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“Terrible. Extremely disappointing.” BJK, WTA and others seeking more women coaches in pro ranks
Many reasons account for the disparity. What are the solutions?
Published Oct 12, 2023
It’s estimated that women coach less than ten percent of the Top 150 singles and 50 doubles players who compete on the Hologic WTA Tour. Addressing the topic during an interview this summer with the Associated Press, Billie Jean King said, “Terrible. Extremely disappointing.”
Many reasons account for this.
“In order to reach the top, a player often wants someone who’s been there,” said Lynne Rolley, the former head of women’s coaching for the USTA and current chair of the Professional Tennis Registry. “There are only a handful of people who’ve done that. And that small handful is not that eager to commit to so much travel.”
Another factor is that an active pro often seeks to practice with someone who hits the ball harder (though that demand is increasingly being met by tournaments that provide hitting partners). Then there’s simply the insularity of life on the circuit. On the coaching front, that consists of a few dozen familiar faces who embark on a carousel ride from one player to another, no different than those who constantly circulate back-and-forth across teams in leagues like the NBA and NFL, or in international soccer.
Amid the cozy yet complicated world of pro tennis, many pros prefer to keep the coaching within the family. Often that’s meant a paternal influence. Notable examples are Richard Williams with Venus and Serena, Piotr Wozniacki with Caroline, Alex Kenin with Sofia.
Many women have also made a significant mark aiding their children, including Oracene Price with Venus and Serena, Judy Murray with Andy and Jamie, Gloria Connors with Jimmy.
Ann Grossman, a Top 30 WTA pro in the 1990s, is the CEO of the Women’s Tennis Coaching Association (WTCA), an organization of nearly 250 men and women that seeks to educate and support coaches through conferences, mentoring and networking. In 2023, the WTCA held conferences in Eastbourne and San Diego.
“Many players simply haven’t been exposed to enough strong female role models in all aspects of their life,” said Grossman.
But when those occasions do happen, the experience can be very powerful. Being around King at various times in her playing career, Grossman said, “She would tell me the truth about what was going on. She holds the player accountable. It was wonderful.”
Cases such as an active player working with a highly accomplished ex-player are the most visible examples of women coaching women. Recent collaborations of note have been Lindsay Davenport and Madison Keys, Pam Shriver and Donna Vekic, Conchita Martinez and Garbine Muguruza. Rennae Stubbs has helped several pros, including Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova and Genie Bouchard. “You learn quite a lot from someone who had to make a living playing tennis,” said Grossman.
So if you don’t see a woman up there [as] a coach, it doesn’t even cross your brain. How we do get the top players to hire them? We’ve got to solve the problem. Billie Jean King
But when it comes to increasing the presence of women coaching in pro tennis, notable former pros are only part of the picture.
“It has to start from high school coaches, college coaches, directors of tennis,” said Kathleen Horvath, a former top tenner who is on the board of directors of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland.
Rolley’s journey provides a useful example of how a coach’s career plays out across various venues. Ranked ninth in the U.S. in 1967, she became the first woman to coach an NCAA men’s college team a few years later when she took the helm at St. Mary’s College, just outside of San Francisco. Subsequently, Rolley was tennis director at a local club, where one of her students was an ambitious junior named Mike Bauer. Rolley coached Bauer through juniors, college and many years of a pro career that saw him crack the Top 30, in 1984. Over the course of 15 years with the USTA, she worked with a variety of players, the most prominent being a trio all born in 1976: Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Chanda Rubin.
In recent times, the WTA has taken major steps to support women’s coaching. One facet is a coaching advisory panel that includes such former pros as Kathy Rinaldi, national coach of women’s tennis for the USTA, and her Australian counterpart, Nicole Pratt.
A highly ambitious effort is the WTA Coach Inclusion Program. Launched in 2021, this a formal course of classroom study and hands-on experiences that teaches potential coaches the many nuances of working on the tour. The curriculum begins with coursework at a training center in Lake Nona, Florida. In addition to work on the court, the program addresses nutrition, fitness, analytics, mental health and many more of the topics that have become increasingly important in professional tennis. Subsequently, each of the students shadows a working coach at several WTA tournaments, eventually earning a certification.
“Knowing how the tour operates, that's something that not a lot of people know unless they have that experience,” said Mike Anders, the WTA director of member services who runs the program. “I think getting the chance to learn from different coaches who have been successful with multiple players, meaning different styles, different personalities, I think that that's quite valuable.”
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Five coaches were trained in 2021, and 10 others the following year. Graduates of the program come from a wide range of backgrounds. Since 2017, Karen Castiblanco Duarte has been the CEO of her own academy in Colombia and is currently coaching WTA pro Maria Paulina Perez Garcia. Duarte will also be speaking later this month at the ITF World Coaches Conference, set to take place in Bogota. Aymet Uzcateugi, a former coach at the Bruguera Academy, is Billie Jean King Cup captain for Venezuela. Maria Lopez, a coach for more than 18 years, has worked with Top 100 player Rebecca Peterson, and is the director of member experience, engagement, and inclusion for WeCOACH, an organization focused on developing women coaches in all sports. Nadia Abdala became head coach at the University of San Diego in 2022. Those are just a few of those the WTA has trained. In the years to come, the WTA is looking to expand its Coach Inclusion Program to other regions.
“There are certain skills that women possess that I think are historical nurturing skills,” Judy Murray said several years ago. “I think the whole thing of listening, emotional intelligence, the caring thing.”
“You have to see it to be it,” said Billie Jean King. “So if you don’t see a woman up there [as] a coach, it doesn’t even cross your brain. How we do get the top players to hire them? We’ve got to solve the problem.”