Coco Gauff & the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule

The talent & star power of fifteen-year-old Coco Gauff is undeniable.

There are maybe five or six tennis players who are truly household names. Now, when I say “household name”, I mean a name that doesn’t require any introduction or commencement of their Grand Slam titles or Weeks at No. 1. Household status belongs to only a select few, players like Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, and Maria Sharapova.

After her Cinderella runs at Wimbledon and the US Open, Coco Gauff is already one of those names.

Call Me Coco

However, arriving alongside her crossover success is scrutiny of the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule by tennis analysts & media alike.

The WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule is a core element of the WTA’s Player Development Program, which aims to “promote and enhance players’ career fulfillment, safety, and well-being.”

As the rule states, “A 15-year-old may play up to 10 professional events (WTA & ITF Women’s Circuit), WTA Championships (if she qualifies), plus Fed Cup.” However, as a player grows older, the number of tournaments they are eligible for increases.

In light of Gauff’s recent success, many have called upon the WTA to revise the Age Eligibility Rule or do away with the regulation altogether.

Lindsay Davenport argues that the Rule limits Gauff’s ability to climb the rankings and win titles, citing a 17-year-old Martina Hingis’ 1997 season to support her case. Similarly, Martina Navratilova contends that the rule unnecessarily piles more pressure on the young American to produce her best results within her limited tournament appearances. Lastly, some argue that the Rule robs fans of the chance to view one of their favorite players in action (and, after all, tennis like all sports is about the fans).

However, we can’t lose sight of why this Rule exists: to protect young players.

Consider Andrea Jaeger, who vaulted to the top of the sport at the age of 16. She reached the 1983 Wimbledon Final by beating Billie Jean King 6-1, 6-1 only to succumb to Martina Navratilova 0-6, 3-6. The reason for the shockingly lackluster performance? Emotional fatigue. The night before the match, Andrea’s notoriously controlling father locked her out of her apartment due to an argument from practice. Ultimately, Andrea had to rely on Navratilova’s help to convince her father to let her back in.

Andrea Jaeger

Consider Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who reached the semifinals of Wimbledon at the age of 17. She seemed destined for a fruitful career, only to retire three years later due in order to escape physical and financial abuse from her father. It was only after fleeing to Florida and rediscovering her love of the game with a new coach that she returned on tour, returning to a Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open at the age of 35.

Consider Jelena Dokic, whose years of mental abuse by her father led to her changing her nationality not once, but twice, and caused her to miss the middle section of what could have been a storied career.

The tennis world seems to be in agreement that Coco’s parents aren’t your usual tennis parents. Even Andrea Jaeger has taken note, observing in the WTA Insider podcast, “I’ve seen some interviews with her parents and they seem really well adjusted.”

However, it’s impossible to alter the Rule à la carte for Coco, a player who seems adjusted and ready for primetime, without simultaneously making players with less stable teams & families vulnerable.

When asked about her opinion on the issue, Coco admits, “I definitely understand why the rule is there; it’s to protect the player.” When pressed further on whether she’d play more, she explains, “Even if the restrictions weren’t there, I wouldn’t play as much as the older players do, just because I am still trying to develop my game and train.” “I would obviously play more than the [current] rules state, but I don’t want to over-do it because I’m still fifteen…”

While we all want more Coco, it is extremely important to find a happy medium that allows these young players to play while instilling further safeguards protecting these same players from potential abuse.

Willpower as a Weapon

We are in the midst of another jaw-dropping run by Canadian phenom, Bianca Andreescu.

Never before have I seen a player imbue so much panache in her game. 

She’s got it all. She’s got power. She’s got placement. She’s able to run down just about every ball. She owns every shot in the book (and I mean every shot–she very rarely hits the same shot twice). 

She’s been thrown the gauntlet of draws in 2019 and she’s thrown the gauntlet back, amassing a 38-4 record as she heads into Sunday afternoon’s Rogers Cup final versus Serena Williams. 

Despite all of those weapons, I’d say that the biggest of them all would be her unparalleled willpower. 

Bianca comes to win. End of the matter. Time and time again this year, we’ve seen this will to win carry her over the finish line versus the cream of the crop on the WTA Tour.

Wozniacki. Venus. Muguruza. Svitolina. Bertens. Pliskova. Kerber (twice). Andreescu has claimed the scalps of each of these WTA veterans this year, collecting a 6-0 career record versus Top 10 opponents in the process.

Screen Shot 2019-08-10 at 9.29.29 PM

The force of her willpower is so strong that it seems to take the racquet out of the hand of her opponent–no matter who is on the other side of the net. In Friday’s quarterfinal match versus Karolina Pliskova, her presence intimidated the Czech into submission. Following her second consecutive win over Angelique Kerber in Miami, the typically cool German was clearly unsettled, calling Andreescu “the biggest drama queen ever” while shaking hands at the net.

However, that’s not to say that the strength of her willpower doesn’t lead to her detriment. She seems to have a tendency to ignore when her body has called it quits, racking up a recurring shoulder injury in the process.

Andreescu Injru

I see a lot of parallels between her and the immensely talented Argentinian, Juan Martin del Potro. Del Potro has often been described to have “a heart as big as his forehand” (his comeback run to the 2016 Olympic Final has to be one of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking runs in recent tennis history). While del Potro has tasted tennis’ ultimate glory, hoisting the US Open trophy in 2009, he has also stomached the pain of missing many years due to injury. 

In terms of a career, I think Andreescu’s willpower is a weapon that will undoubtedly lead her to Grand Slam glory in the future. However, I also fear it can affect the longevity of her career if not harnessed by the right team.

The Changeover: The Uncomfortable Relationship of Garbiñe Muguruza and Sam Sumyk

Is there a more uncomfortable coaching relationship to watch in tennis right now than that of Garbiñe Muguruza and Sam Sumyk?

