the more it’ll continue to happen. I am certain of that.
“It’s valuable to see that women are going to be more realistic, more honest with the player. In many cases, these women coaches can understand the player better than most. I give you an example: With Genie [Bouchard, the Canadian player Stubbs currently coaches], I am going to immediately say to her, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ Not all coaches want to do that, but most women can, most women do. In my case, I was a very emotional player and can tap into that fairly easily. Genie is one of the most famous athletes in Canada. A great deal of pressure comes with that, and someone who isn’t willing to dive into that won’t tap into releasing her full potential,” she concluded.
Is there maybe a silver lining after COVID-19 has forced a potential union of our main governing bodies? Within the tennis culture, the ATP (mainly governed by men) making the effort to share the spotlight with the WTA and acknowledge the significance of women in the sport seems to shed some light at the end of the tunnel to create a real opening for women to feel a larger sense of inclusion and acceptance in the industry.
The conversation has always been about men and women working together, not one overpowering the other. The dialogue started back in 2014 with Andy Murray leading the way and stirring opinions around the community, and it’s kept growing every year since then. Fast-forward to 2020, where to be included, to matter, to be considered, to be equal, to be fair are concepts that occupy the front pages of every media platform. This spirit has rightfully carried over into the world of tennis.
Laura Vallverdu is the Associate Director of Player Development at the Miami Beach Tennis Academy and served as the Associate Head Coach for the University of Miami’s Women’s Tennis Team from 2013-2019. Now Founder and Strategist at Between Lines.