After dream debut at Wimbledon, Coco out to challenge old guard

Cori Gauff's Wimbledon performances have, however, sparked a debate against WTA's time-tested age-eligibility rule.

Cori Gauff of the U.S. in action during her fourth round match against Romania's Simona Halep.   -  REUTERS

Everyone was going loco over Coco. The sports world’s love affair with Cori “Coco” Gauff started in the Wimbledon first round. Suddenly, Coco’s idol, Venus Williams, became her rival. Stunningly, the 15-year-old Florida prodigy polished off the 39-year-old, five-time Wimbledon champion 6-4, 6-4.

When they shook hands at the net after the shocker, the kid didn’t want to let go of the legend’s hand. “She’s been an inspiration for many people,” Gauff told The New York Times after the monumental upset. “I was just really telling her thank you. I met her before, but I didn’t really have the guts to say anything.”

Gauff thus became the youngest player to win a match at Wimbledon since Jennifer Capriati, another Florida whiz kid, in 1991. Venus expressed the consensus of experts about Gauff: “The sky is the limit.”

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In the second round, Gauff, a wild card qualifier ranked No. 313, faced 2017 Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova, who is twice her age. With poise, power and precision, Gauff again prevailed, 6-3, 6-3. “She hits the ball a ton, but she’s still so consistent,” gushed former superstar Chris Evert, a teen queen in the 1970s.

Before every match, Coco and her father Corey pray that she and her opponent stay safe. She says she doesn’t pray about victory, perhaps because she exudes so much confidence anyway. “I think I can beat anyone across the court,” she said. “And if I didn’t think I can win the match, then I won’t step on the court.”

Parents of US player Cori Gauff, father Corey (L) and mother Candi (R), celebrate after Cori Gauff beat Slovenia's Polona Hercog during their women's singles third round match on the fifth day of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 5, 2019.   -  AFP

 

Can Coco keep her momentum going?

As Polona Hercog pulled away to a 6-3, 5-2 lead in their third-round encounter, Coco’s fast-growing social media followers were entranced. Throughout the match, Gauff was the No. 1 trending topic on Twiter in the US. No wonder. The dream Wimbledon debut of the talented teen was in jeopardy.

Coco didn’t let her legion of fans down. Staving off two match points with a backhand winner that smacked the sideline and a nervous Hercog double fault, Gauff pulled out the thriller 3-6, 7-6, 7-5. When Hercog’s lob sailed out on match point, the ecstatic kid jumped up and down several times like she was on a pogo stick.

“She figured out a way to win,” said Evert. “The intangibles make a champion.” Hercog agreed, accurately saying, “She’s probably older in her head than the numbers show.”

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Clearly enjoying the attention, Gauff had some other numbers on her mind. One of her goals was to multiply her Twitter followers. Her Wimbledon heroics skyrocketed them sevenfold from 17,000 to more than 119,000 in a week. Congratulations poured in from former US first lady Michelle Obama, an avid tennis player, and a host of American celebrities, including Joel Embiid, Abby Wambach, Reese Witherspoon and Samuel L. Jackson. Beyonce’s mom, Tina Knowles, posted her on Instagram.

“It’s crazy how big this has gotten,” Gauff said. “It’s pretty surreal how life changes in a matter of seconds.”

Almost as fast as you can say “teen phenom,” fans of all ages were looking up to Gauff. She was delighted and a bit taken aback when a little girl came up to her and said Gauff was her idol. “It kind of makes me tear up, and it makes me excited to see how many people I can inspire,” the rising star said.

US player Cori Gauff (R) poses for a selfie with fans after a session on the practice courts at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 4, 2019, on the fourth day of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships tennis tournament. - Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old schoolgirl who stunned five-time champion Venus Williams in the first round, continued her Wimbledon dream debut on Wednesday when she eased into the last 32 and claimed: "I can beat anyone." Next up for Gauff is a last 32 clash against world number 60 Polona Hercog of Slovenia on July 5.   -  afp

 

Upstaging legends

When Coco wasn’t upstaging the men’s Big Three and 23-time major champion Serena Williams with precocious shots and engagingly candid quotes, the ninth-grader was taking home-school exams. “It is becoming a little more challenging, but she knows it [her school homework] is one of the jobs she has to do,” said her mother Candi, who educates her. “Tennis is secondary, being a student is first.” Coco apparently compartmentalises well because she he received a B on a science test.

On Day 7 of The Championships (Wimbledon’s actual name), Coco’s captivating run pitted her against 2018 French Open titlist and eventual Wimbledon champion Simona Halep. To imagine the pressure on the heavily favoured Romanian veteran, let’s go back to the 1985 Family Circle Cup. Before playing highly touted 14-year-old Gabriela Sabatini, seasoned former US Open finalist Pam Shriver remarked, “If I ever lost to a 14- or 15-year-old, I’d die right on the court.” Sure enough, the pressure, not to mention Sabatini’s shots, got to Shriver. She lost the match and some pride.

Although former No. 1 Halep, 27, had faltered in high-pressure matches before, she smartly downplayed expectations by calling this her “chill year.” Meanwhile, Gauff was worn out by her excellent adventure — six matches till then, including three qualifying wins — on the lawns of the All England Club, and said she was “not feeling my best.” She took painkillers to alleviate her stomach pain.

