When Andy Murray was crushed 6-0, 6-1 by Roger Federer at the World Tour Finals in London last November, the omens looked bad for his coach, Amélie Mauresmo.
Experts agreed that his perverse experiment of employing an adviser who was French and, more troublingly, a woman had spectacularly backfired.
“He looked a little bit confused,” said Annabel Croft in the television studio. Greg Rusedski added: “He needs to go back to the way he played with Ivan” (referring to Lendl, under whose guidance Murray had won his two grand slams). “He needs to find the right person who can instil that in him.” The presenter prodded Rusedski to name names. “Go call Lendl. Give him a call and say, ‘I miss you, buddy!’”
Murray, that most belligerent of characters, on this occasion agreed with the pundits that he needed to shake things up. But soon after the defeat, he split not with Mauresmo, but with Dani Vallverdu, his long-time assistant coach and hitting partner, and his fitness coach, Jez Green. Reshaping his backroom staff may not have been headline news, but Murray’s decision to stick with Mauresmo is important and could have significant repercussions for gender relations in tennis, one of the few sports where men and women enjoy near parity.
Mauresmo and Murray, whether they have chosen that path or not, are trailblazers. If he’d fired her then, it could have been years before a top male player engaged a female coach again. “Women are judged by a different stick, that’s for sure,” said Martina Navratilova. “If it didn’t succeed, they’d say women can’t coach men.”
Half a year on from his unravelling against Federer, it looks like Murray made the right call. He reached the final of the Australian Open in February, won his first-ever tournaments on clay, then pushed Novak Djokovic to the limit at Roland-Garros. He arrives at Wimbledon this week, following his victory at Queen’s Club, with a swagger that we haven’t seen since he lifted the trophy two years ago. If everyone was keen to blame Mauresmo for his erratic form in 2014 that saw him slip to 11 in the rankings, it seems only fair to give her some credit for the world No 3’s revival in 2015.
Murray himself is certainly keen to heap praise on his 35-year-old coach. In a blog for L’Equipe last month, he announced that the experience of working with Mauresmo had even made him a feminist. “They say I was plucky choosing Amélie but, truth be told, if anyone was plucky it was Amélie – she’s the one who has taken the heat,” he wrote. “Her competence was always under fire. I felt embarrassed.”
Mauresmo has maintained a dignified silence through the bad times and now the good. She is mostly reluctant to give interviews, a reticence that dates to her playing days. Aged 19, just before the biggest match of her career, the final of the 1999 Australian Open, she announced that she was gay. Mauresmo lost that match (which she doesn’t believe was connected to her revelation) and then it was seven more years before she reached another grand slam singles final (which she has since conceded probably was connected). “I have never regretted the fact that I came out, but I do regret how I said it,” she told Observer Sport Monthly in 2006. “It was too brutal.”
Mauresmo did, however, break her silence in April to post a picture of two identical pairs of Converse All Stars, one hers, the other very small. The message read: “Bébé arrivera en août! #enceinte.” Yes, she was pregnant with her first child, with no details of a partner offered or expected. Photographs from the Wimbledon practice courts last week show a bump developing nicely. Details of Team Murray’s maternity policy have also not been revealed but, since it is led by a committed feminist, they are expected to be generous. “It’s a life-changing thing, having a child,” the Scot has acknowledged. “I think we just need to give it a bit of time and see how she feels afterwards and what her priorities are.”
Either way, Wimbledon will be Murray and Mauresmo’s last major tournament for a while, all of which adds to the juiciest soap opera in the sport right now. And the plotlines for the next fortnight might just be the most gripping to date.
As players, Mauresmo and Murray have much in common, which is one of the reasons given now for why their partnership is developing so well. At 5ft 9in, with comic-book shoulders and biceps, Mauresmo was known for her power game, but this belied the deft variety of her groundstrokes. She had a luscious one-handed backhand and her volleying skill made her an impassable presence at the net. She was a formidable opponent on any surface, leading to two grand slam titles, most memorably, her Wimbledon victory in 2006, and a stint as the world No 1.
