Women’s tennis works to safeguard against abuse by predatory coaches
Lindsay Brandon is a lawyer whose past clients include athletes disputing doping suspensions. In her new post as the WTA’s first director of safeguarding, Brandon is leading an increased effort to protect athletes from predatory coaches — and others — on the women’s professional tennis tour.
“Safeguarding is about emotional abuse. Physical abuse, as well. And it’s not just coach-athlete,” Brandon said in a telephone interview from the BNP Paribas Open, which wrapped up Sunday in Indian Wells, California, and was the first tournament she visited as part of the job she began 3 1/2 months ago.
“There are other people that are part of this process,” Brandon told The Associated Press. “There can be athlete-to-athlete issues. There can be issue with respect to training staff separate from coaches. Those are just some of the examples.”
Her priorities include managing the WTA security team’s investigations of complaints — she did not reveal how many are currently active — and “monitoring any potential concerns,” along with improving education and creating a safeguarding code of conduct she hopes will be published in 2024.
The aim of that code, which Brandon said is separate from a general code of conduct that already exists, is to create a rulebook that outlines behavioral standards and establishes procedures to follow if a matter arises. It will apply to anyone who is credentialed “in the WTA environment,” Brandon said, including players, coaches, physiotherapists, other members of entourages, tournament staff and tour staff.
“Safeguarding is multifaceted and strongest when the entire population is educated, invested and held to the same standards . ... We have a diverse body of players, staff and support teams, so the challenges and areas of
concern will vary. As the governing body, our focus is making sure that players feel they can come forward and share their concerns, which plays a critical role in being able to address the issues that may be at hand,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said in an email to The Associated Press.
Might be hard to gauge the success of such an initiative so soon, but Simon found at least one positive measure.
“We are seeing more athletes coming forward,” he said, “which is a great initial result.”
Adding what Simon called “the expertise of a dedicated safeguarding position” is the biggest public-facing step taken by the Florida-based WTA in this area since the issue of protecting players drew increased attention last year: A French player once ranked as high as No. 39 accused her former coach of rape; another player sued the U.S. Tennis Association for failing to protect her from a coach she says sexually abused her at one of its training centers when she was 19; 2002 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee
Pam Shriver, who won 21 Grand Slam titles in women’s doubles, said she “had an inappropriate and damaging relationship with my much older coach” that began when she was 17 and he was 50.
“Maybe we need to talk more to players and tell them what’s going on with everything so they know to be careful,” said twotime Grand Slam finalist Ons Jabeur, a 28-year-old from Tunisia. “Maybe it’s never enough and we should do more.”
Simon expressed a similar sentiment during an interview at the tour’s season-ending championships in November.
“We have ... background checks on our coaches. We have an athlete assistance program in place. We have mental health experts who are here to help if there’s an emotional issue. We have all sorts of education programs. We have investigators coming in,” he said. “One of the things that we’re educating everybody on is: We need to help ourselves. If you see it, you need to report it. We need to work with our players to have them learn to set up the appropriate
boundaries around themselves and what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Brandon, who said she played tennis through high school and for one tournament in college, came to the WTA after about seven years working for Howard Jacobs, a well-known sports lawyer who recently helped tennis pro Varvara Lepchenko get a doping ban reduced from four years to 21 months.
“Lindsay’s knowledge in this area (applicable rules, inappropriate behavior, etc.) is likely more in-depth than anyone the WTA could have hired for this role,” Jacobs wrote in an email to the AP.
Brandon planned to travel to the Miami Open, where play begins Tuesday, and “as many tournaments as I reasonably can this year,” including smaller events where younger players compete.
“The earlier you can provide support and outreach to these athletes, the better,” Brandon said. “I tell people that I don’t want to just be a response resource; I want to be a support resource and a preventative resource, as well.”