As the 139th US Open tennis championship starts Monday, all eyes will be on Cori “Coco” Gauff, the Florida teenager who’s crashed into the limelight like a brick through a window.
In July, Gauff became the youngest player in history to receive a wild-card qualifying entry to Wimbledon, and she took full advantage of her moment, reaching the fourth round and beating five-time champion Venus Williams along the way.
Suddenly Gauff is a global phenomenon — but while her future seems limitless, we shouldn’t get carried away. At just 15 years old, there’s every chance the young star could crash and burn before she reaches her potential.
At 16, Tracy Austin became the youngest ever US Open champion in 1979 but retired from the game at just 21, her young body ravaged by injuries. Martina Hingis reached world No. 1 at 16 — the youngest ever — but injuries, a failed drug test and a two-year suspension derailed a career that saw her land five Grand Slam singles titles.
And then there was Jennifer Capriati, the poster girl for the too-much-too-young generation. Turning professional at 13, “The Phenom” made the world top 10 at 14, won gold at the 1992 Olympics at 16 and then, exhausted, took a 14-month break from the game beginning in 1993, a period in which she not only entered rehab but was also arrested for shoplifting and drug possession.
“The path I did take for a brief period of my life was not of reckless drug use, hurting others,” Capriati said later, reflecting on her downfall, “but it was a path of quiet rebellion, of a little experimentation of a darker side of my confusion in a confusing world, lost in the midst of finding my identity.”
Getting to the top is one thing, but how you handle it is entirely different.
Luckily Gauff seems to come from a tightknit family unit. Both her parents were high-level athletes: her father, Corey, played college basketball at Georgia State University while mother Candi was a track and field star at Florida State. While her management company, Roger Federer’s agency Team8, fends off a glut of potential sponsors, quick to cash in on one of the most marketable players in the game, her coach Jean-Christophe Faurel is convinced Gauff won’t become just another teenage tennis victim.
“Everything is sane around her,” he has said. “I’m sure she will handle everything.”
But as the game’s Next Big Thing, Gauff is now faced with extraordinary levels of pressure, and she’s playing in an even harder world than the one Capriati experienced, with online commentators poised to scrutinize every facet of her life and career. Yes, she’ll get all the plaudits — Gauff received a congratulatory message from Michelle Obama on social media for her Wimbledon run — but the flip side is you’re just one bad shot, word or deed away from getting slammed by Internet trolls.
“Young sports stars of today are possibly the most communicative ever, but communication and conversation are very different,” leading sports psychologist Jamil Qureshi told The Post. “Access to the opinions and comments of others has never been so easy, but the intensity of sport and competition can make emotions more heightened. I think it’s easy for a young player to start to define themselves by what others believe them to be — good or bad.”
What’s more, a young athlete’s identity can get so wrapped up in the game, it can become oppressive, said US ice-hockey silver medalist Erika Lawler, whose teenage years were also dominated by her sport.
“It was all I wanted to do,” she told The Post. “I knew I had to play at the Olympics, and by Coco’s age I knew I was on track to get there. But all of my memories as a child and teenager are of playing hockey or going to watch hockey matches. There was nothing else. And when that all stops, it can be a real struggle finding out who the real you really is.”
Whether it’s pushy parents living vicariously through their offspring or overzealous coaches driving their charges to breaking point, the demands can break the most talented young bodies and minds.
“If your focus is on tennis and tennis alone — or if your parents’ focus is just on tennis — that’s never going to be beneficial,” says former Davis Cup and Olympic tennis player Barry Cowan, now a broadcaster and coach. “No kid can take that, no matter how good they are.”
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