July 05, 2019
Wimbledon, ENGLAND—tennis has its latest prodigy in Cori (Coco) Gauff, the 15-year-old American who upset Venus Williams — once a wonder child herself — in the first round of Wimbledon of Monday.
Coco Gauff hopes to benefit from tennis’s cautionary tales
This sport, more than most, has long relied on the emergence of such youngsters to drive interest and refresh itself. Tracy Austin. Bjorn Borg. Steffi Graf. Monica Seles. Boris Becker. Michael Chang. Jennifer Capriati. Martina Hingis. The Williams sisters. Maria Sharapova. Rafael Nadal.
The list is extensive, punctuated with cautionary tales. As tennis has become a more physically demanding sport, these breakout moments have been trending later. The seasons ahead will show whether Gauff, the youngest woman’s qualifier in the Open era at Wimbledon, will go on to be a great champion or an early bloomer who was unable to sustain her head start.
Corey Gauff, the player’s father, longtime coach and inspiration for his daughter’s name, has attempted to do what he can to help her chances of long-term success. One of his self-appointed tasks: studying tennis prodigies extensively.
“I went through everybody I thought was relevant, that won Grand Slams and were good young,” he said earlier this week at the All England Club. “I went through every one of their situations and looked at where they were at a certain age, what they were doing. I asked a lot of questions, because I was concerned about burnout. Am I doing the right things?”
Gauff said he started asking these questions when his daughter “was probably 6 or 7 years old.”
“I studied and studied to prepare myself to make sure if she was able to meet these goals that we’d be able to help the right way,” he said. “That was important. I still sit there and benchmark: ‘OK, we’re at this point now. How is she doing physically? Is she growing? This is what Capriati did at this stage. This is what Hingis did at this stage, what the Williams sisters did at this stage.’ ”
Looking at Capriati, who turned professional just before her 14th birthday and reached the top 10 less than a year later, means considering the dark side of being a prodigy: the accumulated pressures that too quickly transform a game into a business. Capriati dropped off the pro tour three years after she entered it, then had a series of arrests for drug possession and shoplifting before achieving her greatest successes in her early 20s.
Great stories, which prodigies continue to be, attract not just attention but money from sponsors. Parents and advisers can get more invested in success — and continued success — than the young player, and the result can be traumatic.
Some precocious talents have experienced physical abuse, including Jelena Dokic, who reached the Wimbledon semifinals at age 17. She has accused her father, Damir Dokic, of beating her, and has written and spoken extensively about it. Her father has denied the accusations.
There is also the physical and mental toll of competing against older, potentially stronger opposition. An alarming number of the brightest young talents in women’s tennis in recent years have been knocked out of the game for extended periods because of long-term injuries.
“The main thing I looked at was how do you prevent injury, because every sport, you get hurt,” Corey Gauff said. “I get that, but I don’t want to contribute to that. So I always thought less is more, less is more.”
And yet he is lobbying for a revision of the WTA’s age restrictions, which were put in place in 1994 in response to the struggles of Capriati and other teenagers. Players age 13 and younger cannot play professional tournaments. Players aged 14 to 17 are allowed to play a limited number of events, which increases each year before unrestricted participation is permitted at age 18.
A girl is normally allowed to play 10 professional tournaments in her 15th year, but Gauff has earned a merit increase to 12 events because of fine results, specifically winning the French Open junior title at 14 and finishing in the top 5 of the International Tennis Federation junior rankings.
Gauff, who faces Slovenia’s Polona Hercog in the third round Thursday, can play five more pro events before turning 16 next March, although a further merit increase of two tournaments is possible. Participation in Fed Cup, the women’s team event, would not count against her cap.
“I think anytime a rule is 20-something years old, it needs to be looked at,” said Corey Gauff, pointing out that the other pro sports leagues, like the NBA, have adjusted its age requirements over the years.
Sloane Stephens, the top-ranked American women’s singles player at No. 9, said Tuesday that she believed the rule needed to be less restrictive.
Corey Gauff said the “the intent behind the rule is pretty good,” but he has seen its less benevolent effects. He has watched his daughter feel increased pressure to perform well during her limited opportunities.
“She’s like pressed because she doesn’t feel like she’ll get another chance,” he said. “She can’t just play freely.”
The restrictions have hardly served as a panacea against injuries. Laura Robson of Britain, CiCi Bellis of the United States, Ana Konjuh of Croatia and Belinda Bencic of Switzerland have been sidelined for extended periods.
Corey Gauff would prefer players under 18 be allowed to play a limited number of matches per year, not a limited number of tournaments.
“There are a lot of ways you can do it,” he said. “Or you could say if you have a first-round loss, it doesn’t count against your tournament total.”
For now, such a change is not imminent, although Amy Binder, a spokeswoman for the WTA, said that the tour was open to further discussion. She noted that the merit increases that Cori Gauff has earned were amendments in 2012 to the original rule.
“The rule has been dynamic over time,” Binder said.
She added that premature retirement (before age 22) had decreased and career duration had gone up since the original age eligibility rule went into effect after the 1994 season.
“An adolescent is going through critical states and stages of her emotional, cognitive and physical well-being,” Binder said. “The WTA is a high-performance, high-stakes environment, which places even greater demands on a young person, which is why the WTA provides extra focus and attention on those adolescent players competing at the professional level.”
Barring a successful legal challenge — something the Gauffs are not currently contemplating — the WTA seems intent on maintaining some sort of restriction.
Corey Gauff said the WTA was right that those years of a girl’s life are “very delicate.”
“These teenagers, they can improve fast,” he said, “but if you do it wrong, they get really bad fast.”
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