After watching their not one but two heated exchanges that went viral in Zhuhai this past week during the WTA Elite Trophy, I’d answer that with a de facto, “No.”.

The first made headlines when, in the middle of berating her coach, Mugurza snapped at a nearby cameraman: “Are you going to fucking bother me with a camera?”

 

The second was much shorter, with Sumyk pleading for her to calm down before storming off in fumes:

Sumyk: “Please don’t be upset.”

Muguruza: “But I’m not upset.”

Sumyk: “Fuck you.”

This isn’t the first time that the two have been caught in profanity-laced exchanges. For example, during a tense 0-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 win over American Christina McHale in Miami last year, Sumyk began the changeover with a threat: “Don’t tell me to shut the fuck up ever again.

Muguruza is one of the fiercest and most talented competitors of her generation, being the third-youngest Grand Slam champion and the youngest player currently holding multiple Grand Slam singles titles (defeating the Williams sisters in both finals, no less). She is known for her explosive game, which requires nerves of steel in order to execute.

Whereas when she was new on the tour, she was content with winning a few matches over top players, or a couple titles here and there, since she’s held herself to a much higher standard. In interviews, she’s been candid in admitting that winning is one of the best feelings there is because it validates the work. However, the pressure she puts on herself to win seems to make every match do or die.

More so, she’s known for maintaining this cold composure off court as well, calling it “the mindset of a champion”. (According to fellow head-case, Alizé Cornet, she’s the least friendly in the locker room.) Whereas after her breakthrough, she was known for her humility and down-to-earth persona, since tasting Grand Slam glory, she’s been characterized by a more pompous and dignified aura.

Sumyk’s resume isn’t too shabby either. He’s coached the likes of Vera Zvonareva, Eugenie Bouchard, and, most notably, Victoria Azarenka, leading her to two Grand Slam titles as well as the No. 1 ranking.

While Azarenka seemed to thrive off of his intensity, his other two students seem to have been crushed by his overbearing coaching method that requires total submission of the pupil. Vera Zvonareva reach her two Grand Slam finals after he joined Azarenka’s camp, whereas his stint with Bouchard only lasted six months, with the Canadian stating at the time: “It definitely wasn’t working. There were some big problems, and I just had to make a change.”

While Sumyk certainly deserves credit for coaching Garbiñe to her maiden Grand Slam singles titles at the French Open title in 2016, her results certainly dropped off of a cliff shortly after.

Yes, she did win Wimbledon the following year, but that occurred in Sumyk’s brief absence in order to attend the birth of his daughter. With former No. 2 Conchita Martinez taking over coaching duties, Muguruza notes that the change in pace and coaching style played a major factor in her unlikely victory at the All England Club that year. In fact, the change in temperament was so noticeable that official WTA correspondent, Courtney Mace Nguyen, noted “the look in her eye”, during her Wimbledon preview podcast.

Since that Wimbledon victory, she’s dropped to No. 18 in the rankings, posting a 33-20 record in 2018 alone.

I think the problem belies in a combination of Mugurza’s perfectionist nature and Sumyk’s coaching philosophy. In an interview with the New York Times before her 2018 Roland Garros semifinal encounter with Simona Halep, Sumyk admits: “When she’s suffering on the inside, I know it’s good.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Garbiñe lost that match to Simona, who had her own infamous on-court meltdown in Miami in 2017.

Simona too used to force herself to suffer in order to win. However, more often than not, that suffering forced her to lose many matches from a winnable position. In the end, Darren’s decision to dump his charge and forcing her to learn cold turkey ultimately proved successful in developing Simona into a No. 1 player and one capable of tasting Grand Slam glory.

While I don’t think that either Muguruza or Sumyk are fully to blame for the tenacity in their relationship, I also don’t believe that the partnership stands any chance of bearing fruit come 2019.

A Lesson on Greatness

 

 

What exactly is it that enables raw talent to develop into greatness?

The factors that separate champions from all-time greats are so minute and difficult to discern that even the Greatest Players of All Time often find that question difficult to answer.

I mean it makes sense. We’re each trapped inside of our own skin. We’re only able to perceive the world from this perspective and none other. As such, our outlook is an accumulation of our unique set of lived experiences. How is one discern the quality that sets oneself apart from the rest of the world if one has only ever perceived the world from one’s own eyes.

It’s the human condition.

And yet, on Saturday July 7th, 2018, while answering a seemingly routine question, “what is it like always being the one to beat?”, Serena went off-script.

She begins to answer the question in routine fashion:

Serena: Every single match I play, whether I’m coming back from a baby or surgery, it doesn’t matter. These young ladies, they bring a game I’ve never seen before. And it’s interesting because I don’t even scout as much because when I watch them play, it’s a totally different game than when they play me.

However, when she takes a breath, seemingly about to reiterate the above, something special happens. In fact, you can pinpoint the moment in which her internal gears turn and she slips in a trance (0:53) and comes to a candid realization:

Serena: That’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest. So I have to be greater.

Interviewer: It must suck to be you.

Serena: At first it did, but I like it because it kind of backfires because everyone comes out and they play me so hard and now my level is so much higher because of it. From years and years of being played like that. So it’s like, you know what, my level, if it wasn’t high, then I wouldn’t be who I am. So I had to raise my level to ‘unknown’ because [it forces them into] playing me at a level that’s unknown … so now I’m used to it.

With clarity, humility, and poise, Serena’s answer is humble; while, obviously, she’d be nothing without raw talent, greatness has been rung out of her by the strength of the entire tour.

Now, the only question remains, if any other player either currently on the tour or to come, can exhibit such fearless and resilience under the same conditions and make their case that they are indeed the greatest…