Cori Gauff: Teenage sensation's rapid rise sparks new debate over Age Eligibility Rule in tennis
Rafael Nadal and Belinda Bencic share their views on how the sport is trying to prevent young stars from suffering burnout
Her shock run to the last 16 at Wimbledon has ensured there will be plenty of attention on 15-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff when she makes her US Open main draw debut on Tuesday.
Two years ago, a 13-year-old Gauff made history as the youngest player to reach a US Open girls’ final. She played her first professional tournament at 14, became the youngest to qualify for Wimbledon earlier this summer at 15, and is the youngest to reach the fourth round there since Jennifer Capriati in 1991.
Capriati was a tennis prodigy who was a top-10 player at 14, and went on to become a cautionary tale for early burnout, and remains one of sport’s most-cited example of “too much too soon”.
Cori Gauff beats Venus Williams at Wimbledon - in pictures
It was mostly Capriati’s case study that prompted the WTA to introduce the Age Eligibility Rule (AER) in 1994, in efforts to avoid the early collapse of young phenoms and instead gradually ease them into the world of professional tennis.
Gauff must adhere to that rule, which has been revised several times since its introduction. It prevents players under the age of 13 from competing on the pro tour, and limits the number of tournaments players aged 13 to 17 can contest each year, with that number gradually increasing with each birthday.
Gauff can play 10 tournaments between her 15th and 16th birthdays, with up to four “merited increases”, which are additional events she can play based on how well she is doing, and how strong her results were on the junior circuit.
Fourteen events is not that far off from a full WTA schedule, but still, many have criticised the rule – including Roger Federer, whose management company Team8 represents Gauff, and Patrick Mouratoglou, who is the founder of the academy where Gauff often trains – saying it is unfair to young players who are ready to compete on the professional circuit.
Gauff understands why the rule is in place, and told reporters at Wimbledon that it’s unlikely she would play a full schedule at her age, even if the rule didn’t exist, but she does feel restricted by the fact that she is only eligible to receive three wildcards per year.
Competing against professionals at a young age comes with a long list of challenges and pressures. When a young teen is thrust into the spotlight, the attention can be overwhelming.
Gauff’s Wimbledon fairytale earned her nods from the likes of Michelle Obama, whom she met earlier this month, and saw her social media following explode from 10s of thousands to over half a million.
Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori, who won his first ATP title when he was just 18, recalls what it was like for him to experience success at a young age.
“When you are young, you get a lot of attention, sometimes you get too cocky, you stop working. That's something I think the team around you has to work really hard to protect you from,” Nishikori said.
“I think I had a good team around me, who didn't allow me too much to do outside of the court. I was able to focus on practicing and playing matches, not too much other stuff. I think that was a good thing for me to keep focus."
Rafael Nadal won his first of 18 majors when he was 19 years old, and posted his first victory over Roger Federer when he was just 17.
The Mallorcan world No 2 believes being thrown in the deep end is not necessarily a bad thing, and says leading a normal life at home is crucial.
“I think overprotection is sometimes not good because they are not able to grow. The life is not that easy always. You need to be prepared for the tough moments,” said the three-time US Open champion.
“If you overprotect the young kids, when they are going to have problems – because in life you going to have problems at some point – probably they are not very well-prepared.
"In my opinion, you cannot say, ‘Okay, we protect all the problems that you can face at the age of 16, 17, 18’. I don't think it's good. Then the development of the kids is slower.
“Probably that's one of the reasons I have been able to be very competitive at very young stages of my career. I got a normal education... I just played on the street with my friends. I had a very normal life.”
The last teenagers to win a grand slam on the women’s tour are Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova, who clinched the US Open and Wimbledon titles respectively in 2004.
Belinda Bencic showed promise when she made the US Open quarter-finals on her debut as a 17-year-old in 2014, and she cracked the top-10 when she was 18.
The Swiss is not a huge fan of the AER in its current format and doesn’t see its effectiveness in avoiding burnout.
“I get the concept of it, but then on the other hand, when I wasn’t able to play WTA tournaments, I just played junior tournaments, which is the same thing, you might get burnt out as well because you travel anyway,” Bencic said.
“So I think it doesn’t really makes a difference if you’re just allowed to play only 10 tournaments. I think it’s even done for that to protect the older players, because otherwise the younger players are at the same level, not at the same level of the top, top, but they can compete with top-200 no problem. So I don’t think it’s necessary."
So what is the best way to protect young teens competing on tour?
“I think definitely having a good home, so on the court you’re a tennis player and outside you are just a regular kid,” Bencic said. “For me it was that I still went to school.
"I don’t think home-schooling is the best option because you kind of lose your social contact. I still went to school. These kind of things, having good friends and family, and taking a break sometimes as well.”
Going to public school is something that helped Tracy Austin when she was a 15-year-old competing on tour in the late 1970s.
She was only allowed to be away from school for a specific number of days, which meant she would be facing the likes of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert one day, and attending school soon after.
She recalls struggling with the time she had to dedicate to promoting tournaments at her age, and credits the WTA for currently limiting the time players under the age of 18 have to spend with the press.
Austin, who won two US Open crowns as a teen but saw her career cut short due to injuries, sees value in the AER, even if it may seem unnecessary in the case of Gauff.
“Her situation seems to be really solid, even as far as the management. Tony Godsick [who co-founded Team 8 with Federer] has been around the block a few times, and his wife Mary Joe [Fernandez] obviously went through that situation,” says Austin.
“So it’s maybe not for Coco, but I think that there are some who maybe wouldn’t make such great decisions.
"I think the Age Eligibility Rule is good, I just don’t know exactly how many weeks it is, because you do want to give them enough weeks to play to, number one gain valuable experience, and number two, not make it so limiting that each time they play, they feel tremendous pressure to achieve, because there aren’t many opportunities.
“But I definitely don’t feel like it should just be unlimited at 15. I think you’re still growing physically, you’re still maturing, and I think it’s always better to err on the side of caution.”
Updated: August 26, 2019 10:18 PM