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Betrayal or Just Business? A Coaching Breakup Looms Over Two Top Women

Monica Puig’s United States Open lasted only one day, ending in a 6-3, 6-3 defeat against Rebecca Peterson of Sweden on Monday. But the seeds for the loss were planted a week ago, she said, when her coach, Kamau Murray, abruptly told her that he would be unavailable to continue working with her.

What Murray didn’t tell her, according to Puig, was that he would be in New York with another player, Sloane Stephens.

“I found out through people close to me that he was coaching somebody else,” Puig said. “And yeah, a couple pictures surfaced. When you arrive in New York and that kind of thing happens, it puts a lot of stress and pressure on you.”

“All I’ve ever been trying to do is get the right people around me in my corner to help me become the best I can be, the best tennis player that I can be,” she added. “Unfortunately there’s things like this. I didn’t really expect this coming into one week before the U.S. Open that your coach just suddenly says, ‘I’m not going to be available to come to the U.S. Open.’”

On Tuesday, Murray disputed Puig’s version of events, saying that “my departure was not a surprise to her nor her parents.”

ImageCreditUli Seit for The New York Times

“Every player that I have coached will affirm that I am a very clear communicator,” Murray added. “After every tournament and every practice there is a tough conversation on where we are, where we need to go and what needs to happen for us to get there. Players also know, and trust, that the details of our communications will always remain private.”

Murray said that he “really enjoyed coaching Monica and helping her grow,” and that he was “excited to reunite with Sloane and build on the success we have had in the past.”

Coaching changes are common in women’s tennis, but the rift between Puig and Murray stands out because of its timing. Most changes are at the behest of the player, who acts as the general manager of her team, and generally occur during lulls in the circuit rather than as a player is preparing for a Grand Slam event.

With Murray back in her corner on Tuesday night, Stephens also lost her first-round match, to the qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, 6-3, 6-4. Though the loss added to a disappointing season for her, Stephens said she took away positives from the early exit, particularly in her refreshed attitude and her comfort with Murray back by her side.

“At this point, to kind of combat what I’ve been feeling on the court, I need a lot of energy, I need good vibes,” Stephens said. “I was joking earlier today I need to practice my fist pump because I’ve been so out of it, the competitiveness hasn’t been there. Today it was back a little bit.”

Puig said she had not spoken to Murray since finding out he had left her to work with Stephens. Nor has she talked to Stephens; the players had trained alongside each other through their adolescences under the coach Nick Saviano. Puig’s version of events was supported by her agent, Marijn Bal, who called the news “a total shock.”

While the timing of the split was unfortunate for Puig, a Murray-Stephens reunion was not a surprise. Murray had worked with Stephens from 2016 to 2018, guiding her to the 2017 U.S. Open title, though the two were “on a break” this year, according to Murray.

“We just hadn’t done a good job of communicating when the end of that break was,” Murray said this month at an event outside Cincinnati, which was ultimately his last tournament with Puig. “Miscommunication on both sides, blah blah blah. Opportunities come, and you take opportunities. I think everyone has learned that communication is key, and no one should be in between the player and the coach. Everyone will be more clear moving forward.”

After Murray began to work with Puig this year, Stephens hired Sven Groeneveld. But after continuing a disappointing year with a lopsided loss in Cincinnati, Stephens dumped Groeneveld and reunited with Murray. The problem, Puig said, is that Murray did not make that clear to her. After her loss on Tuesday, Stephens expressed frustration with Puig’s comments.

“I think there’s two sides to every story; I don’t think that you should tell anything but the truth,” Stephens said. “I’ve seen some of the things that were said. I think that grown-ups do grown-up things; we should leave it in the past and we should move on.”

Stephens, who was recently elected to the WTA player council, said she was open to a direct discussion with Puig.

ImageCreditClive Brunskill/Getty Images

“I’m sure she’s fully aware of what happened,” Stephens said. “If she has a problem, then she should approach me. It’s not like I don’t see her all the time. Yeah, to go to you guys and say everything that has been said I think is a little inappropriate.”

With only days to prepare for the Open, Puig hired Dusan Vemic to help her get ready.

“We just tried to prepare the very best that we could,” Puig said. “Obviously we don’t know each other that well, so we were trying to figure each other out and work as best as we could. I think he’s great, and the work that we did was great. I’m just disappointed that it had to come to an end right now in the first round.”

Puig said she had relocated to Chicago to be near Murray’s training center there, but that now she planned to move to Miami. Once ranked as high as No. 27, Puig reached the peak of her career in 2016, when she won the gold medal at the Rio Olympics. She said she was open-minded about how to rediscover that form.

“I’m willing to listen to any kind of suggestion, any kind of option,” she said. “Whatever I think can help me get out of this nightmare will be good enough for me, because I really want to feel how I felt three years ago. That was a feeling of complete freedom and happiness and confidence, and that’s really what I’m pushing and trying to do.”

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