The new tennis WhatsApp group helping female coaches

Biljana Veselinovic
Biljana Veselinovic, Katie Boulter's coach, is one of the few female coaches in tennis - David Rose for Telegraph Sport

Question: How do people on the professional tennis tour react to female coaches?

Answer: A lot of the time, they are mistaken for the player’s mother.

“Actually, that doesn’t happen so much right now,” says Biljana Veselinovic, Katie Boulter’s coach. “Because Katie is blonde and I am dark. But for years I had it every time I went to a tournament.”

The gender gap in tennis coaching remains overwhelming. Preconceptions are everywhere. So Veselinovic and her female peers have clubbed together for solidarity, forming a WhatsApp group to boost awareness and provide mutual support.

“It started after San Diego,” says Veselinovic, in reference to the WTA 500 tournament that Boulter won six weeks ago, beating another all-woman team in Marta Kostyuk and her coach Sandra Zaniewska.

“I was sitting with Nicole Pratt [a former top-50 player who now drives women’s coaching for Tennis Australia] having a glass of wine at the next event in Indian Wells when we decided to include everyone in a WhatsApp group.

“So people like Pam Shriver, Conchita Martinez, Judy Murray and Anne Keothavong. I know Sandra well because she was also on the team when I worked with Petra Martic. There are a couple of new faces that I did not have the opportunity to talk to properly yet. But we will definitely have meetings in person. We are trying to get together at the grand slams, starting with the French Open in May.”

According to Shriver, whose coaching charge Donna Vekic was another of Boulter’s victims in San Diego, the very existence of the group represents progress in itself. As she points out, a couple of years ago there would have been barely anyone to recruit.

“My memory is that we started talking about it in San Diego,” Shriver tells Telegraph Sport. “I was maybe the seventh or eighth person to sign up. And then, by the end of Miami five weeks later, we had 20.”

Keothavong, whose coaching helped Great Britain score an upset victory over France this month, is also buoyed by her inclusion. “San Diego felt like the first event where female coaches outnumbered male coaches in the latter stages of a tournament,” she said.

“It was something we all mentioned to each other during the week and it felt kind of significant. On the group, stories and ideas are shared, including articles and relevant research. Personally, it’s been a good source of information for me, and it’s great to be in a group with like-minded women.”

The GB team celebrate with flag after beating France
Anne Keothavong (far right) helped Great Britain – including Katie Boulter (far left) and Emma Raducanu (second left) – beat France in the Billie Jean King Cup this month - Getty Images/Daniel Derajinski

The obstacles to women in this field extend beyond mere prejudice. Full-time coaching is impractical for anyone with an active family life, because of the volume of travel. As Zaniewska explained last week: “I imagine that if I had a family and kids, I would not be here at all. I wouldn’t even want to be here.”

But there are workarounds available. Shriver is a part-time consultant with Vekic, while governing bodies like Tennis Australia and the Lawn Tennis Association (which employs both Keothavong and Veselinovic) do their best to help with work-life balance.

On the flip side, WTA players clearly enjoy working with other women (even if it remains vanishingly rare for ATP players to go down this road). “It’s just more relatable,” Kostyuk has said. And the fact that Veselinovic has brought up a family of her own helps to explain why Boulter appreciates her so much.

“I’ve been coached by a male for the most part of my life,” Boulter told Telegraph Sport last year. “[Now I’m] just having a slightly different perspective with Biljana, she’s more like a motherly figure, she’s very comforting when you need her in the tough moments, but she’s a very strong woman and I respect her in so many different ways.”

In person, Veselinovic is indeed an impressive character, who combines an air of authority with a ready laugh. Born in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad, she grew up playing against the young Monica Seles, before taking a sports scholarship to the University of South Carolina.

“It was hard at the beginning, when the kids were small,” Veselinovic says, of her early days working on the tour. “But we have something to offer that is different. We understand female psychology, the mood changes that happen around menstruation. It’s very individual, of course, but some players are more susceptible to injury around then so you have to reduce training volume and intensity.

“My daughter was actually born on the same day as Katie, just two years earlier,” Veselinovic adds with a chuckle. “They’ve very similar. Katie is definitely a lion horoscope: she likes to be in charge. But she is also very good at receiving information, even when I’m talking to her in the middle of matches.”

Perhaps the last word should go to Murray, who has spent much of the past decade trying to boost female representation within the coaching workforce.

“When you bring like-minded women together, great things happen,” Murray tells Telegraph Sport. “We listen to each other, we share ideas and information, provide solutions and support. And, of course, we celebrate each other’s success.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.