Andy Murray may be the revolutionary of the locker room – the first man to hire a high-profile coach in Ivan Lendl, the first of the top men to hire a female coach in Amelie Mauresmo – but he does draw the line somewhere. There is no way he would ever hire his wife, Kim, to take over the coaching duties.
Kim’s credentials are impressive. The daughter of Nigel Sears, the former coach to Amanda Coetzer, Daniela Hantuchova and Ana Ivanovic, she has been around the professional game all her life. But, even so, Murray could not imagine turning to the missus for advice.
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” he mused. “She coaches me on a lot of things but not tennis.”
But today, the Scot faces a man who has done just that. Mikhail Kukushkin is trained, coached, encouraged and, sometimes, bossed around by his wife, Anastasia Kukushkina.
She is a professional tennis coach and was working at the famous Spartak Club in Moscow when she met the man who would later become her husband. He encouraged her to leave the club and work with him full time in 2009 and two years later, they were married. Since then, they have performed a delicate balancing act in trying to keep the tennis on the tennis court and real life back at home.
“Of course it’s tough to combine the life on the tennis court but we are together for many years,” Kukushkin said. “We are used to it, to divide the tennis and just usual life. Of course sometimes it’s difficult, especially when I’m not playing good, or losing tough matches, so [it] could be difficult but we are used to it so we just try to separate: tennis – we are just player and the coach and outside we are just family. This could be tough but we are so used to it.”
The best thing is his mind, because he is a thinking player, like a chess playerAnastasia Kukushkina
As he speaks, his wife sits quietly by his side. She is shy, particularly when speaking in English, but as she relaxes it soon becomes clear she knows her own mind. She may ask for a little help with translating her thoughts from Russian to English but she has very definite views on life, tennis and her husband’s strengths and weaknesses. “In my opinion, it doesn’t matter with whom you are coaching,” she said. “If you have a result, it doesn’t matter if it is a female or a male, doesn’t matter.”
As for the criticism of Mauresmo at the end of last year, she shrugged and dismissed it. She faced similar criticism when she first started travelling on the tour. “But maybe Andy feels good by himself – in practice, in tournaments,” she said. “If he likes to work with her, this is his decision.”
Like Murray and Mauresmo, the Kukushkins face certain practical problems on the circuit. Women are, obviously, not allowed into the men’s locker room, which limits the chances for last-minute pep talks before matches but unlike Mauresmo, Kukushkina is not a internationally famous sportswoman in her own right. When she applies for a credential to attend a tournament, she is not always welcomed with open arms.
“It’s always problems,” Kukushkin said. “There is always problems in getting accreditation as a coach for her because the tournament think it’s like I do this for the picture on the Facebook or whatever, and they usually don’t want to give [my] coach [a] pass. Problems with that.”
Kukushkin has played Murray twice before – and lost both times – and he knows that taking on the world No 3 and a former champion at his home grand slam tournament will be hard work. Ranked No 59 in the world, he knows that chances will be as rare as hen’s teeth and he cannot afford to miss them. But his wife is a firm believer in his strengths. “The best thing is his mind, because he is a thinking player, like a chess player,” she said. “He is very clever about finding a way to win.”
The worst thing about his game is, apparently, his technique. As a university-trained coach, Kukushkina is a stickler for detail but it was her husband’s father who first introduced Kukushkin to tennis and taught him his strokes. As a result, she is still trying to deconstruct each shot to see how she can help him improve.
“We take iPhone 6 and make slow motion to try to understand how his hand is moving,” she said. “For me it is important to understand everything about his technique.”
Diplomatically, Kukushkin only offers the thought that his wife’s greatest strength is that “she knows me well” and that “she doesn’t really have any bad features”.
When Kukushkin does not win, or when he does not work hard enough in practice, his wife is “disappointed” but she tries not to let it carry over into their home life: Mikhail will not be doing the washing up from now until Christmas is he loses today. Although, the suggestion brings a twinkle to her eye.
“Now I think about it, why not?” she said as her husband looked a little wan. “I motivate him. I have different ways!”
And should Roger Federer cast his eye over proceedings on court and think that Mrs Kukushkin might have something to offer on the coaching front, he will not stand a chance. Nobody and nothing is going to split up the Kukushkins either on or off the court.
“I am not for sale!” Mrs K said. Her husband may not get the better of Murray today but no one messes with Mrs K.