A Coach, Not a Magician

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

On the day Amelie Mauresmo was revealed as Andy Murray’s new coach—at least through Wimbledon—rumors, questions, observations, and opinions flew around Roland Garros like a flock of the resident pigeons. For her part, though, Mauresmo said: “You know, we're discussing this (coaching arrangement). It's very abstract. Well, it's going to become more concrete. But you know what I like? Is to get my hands on things and to act. So we have to move forward.”

This week, Mauresmo is moving forward, past all those questions about becoming the first female coach of a male Grand Slam champion. Whatever happens next, Mauresmo has broken new ground. There have been, and still are, a fair number of male players whose coaches are female. In fact, one of them, Mikhail Kukushkin, found his female coach so indispensable that he married her (just think of the savings!).

What’s different here is that Murray is near the pinnacle of the sport, as was Mauresmo in her playing days. Mauresmo made it to that cherished No. 1 ranking, but she didn’t spend much time there. And in her entire career, she won the same number of Grand Slam titles Murray currently owns; she was the Australian Open and Wimbledon champ in 2006.

So far, Mauresmo has said—or not said—all the right things: "I'm really excited to be able to work with Andy. He's an amazingly talented tennis player and I feel I have plenty to offer both him and the team around him. I'm looking forward to getting down to work and helping him win more Grand Slams.”

On exactly how she might help Murray in the coming weeks, Mauresmo said, “I don't think I'm going to go into these details right now. I think we really get to know each other, really get to start, and actually start working together. We'll maybe talk about it at some point.”

The way all this has played out raises some interesting questions, starting with the obvious one: If player and coach still need to get to know each other, how can Mauresmo have a significant impact on Murray’s grass-court season, including his title defense at Wimbledon? And if the two aren’t all that familiar with each other, isn’t Murray inadvertently setting up Mauresmo to fail?

We all know what the pundits will say should Murray fail to win Wimbledon. It won’t lead to the repeal of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (or the British and French equivalents thereof), but some people are bound to read too much into the gender-related aspects of the partnership.

Murray won the first match he played at Queen’s Club under the watchful eyes of Mauresmo, knocking off her fellow countryman. Paul-Henri Mathieu. So they got off on the right foot, but the larger questions hanging over the relationship are intriguing. Let’s take a look at some of them.

The fact that the deal between the two is only, at the moment, for this grass-court season, puts Mauresmo under a fair amount of pressure to succeed quickly with a player whom she barely knows. Asked if she was surprised when Murray called her to feel her about her availability, Mauresmo replied: “It was a little bit of a surprise, yes. To be honest, yes.”

Ivan Lendl, Murray’s previous coach, came to the job with no professional coaching experience (by his own choice), but he brought his vast experience as a player who had overcome a reputation similar to the one the Scot was developing—that of a player who couldn’t win the big one. Lendl was on board for one reason: To turn Murray from an also-ran into a champion.

Lendl and Murray had a fairly long honeymoon. Murray was frustrated in a grand total of seven Grand Slam or Masters 1000 events in 2012 before he broke through and won the gold medal at the London Olympics—and then went on to win his first major at the U.S. Open. Will Mauresmo get as much leeway to implement the plans she has to help Murray achieve his declared goal of winning more Grand Slam titles?

The problem here seems to be one not many people have talked about—which is that Mauresmo doesn’t have much more high-level coaching experience than Lendl did when he signed on with Murray. She was an adviser to Michael Llodra during the 2010 grass-court season and helped out Marion Bartoli in 2013. And while Lendl became a dominant No. 1 and a prolific Grand Slam champion, Mauresmo was unable to shake a career-long reputation as an underachiever and—there’s not tap-dancing around it—a choker.

Throughout her career, Mauresmo fought a losing war against choking. That was most evident at Roland Garros, where expectations on French players are always high. Mauresmo made just two quarterfinals in 15 attempts to win the French Open. At Wimbledon, she was a three-time semifinalist before she won it with the performance of a lifetime, beating Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin (for the title) in back-to-back three set matches. Mauresmo won both her Grand Slam titles in the same year; the time before and after is littered with big-match letdowns and disappointments.

One thing we can say for sure: Mauresmo certainly knows a thing or two about pressure. When someone reminded her that the novelty of this arrangement puts her under pressure as well, she replied: “I think he (Murray) has the most pressure. That's for sure when you're a player, and I know what it is. You have huge pressure on your shoulders. This will remain this way.

“Yes, it will change a little bit my life and my retirement, let's say. But I'm passionate. I'm passionate about this sport. I love challenges. I don't know, I guess I like to put myself on the line at some point and see what I can do.”

A pessimist might conclude that her words just underscore the extent to which this partnership is a case of the blind leading the blind. Some have suggested that in hiring Mauresmo, Murray is directing attention away from himself and onto her. Murray, some say, is “thinking outside the box,” which means he may not be judged too severely should this experiment fail. All that sounds way too Machiavellian to me.

I’ll take the optimistic version, which is that freed of the pressure to perform, Mauresmo can apply her intelligence, experience, and enthusiasm—which is considerable, by all accounts pertaining to her Fed Cup captaincy—to helping someone else. She wouldn’t be the first person to help an understudy achieve something she never could master.

But Mauresmo will need time, and she ought to be given it if personality conflicts don’t demand re-thinking. It would be terribly unfair to judge Mauresmo by how Murray does at this upcoming Wimbledon. She’s an aspiring coach, not a magician.

But, knowing the the stakes at Wimbledon, that is exactly what might happen.

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