Previous Story

The Ultimate Crapshoot

All Features

Next Story

The Fever Dream of Early NBA Draft Blogs

Ladies and Gentleman

Andy Murray, Amélie Mauresmo, and sexism at Wimbledon

There was nothing more for Andy Murray to do. He had already changed history. He had already relieved, if only for a moment, an entire nation’s sense of self-despair. He had won the only tournament he ever needed to win. He had dropped his racket and thrown off his hat, fallen to his knees and bent his head toward the worn grass as the people roared. That was a year ago.

He started a management company and became a brand; the trademark on his name covered more than 100 things: lingerie, umbrellas, surfboards. He was named to the Order of the British Empire. He got a haircut. He had back surgery. He opened a hotel, the Cromlix, in his hometown of Dunblane, Scotland. On the court, he struggled. He didn’t make a final, let alone win a title, after Wimbledon. He jerked balls he used to hit sharply. Despite being one of the two best returners in the world — only Novak Djokovic is better — he found himself pushing too hard or pulling back. He botched easy shots — “basic tennis shots that I would hope to make 99 times out of 100,” he said after losing to Milos Raonic at Indian Wells in March. And often, he wasn’t trying to hit much more than basic tennis shots; some of the creativity and agility that had once characterized his game — the surprising spins, the delicate shots from soft hands — was often missing. He had trouble closing out winnable matches. There were flashes of the player everyone had hoped and now expected Andy Murray would be. But even when he was ahead he seemed down. He clutched his hamstring, stomped his feet, yelled and moaned.

This spring, his coach Ivan Lendl quit. Maybe Lendl just wanted more time to play golf, but one of his reasons for leaving had to be simple. There was nothing more for Andy Murray to do. He could defend his Wimbledon championship, but considering Murray’s injuries over the past year, considering his exhaustion, considering the inconsistent and pretty bad state of his game, that was doubtful. Other goals were just as distant. Murray wasn’t going to enter the conversation for greatest of all time. He wasn’t even going to challenge Djokovic and Rafael Nadal for no. 1 right now. The best Murray could hope for was a repeat performance. The more likely result would be mild disappointment and temper tantrums. What did Lendl have to gain by staying? Lendl is not a fool.

The British press gave Murray a yearlong pass, especially in light of his back surgery, but that was about to end. Wait until Wimbledon, reporters cautioned. But Wimbledon was approaching. Murray looked miserable on the court. When Lendl quit, Murray called himself “gutted.” He sounded like a guy who’d been dumped. He seemed stretched and exhausted. He seemed to be missing something essential. His name had turned into a trademark. Sometimes, his game became something that wasn’t much fun to watch, and it looked like something that wasn’t much fun to play. There was nothing more for him to do after winning Wimbledon, and so he would do nothing. That’s what I thought. But I was wrong.

Just before the French Open, Andy Murray sent a text to a woman named Amélie Mauresmo. “I’m looking for a coach at the moment,” it said. “If you’re interested in chatting to me, let me know.”

Amelie Mauresmo of France returns the ba

When Amélie Mauresmo won Wimbledon, in 2006, she was 27 years old — as it happens, the same age that Murray is now. She was the no. 1 player in the world, and that January she had won the Australian Open. Still, she was considered fragile. She had made her first major final at the age of 19. The years that followed were filled with promise and disappointment. She became known as the best woman never to win a Slam, until she beat Justine Henin in Australia. Even that, though, had been in some ways unsatisfying. Henin had withdrawn in the second set, and so Mauresmo hadn’t had a chance to win match point. So when she beat Henin in the final at Wimbledon, 2‑6, 6‑3, 6‑4, after being blown out in the first set, she radiated relief and joy, and her relief and joy were reflected back at her. “It was, I’m told, the only time anyone can remember journalists in the press box spontaneously breaking into applause,” Louise France, a reporter for The Observer, wrote afterward.

Her game was creative, elegant. She could hit any shot and did. She was strong and could impose herself with heavy balls, but she was best known for her variety, for mixing flat shots with slice and spin. She was fast and agile, not afraid to run wide or approach the net. She had good hands. She had a mind, too, and you could almost see it working as she lined up her shots. Sometimes she seemed to hesitate for a moment. Sometimes she seemed to choke. She was the first person from France to achieve the top ranking, but in 15 attempts at Roland Garros, in her home country, she made it to the quarters only twice. With each passing year, she dealt with pressure that few could comprehend.

Her game was different, and she was different. When Mauresmo was 19 years old, just before playing in the Australian Open final, she told the press that she was gay. The announcement was casual; her girlfriend was simply part of her life, as tennis was and winning was becoming. Later, she would think that the way she had said it had been naive. Lindsay Davenport, whom she had just beaten, said that playing her was like “playing a guy.” Martina Hingis called her “half a man.” The other players didn’t line up to support her. Even now, years later, Google her name, and this is what comes up:

mauresmo-google

But she was who she was. “I’m not a tennis machine,” she told Louise France after winning Wimbledon. “I am not like those players who were taught to play one way and that is it. If they veer away they are lost. I try to adjust to who is in front of me. Most players don’t, you know?”

