NEW YORK (AP) Lindsay Davenport sat on the edge of her seat in the coaching box at Arthur Ashe Stadium, watching her player, 15th-seeded Madison Keys, compete in the U.S. Open.
Davenport is a former No. 1 and winner of three Grand Slam singles titles who is among a handful of female coaches in professional tennis. Keys is one of three players ranked in the WTA’s top 20 with a female coach, joining French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and 20th-ranked Daria Gavrilova.
Kim Clijsters is an example of a former player offering expertise during Grand Slam tournaments: The woman Keys beat in the first round at Flushing Meadows, Elise Mertens of Belgium, trains at Clijsters’ academy. During Keys’ victory over Mertens last week, ESPN’s cameras frequently showed the reactions of Davenport and Clijsters.
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”You’ve got to see it to be it,” former player Billie Jean King said. ”The more coaches, the better. And the more girls that see it on TV, the better.”
Mary Joe Fernandez, a former player, U.S. Fed Cup coach and current ESPN commentator, agreed that more exposure helps, ”especially when a Lindsay or Martina (Navratilova) or (Amelie) Mauresmo, high-profile players, become coaches.”
Plenty of well-known male players have transitioned to part-time coaching – Andre Agassi is the latest, spending time working with Novak Djokovic at the French Open and Wimbledon. Navratilova has assisted various players in the past. Other American players-turned-coaches include Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil.
Conchita Martinez, who coaches women and men with the Spanish Fed Cup and Davis Cup teams, beamed from the box at Wimbledon after helping Garbine Muguruza win that title in July.
A winner of 55 career titles in 17 years on tour, the 41-year-old Davenport knows the pressure players face on and off the court and how to deal with injuries. Keys missed the first two months of the season because of left wrist surgery; she’s now returning to form as a powerful baseliner, similar to her coach.
”Lindsay has been amazing. She’s always helped me in the big moments, just because she’s been there and understands,” said Keys of the 1998 U.S. Open winner. ”So having her perspective in what she did to handle those situations has been really beneficial.
”I think it’s probably the closest I’ve ever been with a coach. I truly love just being around her.”
Chris Evert has an academy in Boca Raton, Florida, that has trained many young players, including Keys and American Jennifer Brady. Both advanced to the second week of the U.S. Open.
Clijsters, who won the U.S. Open in 2005 and 2009-10, has assisted Belgian players Mertens, Kirsten Flipkens and Yanina Wickmayer by letting them practice at her academy in Bree. They all have their own male coaches. But Clijsters is often in the stands of major events to cheer on her countrywomen.
”She’s just really supportive and a good friend,” Wickmayer said.
Andy Murray, who was initially coached by his mother, hired 2006 Australian Open and Wimbledon champion Mauresmo for two years. She stepped aside in 2016 after having a child.
Fernandez says whether the coach is male or female, it’s more about ”the right fit.”
”The chemistry has to be right,” she said. ”I think a woman can coach a man as easily as they can coach a woman. It’s just been harder because women go on to have families and it’s tougher to take the time off to dedicate oneself full-time to the coaching.”
Davenport has four children and shares coaching duties with Thomas Hogstedt.
Currently, the men’s tour provides child care, but the women’s tour does not.
WTA spokeswoman Heather Bowler said in an email to The Associated Press that ”child care is not a requirement” and the tour ”does not anticipate that this requirement will change.”
Fernandez said in the past, women hired male coaches because they got ”two-in-one” – a coach and hitting partner with a faster-paced ball. These days, some top players have a team that includes a coach, hitting partner, fitness trainer, physiotherapist, statistician and family support.
Unlike the ATP, the WTA allows on-court coaching between sets of matches – although not at Grand Slam tournaments. That allowed viewers to listen in while current U.S. Fed Cup coach Kathy Rinaldi offered strategy and encouragement to American Christina McHale during a recent tournament ahead of the U.S Open.
Fernandez had an early mentor in King, who coached Davenport (singles) and Fernandez and Gigi Fernandez (doubles) to gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
”I learned a lot from Billie Jean. She gave me great advice when I went into the coaching role,” Fernandez said. ”You have to really learn about each individual, everybody is different, and how to connect. It’s important for players to play to their strengths.
”Coaching is so much fun. It’s fun when you see the players develop and improve.”
King is all for more female coaches at every level of the sport – recreational, college and the pros.
”It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, it’s about knowing the game,” she said.
This story has been corrected to show that there are three current top-20 female players with female coaches and to say that Lindsay Davenport’s U.S. Open title came in 1998.
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