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Ahead of U.S. Open, tennis greats hope teen Coco Gauff can handle spotlight

Coco Gauff, at 15, made a solid run

Coco Gauff, at 15, made a solid run to the fourth round at Wimbledon and received a wild card into the U.S. Open.  Credit: Getty Images/Mitchell Layton

Pam Shriver knows what it is like to become a teenaged tennis celebrity overnight.

Long before Coco Gauff made her storybook run at Wimbledon this year, Shriver stunned the tennis world by knocking off No. 1 seed Martina Navratilova in the semifinals of the 1978 U.S. Open. A 16-year-old amateur who played with an oversized Prince racquet, Shriver became the youngest player ever to advance to the tournament’s final, a record she still holds today. Though she lost the final match to Chris Evert, she won the heart of tennis fans.

The press could not get enough of her.

“It certainly changed my life,” Shriver said in a phone interview. “The day after I lost to Chrissie, I was back in high school in Maryland. The National Inquirer was on the campus looking for me. People magazine sent a reporter to knock on my parents’ door and my mom let them have it.”

Shriver’s story bares retelling now as Gauff prepares to play in her first U.S. Open.

Gauff, 15, became a household name this summer when she became the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon, upsetting five-time champion Venus Williams in the first round before losing to eventual winner Simona Halep in the fourth round.

Since then, the American teenager has met Michelle Obama, appeared on the cover of Teen Vogue and reignited debates about the WTA’s age eligibility rule, which restricts the number of professional tournaments teens can play based on their age.

The rule was created in 1994 to protect young players from the burnout that comes from heightened success, yet some have argued that it slows emerging stars from reaching their full potential. Gauff, currently ranked 142nd, was given a wild card to play in the U.S. Open this year, despite having used up her three wild cards, because the tournament could choose to ignore the rule since the event is run by the USTA rather than the WTA.

Though Shriver said she admires how Gauff and her family handled the pressure of her Wimbledon run, she is not an advocate of changing the rule.

“I am a little concerned because I consider that age rule one of the most thoughtfully researched rules put together by a group of experts from all the different fields you would want,” Shriver, now a commentator for ESPN, said. “Adolescents are still growing and developing. What is the right amount of tennis for them on a worldwide stage?

“When you know careers can last 20 years if you manage them well, why be in a rush to play close to full time at 15? I don’t think it makes sense. I think no matter who you are and how good you are, it’s much easier to work on your game when you’re away from competition. Your game at 15 is still in the developmental phase or should be.”

There are multiple stories in women’s tennis of players who struggled to deal with early success.

At 16 years and nine months, Tracy Austin became the youngest ever U.S. Open champion in 1979 but permanently fell out of the top 10 at age 21 as her body broke down with numerous injuries. Martina Hingis was the No. 1 player in the world at age 16, but had her career derailed at age 22 after suffering injuries and being suspended two seasons for a failed drug test.

And then there was Jennifer Capriati, the player who most inspired the WTA age restrictions or what are sometimes referred to as the Capriati rule. Capriati turned pro at 13, made the top 10 at 14 and won gold at the 1992 Olympics at age 16. Following a first-round loss at the U.S. Open in 1993 at the age of 17, Capriati entered a downward spiral that included being arrested for shoplifting and drug possession.

With those kind of cautionary tales, it is critical, say some observers, that those around Gauff protect her from rushing into something she can’t handle.

“There’s a lot of people, myself included, that hope she’s handled in the right way so she can enjoy her career the next 15, 20 years, not burn out at a young age,” tennis great and ESPN analyst John McEnroe said on a conference call Friday. “Clearly when you’re that young, you have to really try to think this through. To me, less is more. Let’s try to keep this where it doesn’t get crazy too soon.

“Part of why I’ve advocated going to college, for example, or not rushing into things too early, is because I think it allows the kids to mature mentally, grow up a little bit, so they can appreciate what comes their way. How can you expect a 15-year-old to understand and be able to handle what is being thrust at her? I’m praying for them because I think she’s a tremendous — I only met her a couple times, seems like a tremendous girl. She obviously could be the best player in the world if things go right.”

Tennis great Chris Evert was only a year older than Gauff when she made her Grand Slam tennis debut at the 1971 U.S. Open, losing to Billie Jean King in the semifinals. Evert said the spotlight can be harsh, but Gauff seems to have the tools to handle it.

“I hope we’re not putting too much pressure on her. It’s we, the press and the media, with the expectations,” Evert said Friday. “But looking at her game, the way way she played at Wimbledon, she has everything skill set-wise as far as power and touch and variety of shots. She seems to have everything composure-wise, emotionally and mentally. She’s very focused, she’s hungry. She kind of has that competitiveness that she’s not going to choke, get that tight. I think she’s going to be very, very composed in the future.”

Halep, who defeated Gauff at Wimbledon, said she has some advantages in being only 15 years old.

“Yeah, we can say she might have pressure, that she’s very young, but also she has nothing to lose being so young,” Halep said. “So I see only positive in her way now, and if she just controls the emotions and the fact people are talking about her, she’s going to be very good.”

The U.S. Open is certainly banking on that, banking on her celebrity rather than McEnroe’s theory that “less is more.” On Saturday it was announced that Gauff and her doubles partner 17-year-old Caty McNally had been extended a doubles wild card.

So much for bringing her around slowly.

COCO GAUFF

Given name: Cori

Hometown: Delray Beach, Florida

Age: 15

Height: 5-10

Plays: Right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Prize money: $312,303*

Ranking: 142*

*As of Aug. 5

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