Mauresmo first mimed tennis shots aged four, in the family garden in St Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. She was, if we trust the legend, inspired by her compatriot Yannick Noah winning the 1983 French Open when her parents – neither of whom played – decided to buy her a racket. By the age of 11, she was at a boarding school; at 14, she was overwhelmed and considering packing it in; and at 17, she was the champion of the junior events at the French Open and Wimbledon.
Any chance of a more straightforward career disappeared two years later when Mauresmo told the press in Australia that homosexuality was “part of my life” and that she was in town with her then-girlfriend, Sylvie Bourdon, a St Tropez bar owner. Essentially unknown, she had just beaten Lindsay Davenport, the world’s best player; the powerful American responded by saying: “A couple of times, I thought I was playing a guy”, though she quickly apologised. Mauresmo’s opponent in the final, Martina Hingis, sniped: “She’s half a man.” Acceptance wasn’t much more forthcoming closer to home. Mauresmo fell out with her parents after the announcement, only reconciling with her father, Francis, shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2003.
Mauresmo was known in France as “notre douce coquelouche” (“our sweet darling”), but she was called a lot of other things during her playing career too, mainly relating to choking when under stress. Although excellent on clay, she never made it past the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros, her home tournament, in 15 attempts. The New York Times’ Christopher Clarey has written of her performances in Paris: “At times, it was as much fun to watch as a child’s piano recital gone awry.”
While everyone was shocked when Murray unveiled Mauresmo as his new coach, we missed another obvious parallel between the pair: few players have so much experience of dealing with a suffocating pressure from a corybantic home support. Both were saviours of underachieving tennis nations.
Mauresmo was known for having a rich life – by tennis standards – away from the sport. She collected fine wine, rode Harley-Davidsons and surfed. Still, it seemed a relief to her, and to most neutrals, when she finally fulfilled her promise on court. Her golden year was 2006: in January, she won the Australian Open when Justine Henin retired with a stomach complaint; in the Wimbledon final, she met the same opponent and had the satisfaction of winning the championship point. It was a popular triumph, with even the grouches in the press box rising from their seats and applauding. “Now I am lucky that people just see me as a great player and a nice person,” she told the Observer in late 2006. “I think I have gone beyond this gay thing.”
Befitting a smart, sensitive person, Mauresmo has adapted quickly to coaching since she retired from playing in 2009. She started with another male player, the French big-server Michael Llodra, working with him on his grass court technique. She helped world No 1 Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and then led Marion Bartoli, a brilliant but quixotic player, to the Wimbledon title in 2013, without her dropping a set. Mauresmo’s resumé was impressive, but her collaboration with Murray was still widely ridiculed. Virginia Wade, among others, suggested that the player was pulling some kind of stunt to disorient opponents.
The match-up makes a lot more sense now. Murray has said that he finally feels he is being listened to and admires the resilience she showed in overcoming the personal slights she endured in her career. Most of all, Murray appreciates the confidence he has rediscovered to play the quirky, instinctual tennis that confounded Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in 2012 and 2013.
Unwittingly, as well, Murray has hired a lightning conductor. If he plays well, he gets the credit; if he flops, Mauresmo gets the blame. It’s to their credit that neither of them hides behind this excuse. And if Murray wins Wimbledon again, perhaps the pundits will finally acknowledge that this was not such a folly after all.
THE MAURESMO FILE
Born 5 July 1979, just outside Paris, to Francis, a paint factory engineer, and Françoise, a housewife. She played tennis from the age of four, only stopping, aged 14, for three weeks.
Best of times Winning the 2006 Wimbledon final against Justine Henin. When she lost the first set in just half an hour, it seemed that Mauresmo’s nerves were overwhelming her again, but she recovered to edge a tense three-setter.
Worst of times A dramatic dip in form after she came out as gay in 1999. “For a year or two I didn’t play well,” she has said. “I didn’t understand [the homophobic reaction] and I wasn’t ready for it.”
What she says “It’s essential that women are recognised and appreciated [as coaches]. We have a different way of approaching things, this is true, but I think it’s also interesting. We have something different to offer.”
What others say “She went through a lot as a person and she handled a lot of the issues she had during her career really well. She was seen as being a choker; people would call her that even when she was the best in the world. So, mentally, I think she’s extremely strong.” Andy Murray.
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