Mailbag: What Can We Reasonably Expect From 15-Year-Old Coco Gauff?

How much pressure and expectation can one saddle a 15-year-old with? We discuss Coco Gauff and much more in this week's mailbag.
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Housekeeping

• We were traveling last week but will have another podcast soon….

• The tabloid-style blind item….If you thought Italy was a rising tennis power in the sport—eight players in the top 100—just you wait….

• This week’s unsolicited book recommendation: Grow Like a Lobster by Josh Dick.

Mailbag

Okay, Jon. I know you said to give her space, but Coco Gauff is the Real Deal! Come on, Jon. Say it with me! You know it’s true! — Douglas T., New York

Let’s be clear: there was never doubt about Coco Gauff's tennis ability or a future that burns as bright as a thousand suns. The hesitation was about saddling a 15-year-old with expectation and pressure and hype. I have the profound good fortune of seeing age 15 up close. There is so much to recommend. There is so much to discover. (“Look closely at the Tostitos logo and you can see two people eating chips.”) But it’s not an age conducive to celebrity. Worry about whether Hopper is really dead. Not whether your sponsors approve of your Instagram post.

But here comes Coco Gauff, 15-year-old tennis dynamo, and fame may have to be a byproduct. Because there’s no holding back her tennis. Last week, of course, she made the most of one of her sparse playing opportunities. Having crossed an ocean and entered the Linz event, she lost in qualifying. Full stop here. Good for her and good for her handlers for, again, putting her through the humbling experience of qualifying. She gets into the main draw via a lucky loser spot. And she doesn’t lose again, becoming the youngest player in more than a decade to win a title. This was significant for many reasons. First, just as a sheer accomplishment. Second, she has already avoided the millstone of “never won a title.” She is also now squarely in the top 100 and won’t need to rely on wild cards.

We’ve seen prodigies before. But often their success has owed to physical maturation. They grew early and were able to bash the ball with force. Gauff hits plenty hard, but her gifts hardly end there. She’s happy to slog through a point. She resets well after setbacks. She projects confidence but rational confidence. This is a click-and-save from Andreescu but she just seems to have it.

I still remember Sloane Stephens’s emphatic line from Wimbledon. “She’s a talented kid. But she’s still a kid.” I am uneasy about anointing a 15-year-old. But, to the reader’s point, Gauff is making it increasingly difficult to be measured.

So...Shanghai. Beijing. ATP. WTA. I think you know where I'm going with this. Where do the big names stand on China, especially considering its large connection to the sport — Sean, San Diego

Sure, we know where you’re going with this. Tennis was in China last week and—in striking contrast to another visiting sport—the biggest controversy was whether Roger Federer’s point penalty was well-deserved.

Tennis has made a big bet on Asia. There are now more professional events in China than there are in the U.S. The women’s year-end soiree will be held in Shenzhen. It will offer a boatload of prize money. It will also be played near here.

Trade entails trade-offs. You love the prospect of commerce in a country with more than a billion people. You are less fond of authoritarian governments and leaders who talk of “smashing to pieces” pro-democracy protestors.

The WTA in particular would do well to learn from the NBA’s errors—forced and unforced—and come up with some strategy. If in fact she attends—unlikely, but not impossible, especially if there’s a hefty truancy fine hanging in the balance—Serena Williams will surely be asked for her opinion. So will other players. We have seen the consequences of clumsy responses. We have also seen how fast business can evaporate for those who don’t toe the party line, no pun intended.

This is the underbelly to globalization and free markets. You have the choice of doing business in countries with governments and values you may find offensive. One week it’s China. The next week it’s Stan Wawrinka and Daniil Medvedev playing an event Saudi Arabia, a country that is clearly using sports as a kind of solvent against more abrasive elements. The NBA’s lesson of this week: free trade resembles free speech. You have a right to buy and sell your product wherever you like. You not do have a right to be shielded from the consequences.

Coach of the Year: Sylvain Bruneau (Andreescu), Gilles Cervara (Medvedev), or someone else? — @meganfernandez7

That sounds right. Those would be my votes if polls closed tonight. But I suspect you could make an additional case for Carlos Moya–or the Moya/Roig tandem–on the grounds that their player, Rafa Nadal, is 48-6 on the year and the men’s tennis MVP. The devil’s advocates will say that the Nadal camp is a victim of its own success. Rafa started the year with 16 Majors. It’s not as though they had to coax greatness out of him.

