Cori Gauff: The Princess of Wimbledon 2019
Watching Cori “Coco” Gauff stride out onto the fabled Centre Court at Wimbledon you would be forgiven for thinking that she was made for these moments, and that moments like those are going to become commonplace in the tennis world for many years to come. But with the current age restrictions in place and the past record of players who blaze onto the scene, is there any cause for concern about the future of Cori Gauff?
She undoubtedly captured the hearts and the imaginations of, not only the Centre Court crowd, but the watching millions, who marveled at her thrilling comeback win against Polona Hercog in Round 3 and gasped at her ability to fight fire with fire, and come out on top, against Venus Williams in the first round.
For the casual tennis fan, this was the arrival of someone who you would expect to see being part of the tennis sorority from this point onwards. People will be expecting to see her play now at every major WTA event and Grand Slam, reaching the world’s top 10 in a matter of months and years and coming back to Wimbledon next year to try and get further than ‘Manic Monday’, where Simona Halep simply had too much for her on this occasion.
While we, as the tennis loving public, would love to see this type of progression, and I do sincerely hope that Gauff goes on from this and achieves everything she is capable of, the road to potentially doing so is unlikely to be straightforward.
Taking a look into the archives shows plenty of precedence of players who have made impacts at Grand Slams, and won WTA tournaments, at a young age, and the career paths that follow vary wildly from one to the other.
For instance, will Gauff create the same kind of impact on tour that Tracy Austin did in the embryonic days of the WTA tour, winning her first title at 14, going on to be the youngest ever Grand Slam champion at 16 and reaching World #1 not long after. Martina Hingis became the youngest Grand Slam champion of all time, winning the Wimbledon doubles title at 15 years and 9 months before winning the 1997 Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open aged 16, a period of dominance never seen before by someone so young.
A word of caution
In the middle of the Gauff storm during the first week of Wimbledon it is easy to forgive someone for believing those things to be possible for Gauff, she seemed so at ease at the top level. However, to inject a dose of realism into the bubble, Gauff was beaten in May in Florida 6-1 6-1 by Quinn Gleason, who ended last year ranked 445 in the world. She still has a long way to go and a lot of things to improve, but it is so exciting to see the raw talent and physical gifts there, just waiting to develop.
Since the turn of the century, only two 15-year-olds have won WTA tournaments, and as much as I would love to leave this as a quiz question, it would be no good for the rest of the article to do so. Nicole Vaidisova and Tamira Paszek are the players to achieve this, and without denigrating their subsequent achievements (Vaidisova reached the top 10 and won 6 WTA titles before turning 20) it would be fair to say that neither of them has gone on to have the type of career that is currently being planned out by the media and tennis experts for Coco Gauff.
Indeed, even Austin and Hingis encountered a huge number of problems in the years after their breakthrough, both retiring from the sport at a very young age, albeit having achieved a great deal in that time. Hingis though famously returned on a couple of occasions, and actually won multiple Grand Slams in her 30s and got back to World #1 in doubles. I’m sure that the American youngster would settle for half of the success of Martina Hingis in her own career.
Cautionary tales could also come from the likes of the Brit Laura Robson, herself a precocious talent who made a big impact at Wimbledon at 15, but now, having reached a high ranking of 27, is now 25 and hasn’t been able to play a main tour match since 2016 due to a worrying number of serious injuries and surgeries.
Similarly, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni was an outstanding junior player, who again won a WTA event at 15 (in 1997, and became the youngest player ever to defend a title the following year) and is still the youngest player ever to win an Australian Open title, winning the doubles with Hingis in 1998. But she had serious personal problems and was out in the wilderness for much of what should have been her prime years, unable to even compete on tour for many years, it was a great story in itself to see her come back to some level of success, winning her first title since 1997 in 2014, thereby creating the record for longest gap between wins on the WTA tour.
The Future of Cori Gauff
When Cori Gauff sits down with her family, coaches and Roger Federer-inspired whizzy management team in the next few days to map out the next phases of her career, I’m hopeful they will be positive and pro-active, but also sensible and methodical. There is enough evidence out there from the recent past to be cautious, but the tennis world would surely love to see much more of her on the court, and fingers crossed for a long and fruitful career for this wonderful young lady.
The next question is, is even Roger Federer powerful enough to overturn the age restrictions for tennis tournaments?