How Do You Protect A 15-Year-Old Tennis Prodigy?

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Coco Gauff

Coco Gauff: How do you protect a 15-year-old tennis prodigy?

Originally Published: 10 JUL 19 08:24 ET

Updated: 10 JUL 19 09:55 ET

By Danielle Rossingh, for CNN

    (CNN) — She lit up Wimbledon and transcended tennis in a sparkling debut on the world stage, but the big question is what’s next for Cori “Coco” Gauff?

And perhaps more importantly, how do you protect a 15-year-old from the trials and tribulations that come with sudden fame?

Two weeks ago she was unknown outside of the sport, but after reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon, as the youngest ever qualifier — and that courtesy of a wildcard — she was lauded on social media by the likes of First Lady Michelle Obama and actor Samuel L. Jackson.

“It’s crazy how big this has gotten,” said Gauff, a former junior world No.1. “Everything happened so quickly.”

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Nothing promised

There are no guarantees in tennis, no cast iron proof that she will go on to excel in the game despite the lavish praise heaped on her at Wimbledon.

Plenty of uber-talented youngsters have burned brightly before their flames have gone out, through myriad combinations of injury, the pressure and weight of expectation, the external distractions, personal relationships, the grind of professional sport. Fame can change people, and not just the players, but those around them.

Luckily for Gauff, who will soar from No. 313 to No. 139 in the rankings, she can rely on some of the most experienced people in the business.

The young American has been guided by Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of her idol Serena Williams, since she was 11 years old. At 13, she signed with Team8, the agency started by 20-time major champion Roger Federer and his long-time agent, Tony Godsick.

In an interview with CNN Sport at Wimbledon, Godsick said he had been “completely” inundated with requests from both the media and potential endorsers for Gauff in the past week. He’s treading carefully, though.

“There is no rush in selling her to corporates,” said Godsick, who started his career at management company IMG, where he guided former world No. 1 Monica Seles, former Wimbledon winner Lindsay Davenport and Anna Kournikova, who were all teenage tennis stars.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that that’s actually not the most important thing.”

A US Open junior finalist at 13, and a junior grand slam winner at Roland-Garros at 14, Gauff has already signed three deals in the past year: with racket maker Head, pasta maker Barilla and sports clothing company New Balance. The endorsements are estimated to be worth a combined $1 million, according to Forbes.

“She is a special talent, and she has been identified as that,” said Godsick, adding there may be room for “one additional partner right now.”

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The importance of support

The weight of expectation can be a burden, even for players who are much older than Gauff.

Take Japan’s Naomi Osaka, who became a global star after she won back-to-back majors at the US Open and the Australian Open. One of Japan’s most popular athletes, and one of the world’s best-paid female athletes with a host of lucrative endorsements, the 21-year-old left Wimbledon in tears, cutting short her press conference after a first-round exit to Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan.

“I just hope that — I’m sure she has a good team around her, and that her parents are smart people to keep her with her feet on the ground, and not let her go into this crazy lifestyle, that kind of is thrown at her a little bit now,” former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters told CNN Sport at Wimbledon.

Gauff comes from a close-knit and sporty family. Her father, Corey Gauff, is a former college basketball player, while her mother, Candi, excelled in both gymnastics and track and field.

“If you know the family, you know the structure of the family, you know her parents, you know her grandparents and you know her brothers, and you know her, she will be OK,” said Godsick, who has two children with Mary Joe Fernandez, a former teenage tennis prodigy.

“That’s not something that I am worried about.

“In the past, I have worried about other athletes, male and female, where I said ‘OK, this one might be a bit tricky.’

“With them, I don’t see it, because they are grounded. She understands it, she works hard.”

Martina Navratilova, the nine-time Wimbledon champion, said Gauff has been brought up to succeed in tennis.

“She wants it, she lives it already. She was born to do this,” she told BBC Sport.

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Being held back

Of course, despite the pitfalls, there are plenty of examples of prodigies excelling and fulfilling their potential. Monica Seles won the first of nine grand slams at 16, while Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova opened their major accounts at 17 and went on to become huge stars.

But unlike Godsick’s wife Fernandez, a former world No. 4 who also played her first Wimbledon at the age of 15, Gauff won’t be allowed to play a full schedule for another three years.

That’s because of the so-called “Age eligibility rule,” which was implemented by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1995 to prevent early-age burnout among young players, following high-profile cases including Jennifer Capriati and Andrea Jaeger.

Under the rule, which has been reviewed over the years to reward outstanding players who excel with additional tournament entries, Gauff can play as many as 14 professional events until her 16th birthday on March 13, 2020. As Wimbledon was her seventh pro event, she will be allowed to play seven more, according to the WTA. She will try to qualify for next month’s US Open, as she did at Wimbledon, but otherwise will have to hope for a wildcard.

The rule has come under scrutiny in the past week, with Gauff’s father and Swiss great Federer among those calling for changes, suggesting that by curbing the number of events a player can enter, pressure will be ramped up when they do compete.

But Rafael Nadal, the last teenage male grand slam winner, disagrees.

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“When you are that young, when you have her level of tennis, of course you follow the normal tour and you believe that you can manage very well, no?,” said the Spaniard, who won the 2005 French Open at the age of 19. “But is true that your body is still under development. Sometimes can be little bit dangerous for the injuries in the future.”

According to the WTA, young players going through various stages of adolescence should not be playing full-time on what it calls the “high-stakes, high-performance environment,” of the women’s tour.

“At the very core of the rule is that these are children competing in an adult work place, full stop,” Ashley Keber, WTA vice president, member relations, told CNN Sport last year.

Although Godsick said he agreed with the rule on principle, he would like it to be changed so exceptional talents like Gauff can play more.

“She is going to be a transformative personality on the women’s tour and in tennis, and they are going to want to see her,” said Godsick. “The question is, how do you do it?”

Gauff, who is still in high school and intends to take online college courses, isn’t too bothered about her limited schedule.

“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 no guarantees, but the evidence suggests we’ll be seeing plenty more of Coco Gauff.

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