Opinion: Coco Gauff looks like special talent. But no one should try to rush her development

Coco Gauff was probably destined to be the biggest story in sports at some point in her life, but nobody could have anticipated that it would happen on a Friday in July of her 15th year on Earth. 

What started as a Wimbledon curiosity and a cool, niche story has now become a real thing — a real, big thing — as Gauff advanced to the Round of 16 with a rousing comeback to beat Polona Hercog, 3-6, 7-6, 7-5.

No matter what happens from here, life will never be the same for Gauff — not just because she’s into the second week of a Grand Slam at age 15, but because of how she's done it: with incredible athletic ability and mental toughness and a maturity that has captivated an American audience often indifferent to tennis.

Which is all the more reason why everyone around Gauff and the Women’s Tennis Association must resist the urge to speed up this process.

Under the current WTA age restrictions, Gauff can only play 10 professional tournaments (with some merit-based flexibility) between her 15th and 16th birthday next March, with the limits increasing each year until she turns 18. Gauff’s father, Corey, has been pushing for the rule to be relaxed and made some solid points earlier this week in an interview with The New York Times.

But tennis is a sport that has too often chewed up its prodigies before they’re fully-formed adults, leaving a trail of burnout, chronic injury and family dysfunction. And as Gauff ascends into a stratosphere of fame that seemed unlikely this early, it’s all the more reason for tennis to be extra careful about not screwing this one up. 

From all indications, the Gauff family seems to get it. Corey, a former college basketball player at Georgia State, has been careful about his daughter’s path up to this point. He says he’s spent years studying the flame-outs, the success stories and everyone in-between to chart a course for Coco that will allow her a long pro career and the best chance at maintaining balance. In the player box, Corey and his wife, Candi, have given the appearance of being supportive and extraordinarily normal, which isn’t always the case with tennis parents. 

American Coco Gauff celebrates after beating Slovenia's Polona Hercog in the third round. (Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images)

But it’s inevitable now that things are going to change for the Gauffs. Though people within the niche tennis world have known about Coco Gauff for awhile — Roger Federer’s management company, Team 8, signed her in late 2017, and New Balance became her apparel sponsor last October — everything is different when you break out as a mainstream star. It’s possible that she made millions of dollars in sponsorships based solely on what she did Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend with millions of Americans being drawn in.

And clearly, she has enough tools to play like a legit pro, having beaten Venus Williams, the 139th-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova and the 60th-ranked Hercog to get into the fourth round. 

But it’s also worth remembering that Gauff — whose ranking will rocket from No. 313 to at least No. 139 even if she loses to Simona Halep on Monday — hasn’t had much success at the highest level of pro tennis prior to Wimbledon. Gauff has made a couple of deep runs at developmental-level ITF events, but in the big WTA tournaments this spring at Indian Wells and Miami, she won just one match — against 221st-ranked Catherine McNally. 

In other words, until this week, her results have been typical of what you’d expect from even a great 15-year-old. 

Corey Gauff argued in The Times that the age restriction, while well-intentioned, has in fact put too much pressure on his daughter to play well in those tournaments because she knows there are limited chances. He suggested the WTA should look at changing the rule from limiting the number of tournaments to total matches, which might have some merit. 

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“I think anytime a rule is 20-something years old, it needs to be looked at,” he said. 

Even Federer told reporters he's lobbied the WTA to relax the restrictions, noting how good it was for the sport when Martina Hingis won the Australian Open at 16 years, 3 months, starting a four-year run as the best player in the sport. 

But it’s also true that Hingis had to retire by age 22 due to injuries, although she did come back later as a successful doubles player. And it’s also true that Jennifer Capriati struggled to handle everything that came with being a prominent 14-year-old pro and spiraled into burnout and drug addiction before later reinventing herself as a champion. And it’s undeniable that some of the young women with tremendous promise on tour have struggled to stay healthy over the last few years, which may or may not be attributed to the increased physicality of the pro game that has skewed the prime window for most players into their mid-to-late 20s.

So regardless of the specifics of Gauff’s situation, the rules generally make sense. While it's great for Gauff and for tennis that she’ll have a chance to play a handful of tournaments on the heels of this Wimbledon run, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put a 15-year-old on tour full time to play against adults week in and week out while she’s still developing physically and emotionally.

Sometime when this run ends, the Gauff family and the women’s tour will undoubtedly be tempted to strike while the iron’s hot. Every tournament will want her in the draw, and sponsors will want her on TV, wearing their logo at every opportunity. The WTA will be under extreme pressure to let her play more events. 

But if Gauff is really destined to have a special career, it’s wise to take a deep breath and let it happen slowly. The history of tennis tells us that with a talent like Gauff, trying to speed things up is the riskiest path of all. 

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