On Sunday evening in Linz, Coco Gauff – at just 15 years and 214 days – became the youngest woman to win a Women’s Tennis Association title since Nicole Vaidisova in 2004. But amid the swirl of superlatives thrown up by her achievement, one question lingered: should tennis rules be changed to accommodate a player of her remarkable talents?
The regulations state that 15-year-olds may play 10 professional events, rising to 12 and then 16 in the next two seasons – although those figures increase slightly for exceptional individuals. In Gauff’s case, she will be able to play only four more events before her next birthday on March 13.
Although the details have evolved, the principles were introduced in 1995 after a series of prodigies – Jennifer Capriati being the highest-profile example – struggled to deal with the expectations that follow precocious success.
In Gauff’s case, some argue that she is too level-headed to encounter such problems. But however impressive Gauff might be, the wisdom of making policy for individuals is always doubtful.
Thus far, the WTA’s rules have succeeded in preventing over-exposure and burnout. And with three players under the age of 24 having won grand slams this year (Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Bianca Andreescu), it is hardly as if the tour lacks fresh blood.
Compare those three with the previous list of young women who had won WTA titles before the age of 16. Only avid tennis fans will remember the names of Vaidisova – who retired at 20 – or Tamira Paszek. Even Martina Hingis, who had such success as a teenager, retired from singles by 22.
Gauff and Osaka – who came face-to-face in a memorable meeting at the recent US Open – have much in common. Both grew up playing on the public courts of Delray Beach, where their intense training schedules replaced the school timetables followed by the average child.
“We would get there around the same time, 8am or something,” Osaka recalled last month at Arthur Ashe Stadium, having just scored a 6-3, 6-0 victory and then praised Gauff’s parents in a moving on-court interview. “But she would train by herself, then she would train with other people. That was the crazy part to me. She was, like, 10.”
These sorts of tennis-playing families tend to focus on the golden child’s sporting development from an early age, giving up much of what we would consider a normal upbringing in exchange. They pour every resource into the young athlete’s future, and there is often a price to be paid later on.
To give one example, Osaka’s family recently won a court case against a coach from those Delray days who claimed he was entitled to 20 per cent of her profits. Gauff’s father Corey has also been the target of a lawsuit from his own mother, Deborah Wright, who claimed she was owed money on her investment in the family’s sports bar.
So far, Gauff has made professional tennis look deceptively simple, both through her athletic game-style and her unusual candour with the media. She also benefits from the experienced representation of Team8, the management company who look after Roger Federer.
“I’ve told the WTA they should loosen up the rules,” said Federer at Wimbledon. “I loved seeing Hingis doing what she did at a young age.”
But when a player goes viral in the way Gauff and Osaka have, everyone in their inner circle has to adjust quickly. With so much happening, the WTA rule succeeds because it puts a handbrake on the runaway train, helping young stars find the time and space to develop incrementally. Doing away with it – even for one inspirational individual – would be a retrograde step.