Reams of newsprint last week were dedicated to the genius of 15-year-old Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff, who last year, at 14, was the French Open girls’ singles champion, and this year ousted the former World No 1 Venus Williams at Wimbledon, a tournament she has won five times.
Gauff — and her parents — have worked immensely hard for her to get where she is, but that road for her — as it has been for the young tennis talents before her — is not an easy one. It involves years upon years of intense, almost full-time training, and almost certainly missing out on significant parts of a traditional, normal childhood.
Even the idea of losing a childhood, a big, big idea, aside, tennis is one of the most expensive sports to pursue professionally, and none or limited success early on could mean the difference between staying on in that career and quitting. And for many Indian players the writer has spoken to, that has been the difference. For teenagers who do not strike it big quickly, or at the very least stay significantly enough on the radar, sustaining themselves in the sport and being able to continue playing is not just difficult, but almost impossible.
Today, Gauff — who hit it about as big as you can this early on the Majors stage — is sponsored by two of the biggest names in tennis sponsorships in racquet giants Head, and the pasta company Barilla, whose highest profile client is none other than Roger Federer. By the end of this season, her deals are estimated to hit approximately $1 million.
Expense aside, Gauff had to receive special provisions from WTA to be able to compete as extensively as she has. The governing body, in 1994, put a limit on the number of tournaments played by players aged 14-17. Gauff can play no more than 10 events as per the diktat, but the global body has relaxed the rules slightly to allow her 12 tournaments. She has already played in eight events since her 15th birthday in March (including Wimbledon), which means she has only four tournaments until her next birthday.
Gauff's talent has been spotted at perhaps the best possible time for her to be able to sustain herself in sport. However, for those not as blessed ad Gauff, and with a support system that may not be as strong, that transition may not be as easy, or may not occur at all.
Some of the biggest names in the sport had already hit it big in their teens after being noticed early — not in the very least Gauff’s own idols, Venus and Serena Williams. By the time Serena had hit the big stage, the WTA’s rule, instituted in no small part due to the struggles of Jennifer Capriati, had already taken effect.
One of the WTA’s most well-known prodigies, Capriati was only 14 when she went pro, and by 15, she had already made the semi-finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open. But she experienced severe burnout, which caused her serious mental health struggles, and necessitated a significant break from the sport before she eventually returned to win her three Grand Slam titles.
The (social) media pressure, the weight of expectations, and burnout
The pressure that athletes are already under gets multiplied manifold by media and fans, who are quick to label them the 'next big thing.' Gauff doubtless has the talent to be called that, and she is surely being called that already.
This pressure of living up to the top billing was certainly there when Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis took the stage, and it was there when Venus (whose talents were spotted at the age of seven) and Serena (spotted at four) arrived. But it was not as constant, as big, or as omnipresent as it is today. In that respect, having two professional athletes for parents will be immensely helpful for her. Gauff’s family will want to keep her insulated as she makes a full transition over the next few years.
John McEnroe often makes an explosive statement or three from the commentary box, but he had words of advice for Gauff following her Wimbledon run, which in this context are wholly appropriate. McEnroe made his own Wimbledon debut at 17 as a qualifier and had an unprecedented run to the semi-finals, taking a set off the eventual runner-up Jimmy Connors before losing. Of that performance, McEnroe recently recalled that he felt it was “better that (I) didn’t win… It would have been too much too fast.”
It is not just the pressure from media, although it directly adds to the pressure players place on themselves. Between balancing that external pressure, one's own expectations and aspirations, and constant, consistent practice doing almost nothing but playing sport, a player could be looking at a quick and effective recipe for burnout.
Interestingly, that burnout is something that the current World No 1 Ashleigh Barty was able to avoid having taken a conscious decision to step away from the sport for a year and choosing to return on her own terms.
One thing Coco Gauff has going for her apart from her very apparent skill is her mental fortitude. But even as Roger Federer and Gauff’s father, Corey Gauff, who played college basketball, call for rule changes, perhaps this rule is one that is better left as it is. It is not just that the mental transition is a difficult one, but overplaying now could mean a physical toll that could well result in injuries later on — case in point being Gael Monfils, who won three of the four Junior Grand Slams in 2004, but since then has not been unable to replicate that success on the Majors stage, despite being a top 10 player.
For that reason, perhaps the WTA’s rule change is ideal, at least for now. The ATP’s rules are almost similar, with 15-year-old male juniors allowed ten tournaments on the ATP World Tour and Challenger Tour.
Gauff seems to have a solid head on her shoulders. Following her exit from Wimbledon, she said, "Even if the restrictions weren't there, I still think I wouldn't play as much as the older players do, just because I'm still trying to develop my game and I'm still trying to train," she said. "I feel like I would obviously play more than the rules state, but I think I wouldn't try to overdo it because I'm still 15. My game isn't nearly as good as I want it to be. ..taking more time to train.”
There are many tales before Gauff’s of burning the candle at both ends, tales that Gauff, her family, and her experienced management are all too aware of.
Thankfully for her, it appears that Gauff's family and support team have insulated her from the pitfalls of early successes. And with her parents, and Roger Federer’s manager on her team, Gauff is being guided in perhaps the best possible way she could be. There is no doubt Gauff is a special talent; with an effective transition, we could well be looking at the birth of yet another World No 1 — and on her own terms.
Updated Date: Jul 12, 2019 16:58:03 IST