Andy Murray returned to grass just under a year after his historic Wimbledon victory, winning a routine match 6-4, 6-4 against Paul-Henri Mathieu in his opening match at the Aegon Championships.
The eyes of the Queen’s Club patrons may have been fixed on Murray, but those of the media – and the BBC’s cameras – were glued to the face of Amelie Mauresmo and not because she is a former world no. 1 and Wimbledon champion, either. Since Murray announced on Sunday that he would be working with Mauresmo on a trial basis during the grass-court season, the hullabaloo has been intense.
Mauresmo’s credentials have been called into question – despite the plethora of coaches who haven’t played tennis at all, or never achieved much success, and the fact that Mauresmo was, as Murray pointed out, ‘the best in the world. She won Wimbledon and major events.’
It has spilled over into the press conferences of almost all the other players in action at the Aegon Championships, to the extent that James Ward, after a first-round win, was moved to ask: ‘Should we talk about my match or just talk about Mauresmo?’
Most players have declined to comment too much on a fellow pro’s coaching appointment, with Radek Stepanek – Murray’s next opponent – pointing out the double standard in operation: ‘I think that the view from the others has no sense because it’s his choice. […] I think we have, you know, nothing to say to that. Nobody’s asking different guys when somebody is taking a different coach.’
Nobody asked Ernests Gulbis, which was perhaps for the best. Only Marinko Matosevic, the Australian who beat 2012 champion Marin Cilic in the first round, has been openly negative, saying he wouldn’t hire a female coach because he doesn’t ‘think that highly of the women’s game’ and implying that his views on women coaching men are decided, were he able to express them: ‘It's all equal rights these days. Got to be politically correct. So, yeah, someone's got to give it a go. Won't be me.’
The question of whether or not Mauresmo will have access to the men’s locker room – she won’t – and the potential negative impact that might have has been particularly dwelled upon, with the implication that what is good enough for top female players, many of whom are coached by men not allowed access to their locker room, cannot be good enough for a top male player (not to mention a definite undertone of gender panic at the thought of a woman penetrating this manliest of sanctums). The fossilized attitudes in question may have reached their zenith when Murray was asked about the 'excitement' of having hired a ‘lady’ rather than a ‘chap’.
‘Lady and chap?’ Murray repeated, understandably amused. ‘Man and woman. Let's stick with that.’
It is an unusual move for a male player to be coached by a female player, there is no getting around that. Even the tennis cognoscenti can name no more than a handful of male professionals who have been coached by women, still fewer who have been coached by women not related to them by blood or marriage. And any move Murray made on the coaching front would have been scrutinized by the media.
But the quality of that scrutiny suggests a repressive and unpleasant belief that there is something fundamentally unnatural, not just unusual, about a male athlete seeking advice and guidance from a woman – a view which sees coaching as authoritarian and the ideal coach as a stern paterfamilias presiding over his charge, a role which Ivan Lendl played to perfection (in front of the cameras at least) and which leaves no room for alternative concepts of collaboration and equality, not to mention viewing female authority as somehow deviant or transgressive. It’s the same view, of men’s sport as a place for men in which women’s roles should be strictly limited to watching courtside (but without making any noise or expressing too much passion), which has led to the prevalent popular caricature of Judy Murray – a successful coach in her own right – as a ‘scary tennis mum’.
Murray, to do him credit, is more evolved than that. Asked if Mauresmo’s gender is an advantage, he replied: ‘Well, to be honest, I don't know because not every woman is the same. Not every man is the same, either.
‘Every person has individual qualities, you know. Some men are very sensitive. Some women are very sensitive. But I also know a lot of men that aren't. That's all. And there is also women who aren't. It's about, you know, the total package that she can offer.’
Murray was also at pains to emphasize a part of the story that has largely been neglected – the fact that his appointment of Mauresmo is a temporary one and that this is a trial period, with the final decision to come after Wimbledon and following consultation with his team. He also pointed out that he has only had one practice session with Mauresmo so far. ‘This week, there’s not going to be any big changes in my game,’ he warned. ‘I also wouldn’t expect any before Wimbledon.’
It’s a safe assumption that that assertion won’t stop the flood of reactions keen to link any perceived change in Murray’s game or demeanour – positive or negative – to the woman in his camp. But Murray demonstrated his commitment to a more collaborative model of coaching, albeit light-heartedly, when he pointed out that Mauresmo has something to say about whether the partnership becomes long-term or not. ‘It’s not just me that makes the decision. If Amelie hates working with me and finds it very difficult being around me, then she won’t want to do it either.’
After the hysteria surrounding the fledgling partnership, nobody would be surprised if she didn’t.