“I’ve opened my mind”As one of the world’s first elite sportsmen to employ a female coach, Andy Murray has inspired praise, judgment and debate in equal measure. Not that the 27-year-old Scot has let that slow him down—he’s ready to answer his critics on the court.
Andy Murray has won Wimbledon, an Olympic gold medal and is one of the tennis top four alongside Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. During a decade-long career that has seen him go from unknown hopeful to global star, the 27-year-old has always done things a bit different than his peers.
Most recently, in June 2014, the Scot hired Frenchwoman and former world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo as his coach, after parting ways with supercoach Ivan Lendl. It’s a decision that’s made him one of the first top athletes in the world to be coached by a woman, and landed him at the center of a more heated debate than you’d imagine possible in the 21st century. While many have praised his choice, it was also labeled a joke, with several male players happy to voice their doubts in the press—and even more doing so behind closed doors.
But as Murray has proved before, where he leads, others follow, meaning sporting norms could be about to change. As the home test of Wimbledon approaches, Murray talks to The Red Bulletin about locker room comments, setting trends and becoming a feminist.
THE RED BULLETIN:With almost no women coaching men at an elite level in tennis, or indeed almost any other popular sport, did you realize how significant a move it was to appoint Amelie Mauresmo?
ANDY MURRAY: I knew it hadn’t happened before, but I wasn’t thinking of it being a groundbreaking move or having an influence that could cross over into other sports. Then, after seeing the response to it, and some of the things that have been said, I can see it is. I’ve actually become very passionate about getting more women in sports, giving women more opportunities. When I was younger, I wasn’t thinking about stuff like that. But now I’ve seen it with my own eyes, it’s quite amazing how few female coaches there are across any sports.
What did you think of the furor it whipped up?
Since I’ve been on the tour, and I’m in my 10th year, none of the top male or female players have had women coaches. It was two or three out of hundreds of players. So I knew it would be a big story at the beginning. But I thought it would die down quicker than it has. Before I started working with Amelie, I was losing—I started last year much worse than I finished it, so I was very surprised at the amount of criticism she received for each loss I had. I couldn’t believe the negativity toward her personally. that has never happened with any other coach I’ve worked with before. It was a shock.
What does Mauresmo give you that Ivan Lendl couldn’t?
I felt I was able to be open the very first time we chatted. I was returning from back surgery, which was difficult. When I stopped working with Ivan, I hadn’t spent much time with him. After the surgery I really needed help and guidance.
And she gave you that?
She listened well to how I was feeling.
How important is it for you as a player to get that from a coach?
It’s very important. They need to listen to how I’m seeing the game, how I feel on the court. At that point, I was low on confidence. I looked for someone very different to Ivan. Everyone looks at the success I had with Ivan, but that doesn’t mean my relationship with him was perfect. There were elements missing. I needed someone who would really listen to what I was saying and incorporate that. That’s something Amelie’s better at than any coach I’ve ever had.
Does gender play a part in that?
I’m not sure why, but ever since I was young, I’ve found it easier to open up and talk about how I’m feeling with the women closest to me—my mom, my wife. So with her I’ve found that side of things easier. It was much easier for me to open up to Amelie when I wasn’t feeling confident.
And does that benefit your game in a way you haven’t found with a male coach?
Of course it depends on the person, but generally, when you get five or six men sitting at a table in a competitive environment, it’s not pleasant. I’ve found it difficult to open up sometimes, as you feel judged or it’s seen as a sign of weakness. Sometimes, when we’re competing and working out, trying to be macho, it can get a bit testosterone- fueled. I’ve ended up having some big arguments. I don’t feel like I’m competing with Amelie. When we’re talking, it’s more of a collaboration. We discuss things and try to get to the root of a problem. Over the last few months, everything’s been handled more calmly.
You announced your partnership before the Queen’s Club Championship last year. Were there comments made in the locker rooms at the time?
I know a lot of the players were surprised, because I do hear what goes on in the locker room, the sort of things that won’t make it into the press. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Some comments did make it into the press before it was officially announced, that some people thought it was a joke I was playing along with. To me, it’s amazing to hear that.
Some players, such as Marinko Matosevic, openly said they would never employ a female coach. Are other male players missing out?
Anyone can make whatever decisions they want, but I’m comfortable working with a female. I’m used to working with women, having been coached by my mum when I was growing up. Having worked with Amelie for months, I can really see the benefits in my game.
What makes you go against the grain?
When I was young, every coach around me was a man. Every single one. And when you’re young, you follow what you see around you. That’s the nature of being young. But when you grow up a bit, you think more for yourself. I just looked at the positives Amelie could bring and I couldn’t see any negatives at all. Amelie was the best in the world at what she did, and whether you’re a man or a woman, or in any sport or job, that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. You have to have amazing qualities to do that. I’m benefiting from it.
Why don’t more men employ women as coaches?
I genuinely think it hasn’t occurred to a lot of male players that they could hire a woman coach. I know that Amelie is a good coach. I’ve worked with many. That’s proof enough for me.
So doing things differently from the pack doesn’t faze you?
I never thought about the decision in terms of image or brand. I knew it was different, but then I’ve always done things a bit differently to other players.
I don’t live my life by what people might say in the press or on Twitter. I take confidence from decisions I’ve made in the past that have been a bit different but have worked for me. When I employed Ivan Lendl, that decision was viewed as being very unusual, as not many great ex-players had coached before. It was a big step for me and added pressure.
But then it turned into a huge trend…
Yeah, then a lot of players started doing it because it was successful for me.
Are you starting another trend?
It will start to change. It will take time. All it takes, and it’s a shame that it’s the case, is one successful relationship like me and Amelie for people to start to buy into it. Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport have both started coaching at the elite level since Amelie and I began working together.
Do you regard yourself as a feminist?
[Long pause]. Good question. I don’t know. I’m pro everyone being equal, and if that’s being a feminist then you could say so, yes. It really opened my eyes when I started working with Amelie. Inequality is something I started to see and become passionate about. It’s opened my mind.
At the end of last year, you parted ways not with Mauresmo as many predicted, but with your long-term training partner Dani Vallverdu and fitness coach Jez Green. Why?
Everyone, including the people closest to me, was doubting my decision [to appoint Mauresmo], and that was difficult. I told everyone that me losing to Roger [Federer] in London was nothing to do with Amelie. During that year I’d spent a total of two and a half weeks training with her. It clearly wasn’t her fault. Rather than doubt her, I started to wonder why no one was taking responsibility for their role in it.
Does that bring more pressure to make sure this partnership works?
I feel like a lot of people thought it was destined to fail at the end of last year when I lost to Roger. Everyone was saying “Oh, Amelie’s confused him, he has no identity on the court, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Two months later, I was playing like a completely different player. I’ve already shown it can work.