Women’s tennis has blazed many trails, producing the first female athlete to top $1 million in annual prize money and many of the more prominent names and marketable faces in sports. It has also run its own professional tour for nearly 40 years, since Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973.
But if held to standards of fair-hiring practices, it would fall short, with women markedly underrepresented in the coaching ranks.
It’s a concern of Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Tennis Association’s general manager of player development, who hires the coaching staff that nurtures the nation’s next generation of American pros. Just two of its 24 coaches are women, and McEnroe is routinely asked by the USTA’s Board of Directors why he can’t do better.
“Obviously we make an effort,” McEnroe said, convinced female coaches relate better to young female pros. “We would love to have more.’ ”
The reasons behind the dearth are many, starting with the obvious.
Most top women players want a coach they can hit with, unless they can afford an entourage that includes a hitting partner and full-time coach.
Unlike the top men, who tend to practice with other top men, the best female players generally don’t hit with rivals, preferring to drill against a hard-slugging man.
Moreover, coaching pro players means traveling 35-40 weeks out of the year. Few women are enthused about living out of a suitcase and giving up their lives for another player’s — particularly if they’ve already spent a decade or two as a nomad during their own competitive careers.
‘It’s not all about X’s and O’s’
“It’s a lifestyle issue,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin, 49, who has coached promising juniors for the USTA. “I have three boys who need my attention, and I have tried to give back by coaching for three years on a part-time basis.
“The travel commitment is too demanding if you have a family.”
It’s not surprising, then, that of the handful of women who coach top players, many are mothers, as in the case of Serena and Venus Williams. Britain’s Andy Murray was coached by his mother, Judy, throughout his formative years. Four decades earlier, American Jimmy Connors learned his bruising strokes and competitive grit from his mother, Gloria.
Former pro Pam Shriver, a commentator for ESPN, isn’t convinced that enough women have been encouraged to go into tennis coaching.
“I feel like developing strong female coaches is a need,” says Shriver, a Baltimore native. “But you have to recruit. The sport needs to encourage them, because it may not happen naturally. There has to be a strategy in mind.”
Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova has experienced the barriers first-hand, told once that she wouldn’t be considered for a particular job because she hadn’t coached before.