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By Blair Henley

Tatiana Naumko: A Woman in a Man's World (March 7, 2013) -- Professional tennis, with its prize money and sponsorship potential, sits atop the sporting totem pole as far as opportunities for female athletes are concerned. But what about female tennis coaches? There aren’t many of them on the women’s side – none in the top 10 – and their presence on the men’s side is virtually non-existent.

That makes Tatiana Naumko’s story all the more fascinating. As Tina Turner might say, she was a woman in a man’s world, coaching Russian star Andrei Chesnokov throughout his 14-year career on the ATP Tour. In addition to finishing inside the top 100 for 11 consecutive seasons, Chesnokov also surpassed the $3 million mark in career earnings and attained a career-high ranking of No. 9 in 1991. Since her time with Andrei, Naumko has worked with Nadia Petrova, Elena Likhovtseva, Tatiana Panova, and even former world No. 3 Elena Dementieva.

Visibly uncomfortable with the spotlight, she somewhat bashfully agreed to be interviewed at the U.S. National Indoors in Memphis where she was working with her latest charge, Russian-born Kazakhstani player, Galina Voskoboeva

A small woman – not much more than five feet tall – she spoke softly and deliberately in a still-thick Russian accent. Her face was weathered, but elegant; her blonde hair perfectly coiffed. As sweet as she seemed, she also demanded respect.
Naumko played competitively as a junior, but as a resident of the former Soviet Union, she was prohibited from playing beyond its borders. Inspired by one of her former coaches, she started work at a tennis club soon after her college graduation. She found players to teach by recruiting them out of local school classrooms, which is where she first met Chesnokov.

“I went to schools around this club,” she explained. “I found some girls and boys that I liked, and I gave them my name and the address to the club. They came, and I started working. Andrei was there. He was 7 or 8.”

Years later, Naumko finally got the chance to travel internationally, albeit as a coach, thanks to the Soviet perestroika, or reform. With two teenage boys in tow, including a 16-year-old Chesnokov, she headed to Florida for the prestigious Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl tournaments.
“It was a difficult time with Russia and the United States, the Cold War and everything,” she said. “When we came, there were a lot of policemen around the tennis club, and people were asking why. Of course, it was because [we were] Russian. But people were saying, “Who’s Russian? It’s just two boys and one woman!”

That trip would be the first of many for Chesnokov and Naumko. But when Chesnokov turned pro in 1985, they faced scrutiny of a different kind. While select tennis mothers like Gloria Connors, Judy Murray, and Klaudiya Istomin have been heavily involved in their sons’ pro careers, Naumko didn’t get that maternal hall pass. Chesnokov faced constant pressure from his peers to find a new coaching arrangement.

“I told Andrei, ‘It’s your decision. If you want, go anywhere, and I’ll be happy.’”
Fittingly, it was Chesnokov’s grandmother who told him he should “keep Tatiana” as his primary coach. Despite the stigma and the stares, they stuck together until the end of his career. And when it comes to a woman coaching a man, Naumko doesn’t quite understand the controversy.

“I think with tennis, women’s and men’s is the same. You have an opponent and balls. You hit the balls, you find strengths and weakness. It’s the same for both.”

But while the strategy may be the same, there are distinct differences on the psychological side. Naumko admitted that Voskoboeva’s post-match histrionics after a heartbreaking first round loss in Memphis would be uncharacteristic of a male counterpart.

“Women are more nervous than men, more emotional. This is a problem. Men don’t like to lose. They get angry, but women just cry.”

Naumko did mention one major drawback for men with female coaches: at some point, a woman can no longer effectively hit with her student. But even then, the best players often practice with each other or employ a hitting partner, taking the coach out of the equation. Still, Naumko made sure to involve her husband and other male friends in Chesnokov’s training to ensure he was receiving a well-balanced tennis education.
Amelie Mauresmo and Billie Jean King both briefly coached on the ATP tour as well, working with Michael Llodra and Tim Mayotte respectively. Of course, those short term arrangements are a far cry from Chesnokov’s career-long dedication to the coach who hand-picked him from his first grade classroom. Throughout their time together, Naumko’s coaching philosophy remained the same:
“Every man has a mother,” she said. “Mothers teach [their boys] all the time. I’m not any tougher than a mother would be.”

Chesnokov has taken what he learned from Naumko and put it to work in his second career. He currently coaches Russian player Elena Vesnina.

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