After Murray announced that Mauresmo would be his coach for the grass season just before the men’s French Open final, most people were supportive. Some people were not. “It’s all equal rights these days. Got to be politically correct,” said Marinko Matosevic, currently the 58th-ranked player in the world. “So, yeah, someone’s got to give it a go. Won’t be me.”

Some of the worst comments came from Wimbledon champions. “Mauresmo was a total shock,” said Virginia Wade, the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry. “I thought they were all fooling around. I think again he’s maybe trying to mess with everybody.”

During Murray’s first-round match on Monday, the WatchESPN broadcast cut away to an interview with two-time Wimbledon doubles champion Fred Stolle. “We thought it was a joke,” he said when asked about Murray’s hiring of Mauresmo. It probably wouldn’t work, he continued. Murray had respected Lendl, and Mauresmo just couldn’t command as much respect. (Meanwhile, on Centre Court, Mauresmo’s charge was kicking David Goffin’s ass.) It was tempting to put the TV on mute, tempting to ignore the blather. Stolle has a florid face, a pendulous chin, and white hair wafted back; he wore his Wimbledon blazer and Wimbledon tie. He’ll probably soon be fossilized and put on display at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’s museum. He is a tiresome old man. It’s no secret that some people are sexist. Why give him a platform? Then it occurred to me that I was watching him on ESPN, and I am an employee of ESPN. I’m not giving Stolle a platform; I’m standing on it.

TENNIS-GBR-WIMBLEDON

At the All England Club, women are called “ladies.” For women, a certain kind of look is privileged, on the court and off. Murray’s girlfriend fits the bill; Murray’s mother does not. “I am not the floral dress type,” Judy Murray once wrote. Newspapers have published debates about whether Judy is too “pushy.” Boris Becker once said Andy Murray would never win a title until she was gone.

Judy was once Andy’s coach. She encouraged him to play differently than the other boys. “A lot of players now concentrate on the baseline, and ground strokes and stuff,” he told Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times. “But she was always into drop shots, and slice, and lobs, and variety, and that sort of thing.”

She has been an outspoken proponent of the women’s game. So has her son. While some of the other top men on tour scoff about women, he respects them. He recognizes the differences in their games and doesn’t dismiss them. He likes watching Agnieszka Radwanska; he hopes Taylor Townsend will be a star. He’s comfortable with the idea of listening to a woman, he said before announcing his decision to hire Mauresmo. “I don’t really care whether some of the other male players like it or not.”

If Murray’s appointment of Mauresmo were only a matter of principle, it wouldn’t work. He is a tennis player and she is his coach. She needed to bring something to him that no one else could. As it happens, Mauresmo can bring a lot. Murray wants a good listener, and Mauresmo is attentive and calm. He wants someone who has been on Centre Court before and who has understood what it is like to be a nation’s avatar, someone who can understand what he goes through. Mauresmo can, to the extent that anyone can.

There is another possibility, one that Murray has never mentioned but one that I hope for all the same. Perhaps Mauresmo can help him rediscover the surprising strangeness of his game. She had some of the gifts that he has, some of the variety and cunning. She also had something that he has lacked lately. “Tennis flows from her,” someone once said.

Mauresmo slipped into Murray’s box after he had walked onto the court and been introduced, after he had acknowledged the adulation of the crowd. It was his moment. The day before, Mauresmo and Murray had sat together in Centre Court, across from the players’ box, and talked. The air was peaceful and quiet. Only a few stewards making last-minute preparations were around. She had told him what the moment of stepping onto the court as the defending Wimbledon champion had been like for her. She had told him about her nerves, and her joy.

She is coaching only on an interim basis. Her contract is for the grass season. The time is too short and the expectations are too brutal. Lendl had been with Murray for seven majors and Masters 1000 matches before Murray won his first huge title, the gold medal at the London Olympics. Mauresmo will be judged on a few weeks of work. The feeling in Britain is victory or bust. The crowd had begun to line up for show-court tickets to Monday’s matches on Saturday. By Sunday morning, the line was already too long. In Murray’s pre-tournament press conference, a reporter asked him how, after England’s defeat at the World Cup, it felt to have “the hopes of a despondent nation” on his shoulders. “Wow,” Murray said. “Wow.”

Mauresmo took the last remaining seat in the front row of Murray’s box just before play was to start. Her hair was in a carelessly graceful knot. She wore the same Adidas T-shirt she had worn at Murray’s practice before the match. It was white with a pink abstracted heart — what you might call a girl’s shirt. As if only a woman could have a heart. 

Filed Under: Tennis, Wimbledon, andy murray, Judy Murray, Amelie Mauresmo

louisa-head

Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and editor.

Archive @ louisahthomas

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 369,833 other followers