Judy Murray: Tennis is a male-dominated world – it's time for change
The tennis coach and mother of Andy says female players need a PR push to inspire more girls like Heather Watson on centre court
As her son crashes out of Queen’s, Judy Murray is at the ladies’ equivalent of the tournament in leafy Edgbaston. She’ll chat about Andy in a moment, but first she is keen to talk about why she thinks women’s tennis needs a bit of a Kardashian moment.
“Tennis is a male-dominated world,” says Murray, whose sports top is emblazoned with the brand She Rallies. “We have four times as many boys coming into the sport as girls, and five times as many [male] coaches. When I captained our Women’s Federation Cup team in 2012, there was no media and no crowds. I realised then we were going to have to work hard in order to attract attention to the women’s side of the game.”
Really? Surely women’s tennis is the one sport where, in terms of household names, the ladies shout just as loudly as the men. From Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, to Martina Navratilova, to the Williams sisters, by way of the magisterial Steffi Graf, women swagger just as boldly, don’t they?
“Well, tennis is in a strong position because two of the biggest names in women’s sport, namely Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, are tennis players,” concedes Murray.
But surely the two things are not unconnected? “Yes, women’s tennis is televised and well covered in the media, so it is in a fortunate position compared to many other women’s sports. But for me in the UK, our biggest challenge is at entry level.”
Murray’s issue is that for all the great names, British girls aren’t coming into the sport, with a 30 per cent drop off in girls playing tennis in the last decade.
Murray explains why. “Girls are much more image-conscious at a younger age. It’s almost like they grow up too soon. They are so influenced by social media, fashion magazines, by websites and by reality TV.
“Where once sport lost girls at 17, now it’s much younger. Things like running and exercise classes have taken over. In tennis, you need a court, and you need someone to play with and there are challenges with accessibility.”
To address this malaise, Murray has devised two approaches. The first is She Rallies. “She Rallies is all about driving participation, and retention, of girls and women in the sport. We need a female workforce – almost a female army – of parents, teachers, and students who enjoy tennis. We are training up as many people as we can to deliver our sport.”
The second idea seems to advocate the very thing she rails against, namely popular culture. “Female tennis players need to be encouraged to raise their profile in other avenues than on the sports pages of newspapers. If you have an engaging personality or you can show that you are interested in the Kardashians, or fashion, things that other girls like, then you are far more likely to engage with a female audience.”
Our female players need to get going on social media, glossy magazines and reality shows, says Murray. Is this even possible, given the hours on court required by the professional circuit? “You are a business,” she responds crisply, “and you have to understand the business of being a professional athelete. If your marketability is going to be significantly increased by engaging yourself and being seen by more fans – and more potential sponsors – then that is what you need to do.
“If we want to grow the profile of women’s tennis we need to place the players in publications where other women can learn about them and read their back story; that way you can engage with them better, rather than just as someone who plays tennis.”
It’s not quite the path her sons trod, however. I can’t remember the famously dour Andy Murray ever taking to Twitter to discuss the Kardashians. Or appearing in Hello! with Kim. “Well, as they became more in the public eye of course [they had] to understand how to handle the media and have a management team,” says Judy. Which is not the same as posting Snapchat stories about hairstyles, but there we are.
Maybe Judy is advocating a female PR push because it has been wholly beneficial for her own profile, courtesy of a stint on Strictly that was great for Brand Murray and by extension, British tennis. “It let many more people see what I was like and see my personality,” she says. “Before that, the bulk of the British public probably only saw me stressing out in the Player’s Box and thought, ‘She looks as miserable as sin.’ It’s helped me a lot because I can now use my profile to encourage more girls to play.”
She admits she wasn’t a natural public figure and was surprised when the cameras started to focus on her at her sons’ matches. “When we were launched into the public eye,” she says, “it was just the most enormous, weird thing that nobody prepared you for. With Wimbledon, which is covered by the BBC with no ad breaks, there are 20 seconds between points, and 90 seconds at change of end.”
The cameras needed to find something to focus on; and the blonde mother with ferocious eyes uncompromisingly championing her offspring was perfect.
“If my sons were playing cricket or football, nobody would have ever known anything about me, which would have been absolutely fine. I came in for a lot of criticism for being a competitive and ambitious mother. Sports photographers and editors are all men and they painted this picture of me which wasn’t particularly flattering or attractive.”
Oh come on, Judy. What about that lovely moment after Andy won his first Wimbledon and he clambered up to (eventually) hug his devoted mother? “Yes, that was one for all the mums out there,” she laughs.
I mention a recent interview with John McEnroe in which he managed to diss both Murrays, by saying that doubles (Jamie’s speciality) ought to be abandoned on the circuit and that Andy is realistically only a “distant fourth” in world rankings.
Judy Murray snorts. “Yeah. I saw it. I am not going to comment on [Andy], but doubles is the backbone of club competition and school competition and people like to watch doubles.”
Indeed, McEnroe was himself no doubles slouch. “Back in the day, top players could play both events because the game wasn’t as physically demanding,” says Murray. “They didn’t hit the ball so hard. They weren’t such physical specimens as they are now.” Take that, Superbrat.
You can find our full Wimbledon 2017 coverage here.