With Female Coach, Murray Faces a New Kind of Attention at Wimbledon

Andy Murray, who ended Britain's 77-year drought in men's singles at Wimbledon by defeating Novak Djokovic in last year's final, recovered in time Sunday to suggest that the World Cup - England's nose-dive notwithstanding - was actually a boon to his psyche.

Updated: June 23, 2014 13:41 IST
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Wimbledon: England could use an encore.

That much was obvious from the outset of a news conference Sunday with Andy Murray, the 27-year-old Scotsman who won Wimbledon last year playing under the banner of Britain and will begin his title defense Monday in the first match on Centre Court, against David Goffin of Belgium.

Question: "How does it feel to have the hopes of a despondent nation on your shoulders?" Answer: "Wow."

Murray, who ended Britain's 77-year drought in men's singles at Wimbledon by defeating Novak Djokovic in last year's final, recovered in time Sunday to suggest that the World Cup - England's nose-dive notwithstanding - was actually a boon to his psyche.

"It gives me something to do in the evenings," he said. "I don't have to listen to people talking about me playing at Wimbledon."

Justine Henin (then known as Justine Henin-Hardenne), at 5-6, defeated the 6-2 Lindsay Davenport at the 2006 U.S. Open on her way to the title.

Serena Williams following her loss to Garbine Muguruza at the French Open in May.

Apparently not one for reiteration, Murray had already changed the pretournament narrative, taking on Amélie Mauresmo, a former Wimbledon champion, as his new coach.

Mauresmo is not the first woman to coach on the men's tour. Several male players, Jimmy Connors included, have been mentored by their mothers. Billie Jean King assisted the American Tim Mayotte in the early 1990s.

Mauresmo helped her French compatriot Michael Llodra for one grass-court season. In 2012, she became France's Fed Cup captain, and she was in Marion Bartoli's corner when Bartoli shocked the tennis world, along with herself, by winning Wimbledon last year in a heartwarming aside to Murray's ascension.

Precedent aside, the hiring of a woman by one of the men's tour's Big 4 stirred predictable gender-related emotions. While many cheered - "Great to see," Maria Sharapova said - and expressed hope that the scant number of female coaches on both tours would increase, Ernests Gulbis, the talented Latvian who upset Roger Federer at the French Open, weighed in recently by making a sexist joke.

"I am waiting for a couple of good-looking players to also quit so that I can have a new coach," he said.

No less a British women's icon than Virginia Wade, the 1977 Wimbledon champion and a longtime commentator, told reporters regarding Murray's decision to hire Mauresmo: "I thought they were all fooling around; I think again he's maybe trying to mess with everybody. She was a great player; she's a great person. I think she was a little fragile mentally, because she had the capabilities of beating everybody."

Wade added, "You like to try to get behind people's thinking, but I can't really with this one."

Many in tennis believed that Murray had found the ideal coach in Ivan Lendl, who was behind Murray when he broke through the Grand Slam barrier at the United States Open in 2012 and won Wimbledon 10 months later. The impassive Lendl was considered a grounding presence for the emotional Murray, who had labored with self-doubt, especially under Wimbledon expectation and scrutiny.

But Murray and Lendl parted ways in March. Pairings of former and current great players, though adding generational spice to the sport, seem fragile by nature, with those who were once the brightest stars apparently able to orbit their successors for only so long.

A small example of that was observable Sunday, when Murray was scheduled for a 10 a.m. practice session. Mauresmo was at the courts at least 15 minutes early and wound up waiting another 45 for Murray, who said he was late because he had returned a lost dog to its owner. A horde of photographers recorded their every conversation as if a meeting for world peace were occurring.

Afterward, Murray explained that much more had gone into his decision to seek out Mauresmo than shared initials and a need for a Lendl replacement. He said the spiritual guidance of his mother, Judy, his primary coach through his teenage years, had made him comfortable with female leadership.

He also cited the 1974 Wimbledon runner-up, Olga Morozova, who traveled with him when he was a junior player, as "one of the coaches I also loved."

After his experience with the stoic, self-assured Lendl, he wanted a coach to share his feelings with, as well as his fears. He said he had talked with Mauresmo about the pressure of his title defense, regardless of how England fared in the World Cup.

"I think she was someone who struggled with nerves and conquered them later in her career, which, I think when you start to coach someone, I think you can help more than someone that hasn't had those issues before," Murray said. "She understands the psychological part of the game maybe more than some because of that."

Supporting that argument was the now-retired Bartoli, who said Sunday that Mauresmo "gave me this really extra confidence boost that I really needed in terms of knowing that when I'm on the court I could win the match."

"Sometimes, that's what I was lacking; kind of doubting myself in terms of whether I'm good enough to actually beat my opponent," Bartoli said, adding, "I think it's amazing to see that a guy - I mean, really, one of the top players in the world - is hiring a woman to coach him."

For her part, Mauresmo has tried to play down the feminist angle, telling reporters Saturday: "It's not my main concern. My main concern is to help Andy the best way I can in this short time we have, and given the timing that we have before Wimbledon."

Djokovic, who won Wimbledon in 2011 and who brought the three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker into his support group this year, acknowledged being "a bit surprised" by the Murray-Mauresmo pairing.

"I mean, I don't know how that's going to turn out, this relationship," he said. "But it's definitely an interesting decision, and we'll see how it goes in this tournament."

Asked for his reaction to those cheering the partnership, Murray struck a proactively pragmatic tone.

"It's possible it doesn't work," he said. "It has nothing to do with whether she's a woman or not. That's not why it will work or not work."

For the progressively minded, he already sounded like a winner. And for two weeks, at least, he is still the Wimbledon champion.

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