The Racquet Scientist: Coaching in the WTA

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 /by

Liby Pete Bodo

Coaching has never been a growth industry for retired WTA pros. The reasons for that are probably complex and impossible to ferret out with any certainty, which means anyone who attempts to is apt to be accused of all sorts of nasty things by those who disagree, including the familiar accusation of sexism.

But the naked, verifiable fact is that the vast majority of coaches on either tour are men, and that even those individuals have tougher—and certainly trickier—sledding in the WTA than the ATP.

When was the last time you heard WTA coaches or players get into details like using the inside-out forehand to set up a down-the-line backhand placement? I'm not fool enough to believe those conversations don't take place. But they so rarely surface in the public dialogue, and when they do so many of the women players seem singularly unwilling to talk in those terms, I have to wonder what coaching in the WTA is really all about.

If you remember all those press conferences in which Andre Agassi broke down who won a given point or series of games, and why, you'll know what I mean. There has never been anything like a female equivalent to Agassi. Maybe women think it somehow unseemly to talk about such things, or maybe they're paranoid about giving away state secrets. Maybe they're just different from men. (Hey, there's an idea!) Whatever the case, the condition must say something about the way women think or feel about the game. The hard part is identifying just what that is.

Regardless, the activities on the WTA coaching carousel lately have careened from the puzzling to the absurd. We had Caroline Wozniacki abruptly parting ways with a baffled Ricardo Sanchez, a coach theoretically recruited to add offensive dimensions to the Dane's game. Since he was fired after just a few weeks on the job (Wozniacki put a smiley face icon in the whole affair), Wozniacki as nosedived from No. 1 to a current No. 6. But we do get to see her father-coach (another subject best left for another time) Piotr yelling at her on changeovers under the guise of "coaching."

Three days after winning the best title of her career in Miami recently, Agnieszka Radwanska fired her Croatian coach, Borna Vikic. All she offered as a reason was a rather haughty, "He did not pass the test." Then Svetlana Kuznetsova, whose career is exploding right before our eyes (the two-time Grand Slam champion is down to No. 27), cut loose Olga Morozova for the second time; in this go-round, they lasted just four months. Kuznetsova announced on her website that former Israeli pro Amos Mansdorf (once ranked as high as No. 18 in the ATP) is taking over. But Kuznetsova did congratulate Morozova on becoming a grandmother.

And who can forget how Li Na deep-sixed Michael Mortensen a few months after he led her to her first—and thus far, only—Grand Slam title in Paris just last June? Li's husband Jiang Shang has resumed his coaching duties, and just the other day Li declared that she has no intention to "recruit a foreign coach" to replace Jiang. And they say husband and wife shouldn't even play 3.5 mixed doubles as a team? Obviously, that's not how the pros roll.

One of the biggest recent change has been the addition of Amelie Mauresmo, the French former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion, to the team of WTA No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. Mauresmo will help Azarenka's coach Sam Sumyk. Funny, but it seemed to me that Azarenka has been chugging along pretty well with her status quo.

It's also hard to see just how relevant the experience of a creative shotmaker who waged a never-entirely resolved struggle with choking and hit a one-handed backhand can be to a youngster who's been a mental giant for over a year now, hits a two-handed backhand, and plays a straightforward power game in which creativity plays a minimal role. But maybe that's just me.

Perhaps Mauresmo will be more of a hitting partner, although she's traveling under the rather fancy title, "consultant." She probably knew better than to use the word "coach," given how life has been for that breed these days in the WTA.

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