All of this goes to the strange job title of “tennis coach.” Sometimes you are trying to elevate a player. Sometimes you are trying to keep the train on the tracks. Sometimes you are a Hall of Fame player, trying to impart your experience and wisdom. Sometimes you are a parent, trying to bring a measure of stability. Different players—ages 15 to 40; male and female; from different cultures—have different needs. But it makes assessing “good coaches” and “bad coaches” a tricky proposition.

It is interesting to watch so many players struggle to find answers to Medvedev’s game. His size and speed allow for incredible defense, and he seems to have the patience and stamina to wait for errors or for the right ball to attack. To me, he is a boxer with an exceptionally long reach that prevents any fighter from getting too close and just jabs from a distance. The Big 3 have the consistency in hitting angles that seems to be effective against him. They have the game and patience to know when/how to attack him. Do you think others outside of the Big 3 will learn to do this? Or do you assess Medvedev’s game completely differently?Anthony

Like many players, I feel like we, as observers, haven’t quite cracked Medvedev’s game. Someone asked me recently what he does so well. I didn’t have cut-and-paste answer. The durability has been extraordinary. He’s played a ton of tennis since late July and only seems to improve each week. The offense/defense combination is terrifically effective. But there are players more offensive and players more defensive. You mention his size, which is important. He’s huge: he’s listed at 6-5. Somehow he looks taller but plays smaller. A lot of reach. A lot of angle on the serve and off the ground.

What a revelation, though. At Wimbledon he was a fairly anonymous player (and a third-round loser.) It’s easy to make the case that, right now, he’s the best player never to have won a Major.

It's probably not a surprise that the college admissions scandal affected tennis teams, too. 

This is a sad story for aspiring tennis players who wanted to play in college but were denied for unfair reasons. — Chad, Arkansas

This is a must-read story. I’m not sure I quite buy the premise that one vile family’s manipulation of the system directly cost his teammate an opportunity.

And if you want to be further engaged here’s a non-tennis read from the same category.

The good news, I suppose, is that Zverev took to heart Federer’s “pep talk” at the Laver Cup. — Yves, Montreal

Yep. Number of us had the same thought. Last month, in the most graphic terms, Federer was encouraging Zverev to shoo away the negative thoughts when the match tightened. It was a rare—and compelling—insight into how one player perceives another. Tennis doing its dance with irony, when the two men next faced head-to-head, it was Zverev who kept his cool while Federer lost his.

I’m thinking the play next year is for Laver Cup players to mislead their teammates in these pep talks. Next year: “Serve and volley, Sascha! Everyone knows you’re an awesome serve-and-volleyer, who just doesn’t do it often enough. Charge in when the match is on the line! Oh, and throw up some short lobs, too. The other guys will be surprised by this shrewd tactical play and miss the overhead.”

“Yet, she is a victim of her own success and her own aura. In the past, she’s gotten better as the tournament progresses. We’re accustomed to seeing her in the finals, discharging her duties with the cold-blooded poise of Villanelle. Seeing her lose four straight Slam finals—against four different opponents and failing to win one set—has been jarring.”

It is obvious that Serena lost two back-to-back Wimbledon-US Open finals (2018-2019), however by no means four consecutive Slam finals. She never lost three straight major finals. — Andras R.

Sure, to be clear. Serena has been on the losing side of the last four Major finals SHE has played. (Wimbledon and U.S. Open both 2018 and 2019.) But not the last four Major finals held. Petra Kvitova and Marketa Vondrousova hold the distinction of losing in the last match of 2019 Aussie Open and French Open, respectively.

Has a "lucky loser" ever gone on to win the title in any tournament before, as Coco Gauff just did? For that matter, has a regular qualifier ever done it? — KG

Here’s Sharko the Magnificent:

The last lucky loser on the ATP Tour to win a title was Marco Cecchinato in Budapest last year. Pablo Cuevas was a finalist LL in Estoril this year (l. to Tsitsipas). We had eight qualifiers to win an ATP Tour title in 2018 as well. This year qualifiers are 0-5 in finals.

What's going on with the mailbag in later years? As a seasoned reader I remember some 10-12 years ago you saying something to the effect of “Roger Federer has a gut”, which I thought was pretty droll humor. Is that gone for more PC observations these days? — Jon B., Seattle, Wa.

I think I wrote that Federer has a synthetic gut. Strictly observationally: two pieces of content I’ve written in the past year or so have drawn thunderous condemnation. One: Kevin Anderson came on the podcast and talked about conservation and how tennis can become more green. This was construed as social justice warrioring.

Two: Last month’s suggestion that the Laver Cup consider adding women, if only for the sake of balancing the team and having the Europe/World distinction. This was rejected on grounds of “social engineering.”

HAVE A GOOD WEEK EVERYONE!