CHARLESTON, S.C. — On a hazy, 80-degree afternoon in April, Australian Open semifinalist Magda Linette practiced with Julia Grabher about 24 hours before each would win a second-round match on the green clay of the WTA’s Charleston Open.
While one of Linette’s two coaches, Iain Hughes, offered her instruction, the other, Mark Gellard, stood in a corner, keeping an eye on the workout while chatting with Lan Yao-Gallop. She is one of 10 members of the women’s professional tennis tour’s Coach Inclusion Program, which is in its first full year of trying to help female coaches break into the the top level of the sport.
It’s not an easy path.
“There are so few female coaches. And so few opportunities. There need to be more opportunities: ‘Hey, we have this. Interested?’ That needs to happen more,” said Yao-Gallop, who works with junior players for the Canadian tennis federation — including, in the past, 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu and 2021 U.S. Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez — but aims to coach pros. “People need to think: ‘She is qualified. She has experience. And she has the passion for it. Let’s offer her a job.’”
Only 13 of the women ranked in the Top 200, or 8%, work with a female coach, a figure WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon would like to see reach 50%. One way, he said, is to encourage more athletes to consider coaching when they retire from playing. Another is to find ways to elevate coaches at lower levels.
That’s why Simon sought to provide the kind of access, education and visibility Yao-Gallop and four other aspiring coaches received that week in Charleston — and other participants will get at tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati in August. There are plans to expand the program in 2024.
“If these five coaches who are here can’t get jobs, eventually — it’s not going to happen immediately — then we really do need to figure out what’s going on,” said Pam Shriver, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame as a player and now a part-time coach for Donna Vekic. “We would need to figure out: Why is there a bias? But I do think that bias is disappearing right before our eyes.”
Linette, for one, has never had a female coach.
“I don’t think that would even occur to me, maybe because that’s how it always was,” she said. “But that could change.”
There were 30 applicants for the WTA program, which began in December with classes at the U.S. Tennis Association campus in Orlando.
“We wanted to select coaches who have the best chance of making it on tour. And we want it to set them up for success,” program director Mike Anders said. “There isn’t a pathway for women to become coaches in the pros.”
Which is how Yao-Gallop, a 43-year-old from China who now lives in Edmonton, ended up shadowing Linette, Hughes and Gellard — at practice, in the gym, for pre-match scouting and post-match analysis.
“I’m not teaching her anything about how to teach someone how to hit a forehand or a backhand. She knows all of that already — and if she didn’t, she could learn that online, in books, in conferences. That’s the easy part,” Gellard said. “It’s the networking. It’s the logistics. It’s seeing how things are done day to day.”
At the outset of Linette’s hit with Grabher, Yao-Gallop listened when Gellard explained in a low voice: “I’m trying to get her to start practice with more intensity.”
Over the next 20 minutes, Gellard answered Yao-Gallop’s questions, pointed out what to keep an eye on, and offered a glimpse at his coaching philosophy.
None of this took away from Gellard’s main purpose. At one point, he paused his conversation with Yao-Gallop to deliver suggestions to Linette about returning an opponent’s kick serve. Moments later, Linette did exactly what he described, and Gellard shouted, “Good! That’s it!”
Iris Harris was born in Romania and picked up tennis at age 5. Her parents sent her to live with an aunt in California at age 10 in the hope of signing with an agent or earning a college scholarship.
At 17, she turned pro. At 19, she tore a ligament in her right knee and a groin muscle. At 23, she turned to coaching. Now 38, she is a teaching pro at a club in Florida with designs on getting to the tour.
“Women kind of get stuck or put at the bottom,” Harris said after she and another coaching hopeful, Yuliya Shupenia, attended a morning practice with Claire Liu and her coach, Chris Tontz. “I have playing experience. I have coaching experience. I need to move up. But some men feel threatened by it, worried we’ll take their position.”
Harris joined the WTA program to learn more about coaching a pro, yes, but also to make contacts that could lead to that chance.
“The more exposure we get and the more we know people, it’s going to help make that transition a lot quicker,” she said. “Hopefully it’s not going to take me another 10 years.”
She asked Tontz whether it would be OK to email him a scouting report before Liu’s first match, with thoughts on the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
“He was very open to it,” Harris said with a smile. “And our notes were very similar.”
The three coaches — Tontz and the up-and-comers — lined up side-by-side in the front row of the metal bleachers during the more than 2 1/2 hours of Liu’s first-round match.
“Their insight was excellent. They helped me. I said: ‘I know I’m supposed to be teaching you stuff, but this is more of a collaboration. I am learning from you,’” Tontz said. “They know what they’re doing.”
Like Harris, Shupenia is a former player — the 2015 Big East Player of the Year at DePaul University — who moved into coaching. She now teaches tennis in Chicago.
Her ultimate goal?
“To have a player of mine,” she said, glancing at the Charleston Open’s main stadium, “take part in an event like this.”
Hours after her practice with Grabher, Linette’s team for the week — Gellard, Hughes and Yao-Gallop — met for 15 minutes in a back corner in the player dining room, sitting around a coffee table to go over a gameplan. Yao-Gallop leaned forward on a couch; Gellard and Hughes leaned back in chairs.
Gellard asked Yao-Gallop for impressions of the opponent, and she responded with a breakdown of tendencies: which strokes she prefers, which give her trouble, what her mental makeup is like.
Gellard and Hughes listened; then Hughes offered his take. And then the trio went back and forth … conferring about Linette’s practice … about how she should warm up … about how best to give her advice.
“I’ll have 1,000 questions for you after I watch the match,” Yao-Gallop said with a chuckle.
As a player, she reached a career high of 757th in the WTA rankings in 2002.
Two decades later, she’s a coach who just wants a shot.
“If we keep growing this program, we’ll see way more coaches, female coaches, on the road. And hopefully 50-50,” Yao-Gallop said.
Then she paused, before adding: “Or more.”