Watching the fearless shot-making and preternatural assurance of 15-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff at Wimbledon last week, many of us found it irresistible to reminisce on what we were doing at the same age. Most of these reflections – a few of which have been collected under a hashtag: #mylifeatfifteen – offer some variant of drinking our bodyweight in Bacardi, copiously vomiting and then passing out.
The teenage experience of Gauff, who on Mondayplays former world No 1 Simona Halep in the fourth round, has a very different vibe. “You can kind of fake it until you make it, but I’m not faking it, at least right now,” she said last week, a week in which the American made her grand-slam debut, beat her hero and inspiration Venus Williams and became the most exciting new force in tennis for years, maybe decades.
The emergence of Gauff has been the story of Wimbledon 2019. She arrived here as a curiosity: the youngest qualifier in the tournament’s history and the first 15-year-old to compete in the main draw for a decade. The day before her first qualifying match, she was up until 11pm, not – as the Australian maverick
Nick Kyrgios was before playing Rafael Nadal – at the Dog & Fox pub in Wimbledon village, but completing a science exam. She scored a B, the only test she hasn’t aced all week.
Gauff, from Delray Beach, Florida, has inspired a frenzy usually reserved for homegrown players or Roger Federer. Her matches have attracted the largest TV audiences and the most boisterous roars on Henman Hill. “She’s the talk of the United States,” said John McEnroe on Friday night, after Gauff had saved two heart-stopping match points and overcome Slovenia’s Polona Hercog on Centre Court. “She’s the talk of the world in a way.”
Gauff, meanwhile, is doing an excellent impression of someone unfazed by the attention. “I know this is off-topic,” she began her press conference after the Hercog victory, “but I wanted to say please stream Erys by Jaden Smith. His album dropped yesterday.” She seemed most excited by the fact that footage of her mother chest-thumping after she won a critical tie-break had gone viral: “Please tell me she’s a meme. I’m so excited to go on Instagram.” When asked what she would do with her prize money, which is a guaranteed £176,000, she raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I mean, I can’t buy a car, because I can’t drive,” she replied. “I hate spending money, to be honest. Maybe I’m going to buy some more MSFTSrep, which is Jaden’s line, buy some hoodies from that.”
Teenage phenomena, of course, are nothing new in tennis. Martina Hingis won the 1997 Australian Open aged 16, and five grand slams before the age of 19 (though no major singles titles after). A 17-year-old Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004, as Boris Becker had done at the same age in 1985. Bjorn Borg, Monica Seles, Tracy Austin, Michael Chang and Rafael Nadal were all teenage champions.
But the tales of precocious success are matched and often overshadowed by the spectacular flame-outs that followed. Gauff is the youngest player to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon since the American teen sensation Jennifer Capriati. She achieved the feat in 1990, aged 14, and again the following year, when she beat Martina Navratilova on a run to the semi-final. Success, however, was far from straightforward for Capriati. At 17, she was arrested for shoplifting a $15 ring and possession of marijuana and she took a 14-month break from professional tennis. Her best results were all achieved in her mid-20s, when she won three grand slams.
A big part of the fascination with Gauff is that her emergence defies the logic of the previous three decades. Teen tennis stars had begun to look as outdated as wooden rackets and linen slacks. All the evidence suggested that, due to improved training regimes, injury prevention and investment in back-room staff, players were peaking later and having longer careers. Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic have all thrived in their 30s, while 37-year-old Serena Williams remains the woman to beat, much as she has been for the past 20 years.
Academic studies have also reinforced the idea that younger players are finding it harder to make a breakthrough. In 2018, a team from the University of Exeter analysed data on the first-serve speed and accuracy of the 100 highest-earning male and female players. “We found a clear peak in serve speed at the age of about 26, while accuracy peaked at around age 28,” says Dr Ruth Archer, one of the authors. After these ages, speed and accuracy typically go backwards, but some individuals – Federer being a prime example – are able to offset any decline by playing smarter. “That is, if your serve speed decreases with age, but you get more accurate with experience,” Dr Archer goes on, “you may be able to keep a competitive edge for longer.”
There’s something inspiring about tennis players competing and still dominating in their thirties. But it can also be – whisper it – a bit dull. Alongside Gauff, the greatest buzz in the first week of Wimbledon surrounded 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime from Canada. He lost on Friday – admitting that the “pressure got to me… it was a bit embarrassing” – but he has done enough at Queen’s, where he made the semi-final, and at Wimbledon to suggest he’s the real deal. John McEnroe, for one, has picked him as the man most likely to unseat the big three on the men’s side.
Elsewhere, the next generation have had mixed fortunes at Wimbledon. The 20-year-old Greek pretender Stefanos Tsitsipas arrived hotly tipped, but was on his way home after the first day. The Briton Jay Clarke, also 20, had a dream match-up with Federer in the second round, but mainly made news for hooking up with Gauff in the mixed doubles – and dumping his doubles partner Harriet Dart (by text apparently). “Obviously, initially she [Dart] was very upset,” said Clarke. “She had every right to be; I’d be, too.
As for why young players have struggled to make an impact, there are some more offbeat theories. On Friday, Mark Kovacs, a sports scientist who had worked with top American tennis players, suggested it was because Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are from “the last generation to grow up without cell phones as kids”. The idea found support from Judy Murray: “Tennis is such a cerebral sport,” she wrote on Twitter. “Players need to think for themselves, solve their own problems and are constantly having to make quick decisions. Nowadays we have gadgets that do so much of that for us. Alexa, satnav etc.”
Gauff will not find it easy this week: Halep is a much sterner test than any she has faced so far. Nor is her success ordained going forwards. She is currently restricted to playing just 12 tournaments a year, a rule brought in by the Women’s Tennis Association in 1994, partly in response to the problems that Capriati and other teenagers had faced. Only when Gauff is 18 will she be allowed to compete in as many events as she likes.
What’s clear is the life of a tennis prodigy is rarely simple, and Wimbledon 2019 has shown that, too. The Australian player Bernard Tomic was an extraordinary junior and at his first Wimbledon, in 2011 aged 18, he made the quarter-finals, the youngest player since Becker to do so. This year, though, was a rather short-lived affair: Tomic’s Wimbledon lasted just 58 minutes and his performance was so desultory that the match referee docked his £45,000 prize money for not meeting the “required professional standard”.
Right now, everything is easy for Coco Gauff. Long may it remain so.
FORMER WIMBLEDON TEEN STARS
The original prodigy, Dod is the youngest-ever winner of a Wimbledon singles title, triumphing in 1887 aged 15 years and 285 days. She played single-handed, then unorthodox, and wore a painful whalebone-and-metal corset. It was the first of five victories in Wimbledon – and in fact, Dod only lost five singles matches in her entire tennis career. She also excelled at golf, hockey and won a silver medal at the 1908 Olympics in archery.
In 1985, aged 17, “Boom Boom” Becker became the first unseeded player to win Wimbledon. Known for his huge serve and diving volleys, he repeated his success the following year. Reflecting this week on those wins, Becker was grateful there was no social media back then: “My English was non-existent,” he recalled. “I was in a bubble and that really protected me.”
Aged 16, Dokic recorded one of the great upsets in Wimbledon history: thrashing world No1 Martina Hingis 6-2, 6-0 in the first round in 1999. She made it to the quarter-finals that year and the semis the following year. Off court, however, her life was turbulent: after the Wimbledon semi in 2000, she claims her father screamed at her, calling her pathetic and a “hopeless cow”. (He has denied accusations of abuse.)