Despite three straight double faults that forced her to fight off two break points at 1-2, Halep held both her serve and her nerves. As expected, she proved far more solid and consistent than Gauff in baseline rallies. Against the first top-20 opponent she’s ever faced, Gauff staved off two match points before succumbing 6-3, 6-3.

Cori Gauff of the U.S. and Romania's Simona Halep after their fourth round match at the Wimbledon.   -  reuters

 

Halep was impressed by the rookie’s talent, technique and tactics. “Coco has a very strong backhand and the serve is pretty tough,” she said. “She’s moving very well. She’s tall, so it is not easy to move that fast. She’s still young. She needs a little bit more power. But she’s a very, very good player already. [And I like] the fact that she tries to be aggressive and tries to work with the first serve; and her second serve is not soft. She has a great game already.”

Gauff also received rave reviews from former stars, including the legendary Martina Navratilova. “Most 15-year-olds would have slipped to a tearful defeat [against Hercog], but not Gauff,” wrote 18-time major winner Navratilova in The Times (UK). “She proved once again that she is already close to the finished article. Indeed, she is already a more complete player than most on the women’s tour. Critically, as we saw, she never gives up, never stops trying to find the path to victory. Her tennis IQ is off the charts.”

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Afterwards, Gauff waxed inspirational about her educational experience. “I learned a lot. I learned how to play in front of a big crowd,” she said. “I learned what it was like to be under pressure. I hope [fans] learned that I’m a fighter. I’ll never give up. I hope they learned from me that anything is possible if you work hard and just continue to dream big.”

Coco and her ambitious parents have dreamed big for a few years. “I said this before: I want to be the greatest,” Coco said. “My dad told me that I could do this when I was eight.”

Her father, Corey, who together with Jean-Christophe Faurel coaches Coco, has served her well so far. For example, Corey, a basketball player at Georgia State University, had Coco play basketball and soccer, run track, and do gymnastics to improve her athleticism and discipline before she focused only on tennis. “It’s a good lesson for parents,” said Evert. “Instead of having them play only tennis every day from age six, get them involved in other sports.”

United States' Cori "Coco" Gauff, right, greets the United States's Venus Williams at the net after winning their Women's singles match during day one of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Monday, July 1, 2019.   -  ap

 

Age-eligibility debate

Corey, however, sparked a debate by urging the Women’s Tennis Association to tweak its time-tested age-eligibility rule to allow his daughter to play more than the maximum 14 tournaments — no small number, and she can enter seven more — between her 15th and 16th birthdays.

This rule was adopted in 1991 to protect young players from physical and mental burnout after teen stars Jennifer Capriati, Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and Anna Kournikova prematurely left the game. Jaeger, Capriati, Mirjana Lucic and Mary Pierce also suffered psychological problems caused by “bad dads” who pushed them far beyond their limits.

Roger Federer, who shares an agency (Team8) with Coco, supported Corey, absurdly arguing, “Maybe your best time [in tennis] is from 14 to 20.” Boris Becker, a Wimbledon champion at 17, and Austin, a two-time US Open titlist at 16 and 18, agreed. But John McEnroe got it right when he cautioned, “I worry it’s too much too soon.”

The WTA Commission Report expressed that concern best when it concluded: “After review, players were at risk for serious medical, psychological and developmental problems, and at 14 and 15 were not prepared to handle the demands of full-time professional tennis.”

Echoing these findings, Evert, now an ESPN analyst, pointed out, “[Pro] players are competing more and more into their late 30s. Why burn them out when they’re younger? You’re [also] protecting young players from agents and parents who look at that child as a money machine. Coco might be the exception to the rule. But you still need boundaries and rules.”

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Sloane Stephens, who understands how high expectations can burden players even in their 20s, such as the anguished Naomi Osaka, empathised with Coco, whom she’s known since the prodigy was eight. “I think she’s a kid and she needs to be a kid,” Stephens said. “It’s very overwhelming at times. She’s incredible. But she’s also 15.”

Perhaps it takes another kid, slightly older and more advanced on the pro tour, to provide some perspective for grown-ups. Amanda Anisimova is a 17-year-old American and another “can’t miss” prospect. Anisimova upset defending champion Halep to reach the French Open semifinals and shoot up to No. 26. Her rapid ascent ended abruptly at Wimbledon when she was upset in the second round by unheralded, No. 75 Magda Linette.

As Anisimova wisely counselled, “It’s not all butterflies and rainbows.”

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Can Coco become sport’s richest woman?

Sports industry experts predict 15-year-old Coco Gauff could not only join Serena Williams, the only woman on the Forbes list of the top 100 money-earning athletes, but become the wealthiest sportswoman in history.

“Without a doubt she has the potential to be the highest-paid sportswoman ever, and it has been a crown waiting for someone to grab hold of for the last 10 years,” Nigel Currie, former joint chairman of the European Sponsorship Association, told The Sunday Times (UK) “At the moment you would be talking about £50 million a year as the dominant player in the women’s game, but if Gauff wins multiple Grand Slams and dominates, you could probably double that.”

Gauff already has endorsement contracts with Italian pasta company Barilla along with American sportswear brands Head and New Balance. With a more appealing persona than that of the polarising Williams, Gauff has the world of social media as her oyster.

“What Serena has been earning will be eclipsed because Gauff is part of the generation that uses social media so frequently, and sponsors will love to get on board with someone who has such a big impact and millions of followers,” Currie said. “Another element is that she could become the first worldwide social media tennis sensation.”