Other Teen Prodigies to Coco Gauff: ‘Don’t Read Everything About You’
WIMBLEDON, England — Whatever happens in the second week of Wimbledon, Coco Gauff already has made a huge impact less than four months after turning 15.
“No matter how she does the rest of the way, she’s already won our hearts,” said Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion.
Evert won a few hearts of her own when, at the age of 16, she reached the semifinals of the 1971 United States Open in her first Grand Slam tournament. She generated front-page stories and international buzz as the youngest semifinalist of the Open era, even if Grand Slam tournaments were not as career defining then as they are now.
Like Gauff, who has reached Monday’s fourth round while playing all of her main-draw matches on one of Wimbledon’s two biggest show courts, Evert was a regular on center court in her debut at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, where the U.S. Open was played until 1978.
“The crowd went wild,” Sports Illustrated wrote. “Tennis fans are not supposed to go wild.”
Sounds familiar. But that was undoubtedly a different era, where it was easier to manage the flow of information and the situation. An era when Evert, unlike Gauff, did not have a screen full of potential distractions within such easy reach.
“It was a big deal, there were big headlines every day, but that was really all we had,” Evert said. “There was no social media, not the amount of press people and attention from all over the globe. It was just a different world.”
Evert was still an amateur then and a student at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She did not have an agent, relying on her father and coach, Jimmy, to handle business and media requests.
Gauff, whose first name is Cori, is home-schooled and already a professional with substantial off-court endorsement income. She is represented by Team8, co-founded by Roger Federer and his longtime agent Tony Godsick.
Godsick is married to Mary Joe Fernandez, who also was an American tennis prodigy, reaching the French Open quarterfinals at age 14 in 1986 and the fourth round of Wimbledon the following year.
Fernandez, working at Wimbledon as an ESPN analyst, has been a sounding board for Gauff and her family. She has been helping her put the situation in perspective before some of her matches by relating her own experiences. That included facing Evert, by then a superstar, in the first round of her first Wimbledon in 1986 — a situation similar to Gauff’s first-round meeting against Venus Williams.
“My next advice to Coco would be don’t read everything about you,” Fernandez said. “Coco’s 15 so she loves Instagram and Twitter and all that stuff. But I remember Virginia Wade telling me at a young age: ‘Don’t read anything about you. If it’s bad, you are going to get upset and it will get to you. And if it’s good, it will go to your head.’”
Fernandez and her son, Nicholas, an aspiring junior player, first saw Gauff at the Orange Bowl junior event in 2015, when Gauff was all of 11 years of age.
“Even at 11, you already knew the physicality was there, but of course you need everything else,” Fernandez said. “She seems to have all the right ingredients. I think back to when I was that age. Playing the Grand Slam tournaments just felt like a natural progression. After winning in the juniors, it was just the next step for me, and everyone is saying pressure, pressure. But I don’t know that Coco is feeling a ton of pressure. I didn’t feel it at that age.”
Facing players one’s own age, when victory is expected, can often be more mentally daunting. For now, the key, according to those who have been through such runs as teenagers, is to maintain order and routine amid the rapid change, to remain in the bubble, both during this tournament and beyond.
Team8 and the WTA have received more than 300 interview requests (and counting) for Gauff since Wimbledon began. As a 15-year-old, she is subject to tour guidelines intended to protect young players and is limited to a total media time of four hours during an event.
“It’s important to manage Coco’s time and make sure she isn’t doing too many interviews,” said Tracy Austin, a former No. 1 who also reached the fourth round at Wimbledon at 15. “It seems the WTA has learned from the past, and I think the pressure now is all off.”
The pressure instead, Austin said, is on Gauff’s next opponent: Simona Halep, 27, a Grand Slam champion and former No. 1.
Austin once made her elders edgy, too. She was the youngest U.S. Open singles champion in history, preternaturally poised as she won the title at age 16 in 1979 and won again in 1981. But she never reached another Grand Slam singles semifinal as injuries hindered her career.
“Moving forward it’s the people around Coco that have to make smart choices,” Austin said. “She seems to have a really good head on her shoulders and seems like a good kid off the court and an adult on the court. That’s the best combination, and she seems pretty well-balanced. But it’s up to the people around her to help navigate this journey.”
Rafael Nadal, who reached the third round of Wimbledon at 17 in 2003, also stressed that point.
“It depends on her entourage, depends on her character,” he said. “Let’s hope she has people close to her who can help her cope with all this success and handle it with the maximum normality and tranquillity.”
At Wimbledon, staying in the bubble is perhaps made easier by the fact that so many are already inside Gauff’s bubble.
That includes her mother, Candi; her father, Corey, who has long been her primary coach; her agent, Alessandro Sant’Albano, and her new coach, Jean-Christophe Faurel.
“Keep it simple; we keep going back to that word,” Candi Gauff said, looking and sounding weary on Friday night after her daughter saved two match points and came back to defeat Polona Hercog in the third round on Centre Court.
Keeping it simple has not applied to their accommodations. Because of Gauff’s surprising run and the difficulty of finding lodging in Wimbledon, the family is now in its fourth location.
And keeping it simple does not mean banning screen time. Coco Gauff says it relaxes her to watch YouTube videos before matches. She has been active on social media, too, keeping track of her celebrity mentions and reveling in her mother going viral after her players-box victory dance Friday.
But keeping it simple does mean celebrating for a day and then looking straight ahead.
“Throughout her career it’s been this way, because she’s been the youngest to do this, the youngest to do that,” Candi Gauff said. “We try to downplay her accomplishments. We pat her on the back, but at the same time, ‘That’s done. Let’s move on.’”
World-beating teens are rarer now in women’s tennis. Fernandez played in the era when Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Serena Williams emerged at a young age.
Still, Gauff is not alone. CiCi Bellis, an American, won a round at the United States Open in 2014 at 15, although injuries have knocked her out of the game for nearly two years. Marta Kostyuk, a Ukrainian, won two rounds at the Australian Open in 2018 at age 15. Amanda Anisimova, another American, reached the semifinals of the French Open last month at age 17 without making the same kind of stir as Gauff.
But then this is Wimbledon, tennis’s biggest fishbowl, and Gauff’s victory over Williams had pass-the-torch symbolism that was easily relatable to non-tennis fans.
This is Gauff’s very first Grand Slam singles tournament, but she might not be done impressing if Halep fails to handle the moment and Gauff’s precocious game on Monday.
“Coco might be 15, but being in the fourth round of Wimbledon doesn’t scare her at all,” said Faurel, her new coach. “And that’s because compared to the goals she has for herself, being in the fourth round of Wimbledon is nothing at all.”
Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting.
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