Two-time tennis Grand Slam winner and No. 5-ranked men's player in the world Andy Murray, working toward his title defense of the Wimbledon crown, made an unorthodox choice: hiring a woman as his coach.
Toward the conclusion of the French Open a little more than a week ago, Murray, seeded third at this year's Wimbledon and without question one of the players included in the "Big Four" who define this generation of the men's game, named retired former top-ranked female Amélie Mauresmo as his new instructor. Why he recruited a previous winner and leading performer for several years at the unique grass-court tournament for the role would appear to be a no-brainer. Yet in doing so, Murray becomes the only player in the ATP top 100 coached by a female he is not related to (No. 49 Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan is coached by his mother, and No. 58 Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan is coached by his wife). Much of the talk surrounding the news is what his selection means for the future of coaching in tennis and whether it signals the beginning of a movement where women train men.
Many within the sport past and present were supportive of the decision, from women's rights advocate and tennis legend Billie Jean King to men's all-time Grand Slam leader Roger Federer. Others were less receptive to the choice by Murray, notably coached in his youth by his mother Judy who now serves as the captain of the women's British Fed Cup team.
Australian Marinko Matosevic, No. 59 in the world and coached by storied doubles player and fellow Aussie Mark Woodforde, was one of the most vocal critics. While acknowledging it may be a relationship that ends up working for Murray based on his previous success while guided by his mother, Matosevic stated, "I couldn't do it since I don't think that highly of the women's game. It's all equal rights these days. Got to be politically correct. So, yeah, someone's got to give it a go. It won't be me."
Mauresmo realizes she has doubters, but is not letting herself be distracted by all the fuss. "It's not really interesting for me, this part of the story, to be honest," she said from Roland Garros following the announcement of the new relationship. "All I'm interested in is to be able to help him in his goals, and that's about it. The rest is the story for you to write, I guess, but yeah, for me, it's a challenge and I want to take it."
Perhaps the trend to recognize though is that Mauresmo's hire both highlights and carries on the spate of top-tier contemporary players increasingly employing premier talents of the prior era as their coaches. From No. 2-ranked Novak Djokovic (six-time Grand Slam champ Boris Becker) to No. 4 Federer (six-time Grand Slam champ Stefan Edberg) to second-ranked American woman and No. 19 in the world Sloane Stephens (No. 12-ranked Paul Annacone, who also previously coached Federer and legend Pete Sampras), all have recently enlisted an erstwhile standout as their personal teacher.
Before appointing Mauresmo, Murray became the current trendsetter, opting to play under the tutelage of eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl from the start of the 2012 season through this March. It was last year with Lendl, who made two appearances in the Wimbledon final but ironically never did capture it, that Murray became the first British man to win the tournament since Fred Perry in 1936.
As others have practiced before and can attest, in trying to get a leg up on the competition, the philosophy of standing on the shoulders of giants, which has origins dating back to the 12th century, seems like common sense.
"I can certainly relate to their decision-making process," 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick, who was coached by icon Jimmy Connors for two years of his career, told me earlier this year. "Lendl's obviously had good success. A lot of times when you get to a level like Rafa [Nadal] or Djokovic or Murray, there's a very, very small amount of the tennis world that probably knows as much as you do. The guys they hire are the exceptions. I know for me, Jimmy, he told me a lot of stuff that someone else said, but when you have that many Grand Slams behind the rhetoric being spoken, it comes across differently, it's a little bit of a heavier word."
Roddick secured the services of the eight-time Grand Slam winner late into the 2006 season following an upset third-round Wimbledon loss to none other than Murray, then a 19-year-old upstart playing the tournament as a pro for just the second time. The surprising defeat for Roddick after making the finals there consecutive seasons the two years prior (both losses to No. 1-seeded Federer) landed him outside of the men's top 10 for the first time since 2002 and looking to reignite his dwindling career.
Impressively, Roddick regained his form for the hard-court season and made the finals of his first three tournaments with Connors by his side. He won one, and was runner-up to top-ranked Federer at the U.S. Open, his last career appearance in the finals of the national title. Roddick regained the No. 3 rank for a five-month stretch in 2007, but did not make another Grand Slam final (2009 Wimbledon) until after he and Connors announced their split in March 2008.
Retired American James Blake, No. 4 in the world at his height, takes this fresh wave of popularity in tennis coaching with a grain of salt.
"I think it can work, but it's got to be the right fit, just the same as any coaching relationship," said Blake, who was often criticized for never hiring a high-profile coach over his 14-year pro career. "I think this is a bit of a phenomena that started with Lendl being so effective with Murray, but of course a top pro is going to have a lot of knowledge about how to win Grand Slams, how to be effective, how to get the most out of your ability, because most top pros did that. But, that doesn't mean they're a great coach.
"I am not a great coach right now," he continued. "I could learn possibly, but there are better coaches out there. I can help a young player with what I went through with being more of a mentor, but I'm not necessarily a coach. Having a top pro that's been through what you've been through is going to be beneficial, but they still just have to be the right coach."
Such perspective hasn't stopped plenty of others from attempting to find any possible advantage through this approach. Among them, the Czech Republic's Tomáš Berdych, the No. 6-ranked man, has employed the recently retired former No. 3 in the world Ivan Ljubičić as his manager since March of last year. A couple months later Ljubičić's advising time was split when he furthermore took on the coaching responsibilities for No. 9 Milos Raonic of Canada. Also in April last year, reigning Australian Open champion and current No. 3 in the world Stan Wawrinka tabbed 2000 French Open runner-up and former No. 2-ranked player Magnus Norman for his camp. And Japan's Kei Nishikori, No. 12, brought on former No. 2 and 1989 French Open winner, American Michael Chang this past December. There are others, still.
With the verdict on this strategy still yet to be gauged completely, and other top players like No. 1 Nadal of Spain just continuing to roll through the tennis world with his uncle Toni, who introduced him to the sport, entrenched at the helm of his historically successful team, why these old pros are suddenly getting back in the game is another question.
"I think that they're competitive beasts and this is a way for them to continue to compete," said four-time Grand Slam winner Jim Courier, now a commentator and the U.S. Davis Cup Captain. "I think the distinction with this group is this is the first group of coaches that are independently wealthy and don't have to work any longer. They're choosing to work, choosing to try and compete in a new way, through their proxies if you will, these players on the court. It's not for the travel, it's not for the money, it's because it's something fun to do. It's something interesting and challenging to do, quite frankly."
Whether this precipitous surge in the game holds up long term will logically depend on the results, and Mauresmo's new partnership with Murray breathes additional life into the experiment, even if she signifies an unconventional pick at coach for other reasons, too. For the meantime, it remains a wait-and-see tactic.
"I don't know if it will continue," said Courier. "This experience in this next couple of years will kind of tell the tale. Ivan opened the door for a lot of people to get back into it and I think we'll see if they stay with it. If there's a stickiness, then we'll know that we're on to something."