Women’s tennis has been blessed with well-respected, and loved champions over previous decades. Names such as Graf, Seles, Hingis, Sanchez, Williams, roll off the tongue with relative ease. Even in the present carnation, there is a wealth of talent on display week after week, giving the WTA a superb product to showcase.
Nevertheless, there has been a gaping hole in women’s tennis for a long time. Not on court, but off court. Female coaches. How many successful female coaches can you name, or recognise, without having to pay a sneaky visit to ‘Google’? Even googling it may not assist you a great deal.
While it’s predictable, and fairly understandable not to see an abundance on the men’s tour, you’d be well within your rights to presume women would be prominent in taking charge of the female athletes. Unfortunately, this is a long way from reality. Where are they, and why do we not see more of them?
On the WTA website, there are 68 coaches currently listed as coaching a player on the tour (at the time of writing). Clearly this is not a comprehensive list, yet it provides a snapshot of the problem. The number of female coaches listed, comes in at 10. Under 15%.
However, as mentioned, this does not seem to be updated with any strict regularity, and it has been previously quoted by Sarah Stone, the founder of Women’s Tennis Coaches Association (WTCA), that only 8% of the top 200 women in 2018, were coached in some form, by another female. There certainly hasn’t been any substantial shift since then.
I want to explore some of the reasons associated with a lack of women coaching at the elite level, and attempt to find solutions.
If we switch our brain to the ‘default setting’, most of us would come up with the…. ‘women have children, and it’s harder for them to travel’ narrative.
It’s true that as women wind down their playing career, or reach a certain age in their coaching career, starting a family may become a priority. But surely this is the case with men too, right? Why do we expect a mother to sacrifice her coaching career, while a father can be criss-crossing the globe for 20-30 weeks per year? It doesn’t make sense to me.
I agree, and I know, that having children can get in the way of any trade, let alone a gruelling profession such as an elite tennis coach. However, if the men can find a way to navigate around it, certainly, as a sport, we need to assist any parent with a desire to coach at the highest level.
Would it be feasible for a coach to travel part time, spending a portion of the year working remotely? This is the first era where every match is streamed live online. A coach can effortlessly view their player’s match, scout opponents, and have a say in their player’s practice sessions from the other side of the world.
While this might not suit everyone, it could give rise to more females attaining a foot in the door, and would mean lower costs for the player, as the coach’s travel expenses are reduced. A setup like this might be ideal for players not earning huge money (perhaps those playing the second tier of tournaments), yet still desiring the female touch.
An additional reason male coaches are generally favoured over females, is for their hitting ability. When a player can combine their coach and hitting partner, again, they save money. The women commonly prefer to hit with someone who strikes a bigger ball, meaning a female coach conceivably wouldn’t be able to offer the hitting practice required. Financially, paying for a coach and hitting partner, just doesn’t support the bottom line.
But surely there are ways to get around this. Can we devise a regulation for all tournaments to supply a group of local players to be on site at all times, thereby giving the women access to hitting partners as they wish, throughout the week? Again, this means those who can’t afford to pay for a hitting partner to travel with them, don’t miss out entirely, and allows the female coach to focus on her player, instead of requiring to hit balls every day.
There is another problem less spoken about, which is the lack of opportunity and lack of respect that female coaches appear to have. It’s an easy fix, yet a difficult fix at the same time. It remains cyclical, in the sense that, until more female coaches are appointed, the perception will linger, that they’re not good enough, and in turn, not given the respect they deserve.
If we’re honest, there would be dozens and dozens of ex-players keen to sink their teeth into professional coaching. Yet, men who haven’t had the same on-court experience, continue to get employed ahead of them. By no means am I saying any professional coach on the WTA/ATP tour aren’t deserving of their position, but you’ll never convince me there’s not a collection of females who could do just as good a job, if not better, were they to be presented with an opportunity.
As these openings are taken up by more women, and results start to come, the respect level surges, and more women are offered positions.
Tying in with this, many women may be reluctant to step into a high profile position, which has long been male dominated. We saw what Amelie Mauresmo endured when she took on the coaching role with Andy Murray. The negativity around that appointment was enough to turn away anyone with a bit of self-doubt, from joining the coaching fraternity.
Nevertheless, it’s not as if there aren’t success stories. We only have to go back to 2017 when Jelena Ostapenko lifted the French open trophy, with Anabel Medina Garrigues in her box. Or even as recently as last year, Conchita Martinez secured the WTA coach of the year award for her work with Garbine Mugaruza. If we go further back, Martina Hingis was coached to multiple majors by her own mother during her career.
A study in 2019 showed that female participation in Australian tennis (over 15 years of age) is roughly 57% male and 43% female. If we can take some liberties, and extrapolate this throughout the tennis playing nations in general, it is clear there must be enough quality female coaches out there to join the ranks of professional coaching. As a sport, we must find a way to give them opportunities to prove themselves.
Thankfully, Tennis Australia has been addressing this in recent years. A couple of years ago, former top player Nicole Pratt, took on the position of Tennis Australia’s Women’s Coach Lead, and Australia’s Women’s Team Coach. Nicole commented at the time, “At the top level, tennis leads the sporting world in gender equality with equal prize money at the Grand Slams. But like many other sports, it’s an ongoing challenge to keep girls engaged, particularly when they hit their teenage years
“Closing the gender gap at the participation level is vital to the ongoing success of our sport, and we know that having more women involved in coaching is one of the keys to keeping girls involved in tennis.”
Since then, Nicole has been working hard to increase the number of women reaching the top level, not only on the playing side, but also on the coaching front.
“Tennis Australia has a strategic commitment to be a global leader in inclusion and diversity and has developed a national Women and Girls Strategy designed to improve access and opportunity for women and girls, both on and off the court. Coaching is one of the key focus areas of this strategy, and Tennis Australia has continued to deliver targeted support and coaching opportunities to increase the representation of women and girls across all levels of the coaching pathway.
Some of the important initiatives being undertaken to improve the opportunities for women are:
Research with Flinders University examining drivers and barriers for women in coaching in Australia
Subsidised entry level coaching courses
Women’s coaching scholarships (Junior Development, Club Professional, Next Gen, High Performance or Master Club Professional courses)
Coach Connect – mentoring, professional development, networking opportunities to develop and retain current women coaches by enabling a social environment for women to come together, meet likeminded professionals and share their experiences.
National Development Squad (NDS) scholarship coach positions (x 3 per year)
National Tennis Academy (NTA) development coach roles (x 2 over 2 years)
So far, these initiatives seem to be having a positive effect.
“Since the introduction of the NDS and NTA scholarship coach positions, the diversity of the Tennis Australia performance coach team has improved significantly. The first group of NDS scholarship coaches were successful in securing full-time permanent role within the Talent team. Currently, women coaches account for 33% of the team which was only at 14% in 2019. This is an extremely positive outcome which enables women coaches to have an influence on our best female and male players.”
Clearly there are a lot of challenges keeping women in the sport for longer, yet there are also a lot of things the whole tennis community can do to assist them if we really desire to do so. It’s pleasing to know that Tennis Australia are working towards this outcome, and with a lot of hard work, and bit of luck, Australian coaches can lead the way on the professional tour over the coming years.