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Why aren't there more women coaches?

3/19/2007 - Tennis

One of the last obvious gender inequities in tennis dissolved recently when the All England Club elected to give the same prize money to women as to men competing at Wimbledon.

Yet one rather glaring difference between the men's and women's landscapes persists, and might be getting even more out of whack.

Women don't coach women. Or more precisely, women don't coach top women on the WTA Tour, unless they're related to them. Men coach men, and they also coach women.

Of the top 20 women in the WTA rankings this week, half are coached and accompanied on the tour a majority of the time by either a parent or a husband. Four are coached by their moms. The other 10 players list male coaches, or no coach at all, on their official bios. By comparison, three top-20 men (Andy Roddick, Nikolay Davydenko and David Nalbandian) are coached by their brothers, and No. 2 Rafael Nadal by his uncle, Toni Nadal.

"That's astonishing,'' Fed Cup captain Zina Garrison said of the numbers.

"That's not good, is it?" said commentator Mary Joe Fernandez.

There are numerous reasons for the gender coaching gap at the top level. They aren't terribly mysterious, but they involve old issues not easily solved.

• Lifestyle. When women players retire, many start families and don't want to travel for eight or nine months a year. Or, they're so tired of traveling themselves after five, 10 or 15 years on the road that they want to stay put.

• "The bubble." Players who start traveling at a young age stick with coaches in their immediate posse, thus skewing the choices toward family members.

• The hitting partner equation. Girls and women often believe that a man will help them improve more than a woman. Some hire traveling hitting partners in addition to a coach.

• Cultural expectations and lack of support at the federation level.

Let's take the parental-guidance part of this first. Both Fernandez and Garrison acknowledged that choosing a coach is an extremely personal choice. Sometimes a family member is the right choice, but objectivity is subsequently imperiled.

"My parents' philosophy was that I should learn from the best of the best, but at the same time, no one knew my game better than my Dad,'' Fernandez said.

"I think a coach can make a huge impact strategically, technically and motivationally. Finding all those things in one person can be tough. I'm a big believer in getting different opinions. Yuri Sharapov [Maria's father and coach] has taken her different places. That's the right way to do things, I think. But then, [Martina] Hingis never went to anyone other than her mother, and she won five Grand Slams.''

Retired doubles specialist Mariaan de Swardt, one of three women coaching on the 11-team, co-ed World Team Tennis circuit, voiced some of the same reservations.

"They get so used to each other that they don't want to bring anyone else in and stir things up,'' said de Swardt, a former South African Fed Cup captain and 1999 Wimbledon doubles finalist. "The longer it goes, the harder it gets. There are exceptions, where parents bring out the best in players, but to keep things fresh, it's better to bring different people in.''

Tennis' vagabond lifestyle and its clash with family and personal demands are the most widely-cited reasons for the paucity of women coaches at the top level of the game.

Garrison said it took her five years to regain any desire to travel after her 15-year pro career. De Swardt has done some limited coaching on the pro tour but said leading the Delaware Smash through the WTT's month-long summer season is about all the roaming she wants to do these days.

"I began traveling when I was 16 years old,'' de Swardt said. "You lose touch with family and friends, you lose a lot of the normal things. This is a great way for me to stay involved with pro tennis.''

Fernandez, Garrison and others lamented a lack of role models, owing to the small percentage of retired women players who go on to coach long-term at the tour level. The fact that the cameras trained on the coaches' boxes at Grand Slam events seldom show female faces, helps make the syndrome self-perpetuating, they said.

"It goes back to what (young players) have seen, and that goes back to when I was playing,'' said Garrison, who just spent a week in Florida working with young American players at a camp conducted by her longtime friend and former doubles partner, USTA developmental coach Lori McNeil. "They look at me like, 'You're going to coach me?'"

Stanford University women's coach Lele Forood blames poor recruitment and advancement policies for women at the federation level.

"The USTA has promoted a lot of women, but in other countries, former players aren't promoted and the guys just seem to float right into the top jobs,'' said Forood, whose powerhouse program has produced many WTA players. "That's absolutely, positively going on.''

At least one statistic bears out Forood's statement. Garrison and Barbara Rittner of Germany were the only two female Fed Cup captains among the eight World Group teams last year. (Finalist Belgium recently replaced Carl Maes with Sabine Appelmans.) All eight teams in the World Group II vying for a spot in the top draw were captained by men.

"You have to bring someone else behind you,'' Garrison said. "When I first decided I wanted to coach, I had people tell me I didn't have enough experience. It wasn't until Billie [Jean King] that someone gave me a chance.

"Men's lives are more structured to keep going after they retire.''

Forood agreed that personal issues are always in the foreground.

"If someone came to me and said, 'will you work and travel with me for 30 weeks,' I'd say 'absolutely not,' '' Forood said. "I'd do it for 10 or 12 weeks, or train them where I lived… a college job in the U.S. is just so much more of a stable lifestyle.''

Yet the stats are lopsided even in NCAA Division I women's tennis, where only a third of the coaches are female (100 of 312), according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.

Fernandez pointed out that even some prominent coaches on the men's side like Todd Martin (Mardy Fish) and Jimmy Connors (Roddick) don't travel full-time. Martin, who has two young children, comes to select tournaments with Fish and works with him at home in Florida, while Scott Humphries is with Fish every week.

Analyst Jim Courier thinks that great coaching is gender-neutral, but contends that top women players these days are narrowing their coaching options and perhaps limiting their own potential.

"It's a head-scratcher,'' he said. "In Australia, I commented on the relationships between [Fernando] Gonzalez and [Larry] Stefanki, [Andy] Murray-[Brad] Gilbert, Connors-Roddick. In each of those cases, you saw an immediate impact. I don't see the same caliber of coaches helping the women players.''

Does the gender gap matter? Should the women's tour be paying more attention? Is it the WTA's job?

Tour spokesman Andrew Walker said the WTA is not actively involved in recruiting or developing coaches at the grassroots level, although it does sponsor educational sessions for coaches and players, and a mentoring program that matches retired pros with younger players.

"No one would disagree that it would be nice to have more women coaches in one of the premier women's sports organizations in the world,'' Walker said. "There are plenty of qualified women. I don't think there's a supply problem. But in the end, it's the athlete's choice.''

On The Mend

IMG's Ben Crandell, Jamea Jackson's agent, reports that Jackson intends to make her competitive comeback at the WTA event in Estoril, Portugal in late April. The 20-year-old Atlanta native has been sidelined since December, when she had minor hip surgery. Jackson finished last season ranked a career-high No. 45 but has slid to No. 70 due to the layoff.

Speaking of Estoril
Officials there said the ATP event held the same week as the women's tournament will not use the experimental round-robin format as planned. The format has come under intense fire since the embarrassing series of rule interpretations in Las Vegas. ATP brass will meet next week in Miami to decide on round robin's near future.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.