Wimbledon is upon us once more. Last year's hero and men's champion, Andy Murray, is back to defend his title - the first by a British man in 77 years. The media focus will again be on Murray this year, this time due to his hiring of Amelie Mauresmo as coach after he and Ivan Lendl parted ways earlier in 2014. Murray undertook a rather long coaching search before arriving at Mauresmo, even playing a few tournaments in the spring on his own while he considered his options.
Mauresmo's hiring has deep significance: one of the superstars of the ATP Tour, a two-time Slam champion and Olympic gold medallist, is showing the sporting world he believes a woman can take his game to another level. Murray has been very attuned to saying the right things, which leads me to believe that his positions are not just for public appearances, but a reflection of a serious respect for female athletes and women in general. By choosing Mauresmo, Murray has shunned the sexist discourse surrounding women's tennis and a commonly held belief that the women's product is inferior to the men's. He believes that Mauresmo, a female tennis player, has a skill set from which he can borrow to improve his own game.
Unsurprisingly, when news broke of Murray hiring a woman as his next coach, there was no shortage of negative opinions. One ATP player who did not shy away from opining was Marinko Matosevic:
For me, 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.
Matosevic's comments came on the heels of Ernests Gulbis offering his opinions on whether he wanted his younger sisters to become tennis players.
It’s a tough choice of life. A woman needs to enjoy life a little bit more. Needs to think about family, needs to think about kids. What kids you can think about until age of 27 if you’re playing professional tennis. That’s tough for a woman, I think.
Matosevic and Gulbis are emblematic of a sporting and tennis culture that often demeans women and devalues their athletic contributions in favour of casting them as sexual and domestic objects. The most troubling trend with the likes of Gulbis and Matosevic is that fans and journalists tend to cast them as eccentric and funny, not to be taken seriously. But, it goes much further than that; their words are dangerous and have real effects on female athletes who must still fight to be taken seriously.
It is against that backdrop that we must consider Murray's decision to hire a female coach. I suppose, if a tennis player were to take this bold step, it makes sense that it was Andy Murray. He is not cut from the same cloth as Gulbis and Matosevic. His mother, Judy Murray, is one of the most high profile coaches in tennis, and one of its most popular and engaging personalities. She openly fawns over Feliciano Lopez, who she refers to cheekily as "Deliciano", and gladly congratulated Rafael Nadal on his 9th French Open title, even after beating her son in the semifinal.
It's evident Judy Murray has succeeded, as Billie Jean King astutely pointed out, in raising a sensitive and well adjusted young man. He does not adhere to gender roles, perhaps due to his mother's strong influence in his tennis career. Some men might want to distance themselves from a mother with such a strong personality and presence in the tennis world, but Murray seems to welcome it.
To be clear, Mauresmo is a qualified coach, guiding Marion Bartoli to Wimbledon glory last year. This is not a case of tokenism; Amelie is a two-time Grand Slam champion and former world #1. But, she was still a controversial choice. Yet, the Murrays did not shy away from the media scrutiny they knew would accompany the Frenchwoman's hiring. I understand those who say Murray shouldn't be congratulated for doing something like this, but who are the other men hiring women as coaches on the ATP?
Ultimately, this is likely to be a thankless job for Mauresmo: despite what Murray says, she will take more blame for their woes together than praise for his successes. While this is a landmark moment in tennis and sport, there is also the fear that, should their pairing not work out, Mauresmo may become a cautionary tale of women not being suited to coaching male athletes. This is the burden of the trailblazer - bearing the brunt of opposition before reaping the credit years down the road. Yet, for progress to take hold and change to be effected, someone has to make the first, bold steps into the unknown.
The Murray-Mauresmo partnership, or Murresmo as it is now affectionately called, will not revolutionize tennis overnight. But, as we say in Jamaica, "every mikkle mek a mukkle" - which is to say, every little bit counts. This is a proud moment for tennis. My hope is that these two can survive the intense media scrutiny in Britain during Wimbledon and build something truly special going forward. This pairing may not last forever, but it is a very important first hiring of a woman to shepherd a top ATP player's career. May their relationship be a successful one, and silence the sometimes latent, often blatant, sexism and misogyny in professional sport.