WTA plans to grow program for female coaches

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LONDON — On the day of the Wimbledon singles draw, Billie Jean King and other founding members of the women’s professional tennis tour gathered 5 miles away at a London hotel to mark the 50th anniversary of a meeting that led to the formation of today’s WTA.

That long-ago moment was prompted by frustration at being paid far less in prize money than the sport’s male athletes. For all the progress since in that area, there remains an aspect of tennis in which gender equity is nowhere near being achieved: coaching.

Of the 128 women in the singles bracket at Wimbledon, which ends this weekend, just six work with a female coach — roughly 5%. All of the coaches for men were men.

“Terrible. Extremely disappointing,” King, the International Tennis Hall of Fame member and rights advocate, told The Associated Press when asked about the scarcity of female coaches. “It’s about society, absolutely. You have to see it to be it. So if you don’t see a woman up there as a coach, it doesn’t even cross your brain. How do we get the top players to hire them? We’ve got to solve the problem.”

King and others in the sport consider that a reflection of the same sort of entrenched bias that has prevented women from advancing in all manner of other fields, and the WTA is making efforts to change that through an initiative that pairs aspiring coaches with established ones.

Only 13 of the women ranked in the top 200 have a female coach, according to the WTA; of those, four are the mother of the player.

“We’re all about equality, and I’d like to see an equal amount of male and female coaches out there,” WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said. “To say, ‘We should have all female coaches,’ isn’t what we’re looking for either. … In a perfect world, we’d have balance.”

That is why the WTA created a Coach Inclusion Program, which is in its first full year after a smaller pilot run in 2022. Ten applicants were chosen to take classes and be paired with veteran coaches. Five shadowed coaches and players at a tournament in Charleston, South Carolina, in April; others will get that opportunity at events in Montreal and Cincinnati in August. The WTA plans to expand the program in 2024.

“A lot of these women taking part have the same level of qualifications as a lot of the coaches that are out on tour, but they have no idea how to actually put themselves out there and break into it,” said Mike Anders, the program’s director. “A lot of what happens is that once you’re in, coaches more or less recycle themselves. So a big part is the exposure, getting the right contacts as much as the right experience.”

The idea is to add candidates to the WTA’s regularly updated database of certified, eligible coaches that is part of its Player Zone, an online resource for athletes.

At the moment, only 15 of the 186 active coaches are women. That’s 8%.

“There just isn’t enough options,” Simon said. “We need more females on that list.”

Why aren’t there more? One possible explanation mentioned by Simon, coaches and players in conversations with the AP was this: In general, the most likely path to coaching is being a former player, and women leaving the tour in their late 20s or early 30s might find it tougher to balance having children with traveling the world as a coach when they stop competing.

“They have a family. They become mothers. It’s easier for men to have a family when they’re an ex-player. Look at me: I have one child who’s 6, one who’s 3, and another who’s 1½. It’s unthinkable that I could take the time to coach someone,” said Flavia Pennetta, who retired shortly after winning the 2015 US Open. “Maybe, down the road, I could coach. But I couldn’t completely dedicate myself to a player now.”

One of the half-dozen women who coached a woman at Wimbledon this year, Pam Shriver, is a mother. For years, she didn’t necessarily want to coach. But Shriver, who is also a TV commentator for ESPN, is surprised no one even approached her about it before she connected last year on a part-time basis with Donna Vekic, who travels regularly with another coach, Nick Horvat.

“One of the things I reflect on,” said Shriver, who won 21 Grand Slam titles in doubles and reached No. 3 in singles, “is I realized that if I had been a male player with my background, my success as a player in singles and doubles, and then been broadcasting and observed tennis as much as I’ve observed as a broadcaster for the last few decades, I would have already been asked.”

Chris Tontz, who coaches American Claire Liu and mentored a pair of coaches in Charleston, points to a dearth of women hired at the lower levels by clubs, academies and federations.

“It’s still a long road for women,” Tontz said. “All it would take is for someone to take a chance on them.”

One of the coaches shadowing him in April, Iris Harris, was a talented teen who reached the junior doubles semifinals at Wimbledon in 2003 but had her playing career derailed when she tore a knee ligament and groin muscle. She turned to coaching and now, at 38, is a teaching pro in Florida.

“If you don’t see a woman up there as a coach, it doesn’t even cross your brain. How do we get the top players to hire them? We’ve got to solve the problem.”

Billie Jean King

Harris said she thinks female coaches are limited by a perception that women “can get a little too emotional.” She also hears that they don’t make as good hitting partners as men — even though female players don’t hit against men in competition.

“Some of us,” Harris said, “have never been given a chance.”

At its root, King and others say, this is not merely about women’s tennis. Or tennis, even.

A 2019 study by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, found that more than 13 million girls and women played organized soccer, but only 7% of coaches worldwide were women. When the Women’s World Cup begins next week, 20 countries will be coached by men and 12 by women. In the NWSL, eight clubs are coached by men, four by women. (The numbers tilt the other way in the WNBA, with nine female coaches and three male coaches.)

“I don’t think no one wants to hire a woman. It’s more that you just don’t see as many of them, so you just kind of always gravitate towards hiring a male coach, and there’s really no reason for it,” Wimbledon quarterfinalist Jessica Pegula said.

Said 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens: “I do wish there were more female coaches. I do wish there were more women involved in tennis. Running tournaments. Agents. Journalists. It’s about the business world, the regular world, the entire world.”

Caty McNally, who reached the past two US Open women’s doubles finals, has two coaches: Kevin O’Neill, who is on tour full time, and her mother, Lynn Nabors McNally, who travels part time.

“My mom knows just as much about tennis, in my opinion, as a lot of men,” McNally said. “I would never label her as less qualified of a coach because she’s a lady.”

Women have led women to Grand Slam titles, including two in a span of 1½ months in 2017, when Anabel Medina Garrigues coached Jelena Ostapenko to a trophy at the French Open and Conchita Martinez helped Garbiñe Muguruza at Wimbledon.

That didn’t turn out to be a watershed moment for female coaches. Nor was three-time major champion Andy Murray’s hiring of Amelie Mauresmo as his coach in 2014.

“It’s strange. I’m probably surprised … there’s not more female coaches across both tours,” Murray said. “I didn’t necessarily think at the time that it was for sure going to spark loads of new or more female coaches to come into the game. It wasn’t exactly received unbelievably well at the time. … But it’s probably slightly more, sort of, deeper-rooted, I guess, than just the top of the game.”

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