Judy Murray says her successor as Great Britain Fed Cup captain, Anne Keothavong, will shrug off the commotion in Constanta when she and one of her players were disgracefully abused by Romanian legend Ilie Nastase.
The 70-year-old former world No 1, who was acting as Keothavong’s counterpart in the recent World Group II play-off between the two nations, was kicked out of the tie after verbally abusing both the GB captain and British No 1 Johanna Konta, reducing the latter to tears.
The former French and US Open champion was also reported to have put his arm around Keothavong, 33, and asked for her hotel room number and is under investigation by the International Tennis Federation for allegedly racist remarks he made about Serena Williams’ unborn child during the weekend of the tie, which was won by Romania.
“I’ve spoken to Anne. It was an experience for her, that’s for sure,” said Murray. “But she’s a tough old bird and I think she will have handled herself fine.”
Murray led the British women’s team from 2011 to 2016 and said she didn’t know how she would have reacted if it had been her in the away captain’s chair. “I don’t think you do know how you’ll react until you’re hit with something like that. You wouldn’t be prepared for it,” said the mother of world No 1 and two-time Wimbledon champion Andy.
Nastase has since made an apology of sorts for some of his outrageous behaviour that weekend, which has thrust women’s tennis into the headlines for the wrong reasons.
As a former Fed Cup captain and such a passionate advocate of women in sport, the questions have to be asked of Murray but it seems a tad unsavoury to be raising the matter of Nastase’s dinosaur buffoonery at an event which is at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to the female game.
We meet at the David Lloyd centre in Edinburgh, where Murray is hosting a training day for more than 40 “activators” of the She Rallies programme she has created for the Lawn Tennis Association to attract more girls to play tennis and more women to coach.
She may be the mother of two sons, with Jamie also winning a Wimbledon mixed title and ending 2016 as world No 1 in doubles, and a general evangelist for the sport she played herself as a junior and, briefly, professionally. However, pushing the participation of girls and getting more women into coaching has become a particular passion.
The She Rallies come in three planks, with Lil’ Miss Hits sessions to give girls aged 5-8 a fun introduction to the game, a teenage starters’ programme for high school girls and a fun day initiative.
In terms of profile and earnings at the elite level, tennis is the biggest female sport but Murray explained that, at grassroots in the UK, the gender gap is stark.
“Since 2005 we’ve lost 30 per cent in terms of women and girls taking part in our sport, which is a huge drop,” she said. “We had to do something about it. It’s a simple programme, we’ve started it small to build it up and grow it. It’s a three-year commitment from the LTA.
“We have four times as many boys as we do girls coming into tennis. So that is a significant gap. The coaching split in the UK is 80 per cent men, 20 per cent women. And most of those women are at the starter levels, as you go up the system it’s less and less.
“When I was Fed Cup captain it was something I became aware about and looked to do something to create career opportunities for women to develop themselves. I really believe that having more female coaches will keep more girls in the game for longer. Simply because women know how women tick and it’s a crucial thing for the retention of girls in our sport.”
While the fundamentals of the game are the same, Murray makes no bones about the fact that encouraging girls and women does require a tailored approach.
“It’s about the way you communicate and the content you provide,” she continued. “I think when you understand a bit more about how girls think and what they respond to it can be very different to boys.
“I was giving an example today of when I was working with Andy or Jamie when they were younger and said ‘come on let’s do another 20 minutes working on your backhand’ and they would just be ‘yeah, OK’.
“With a female player, even one of the top-level girls I might be working with, if I said that you might get the old hands-on-hips ‘what’s wrong with my backhand?’ It’s immediately perceiving that they have done something wrong or aren’t good at something.
“The key to getting someone to perform is to have them feeling good about themselves. You’ve got to encourage, get your phrasing right, be firm but also fun. Boys can brush things off that girls might dwell on. So much is knowing how to communicate effectively. You have to do it with a smile on your face and make it fun. Tennis is competing with a lot of attractions for kids’ time and if what we deliver is too difficult, not fun enough, outdoors when it’s cold, they’re just not going to come along.”
That fun and social element in a sport which can often come with a reputation of single-minded, lonely struggle, is something that Murray is particularly keen to drive home.
“Tennis is an individual sport and if you get to a competitive level you are often competing on your own,” she said. “As a result tennis is competing against team sports like hockey and netball. For girls, the whole thing of doing something with their friends is incredibly important. If your friends drop out you tend to as well. It’s really important that we create activities, whether it be coaching, training or competing, where they’re operating as a pack.
“Women take part in sport for fun, friendship and fitness. We look to incorporate all of that. The social side of it is incredibly important. In any sport, 99 per cent of your players will be recreational players, with 1 per cent performers. We should be catering much more for the recreational.”
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