The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Stephanie Livaudais, November 26, 2019

Coco Gauff and the WTA age rule | Must-click links in women’s tennis | Interview with Martina Hingis

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How the WTA’s age rule protects players

While tennis enjoys its last few weeks of offseason (or is it preseason now?), it’s a good idea to start looking ahead at some of the narratives and issues that we’ll probably see in 2020. 

One of the biggest stories of the season was the rise of Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom who upset Venus Williams on her way to the fourth round at Wimbledon (from qualifying, mind you), reached the third round at the US Open in a viral moment and became the WTA’s youngest title winner in a decade and a half when she won in Linz and entered the Top 100. 

But with Coco’s rise, came the return of an old debate and renewed scrutiny centered around the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule: is the age rule too strict? Is it unfair? And what’s the point of having it, anyway? 

As a 15 year old, the amount of professional tournaments that Coco can play is limited by the age rule. She’s currently allowed about a dozen tournaments – much less than the average Top 100 player – and all four Grand Slams. The amount of tournaments will increase every year until she turns 18 and can play a full, unlimited schedule. (You can read the full text of the rule here.)

The age rule was introduced in the mid-90s after a series of high-profile teenage phenoms broke into the scene, won big, and then quickly burned out as a result of injuries or the pressure of media spotlight. Like Jennifer Capriati, who turned pro at 13. By 14, Capriati was in the Top 10, she won an Olympic gold medal at 16, but by 18 was forced to take time away from the tour as her personal life issues stole the spotlight. And Martina Hingis, who won her first Grand Slam at 15 and became World No.1, was forced into early retirement by 22 due to ligament issues in both ankles. 

With the age rule in place for more than two decades now, the effects have been significant: premature retirements dropped, playing careers lasted longer, and there’s a wealth of science to back up the many other ways it’s protecting players. 

The amount of Grand Slam winners over 30 years old even became a WTA talking point in the last few years as Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Flavia Pennetta and more won trophies. But it’s not like the teenage talent isn’t there: just this year, 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu won the US Open, and Marketa Vondrousova reached the French Open final at the same age.

Coco Gauff’s story is an incredible one, but is that reason enough to toss out decades of research, case studies and cautionary tales? The rule was created to protect young players, phasing them into professional tennis, and everything that comes with it: “high expectations from parents, agents, coaches, themselves, the pressure to make money, global travel schedules and intense media attention.” 

Sure, Coco herself has said that she’d like to be able to play more tournaments — but even she admitted that she’s still not ready to take on a full professional schedule. 

“Yeah, I definitely understand why the rules are there,” she told press at Wimbledon. “It’s definitely to protect the player. But obviously I will want to play more… Even if the restrictions weren’t there, I still think I wouldn’t play, like, as much as players do, the older players do, just because I’m still trying to develop my game and I’m still trying to train.”

This Week in Women’s Tennis

The nominees for the WTA’s season-end awards are out. Here are the players who are up for 2019 Player of the YearAshleigh Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Karolina Pliskova.

Big entry list news: Brisbane just announced a stacked field, with 29 of the Top 30 (including Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Karolina Pliskova) starting the season there. 

It’ll be Coco Gauff joining Bianca Andreescu and Serena Williams at the smaller tournament in Auckland. Both tournaments kick off on January 6.

So many coaching changes this week:

In honor of Billie Jean King’s birthday on the 22nd, here’s the legend herself recalling the iconic dress she wore during the Battle of the Sexes. 

Women’s tennis will return to Berlin in 2020 at the new Grass Court Championships, which will feature top Germans Angelique Kerber and Julia Goerges.

Is there anything Venus Williams can’t do? She did an amazing job as a Lakers Girl with James Corden and Rob Gronkowski.

Speaking of which, Serena Williams now has her own jewelry line – is there anything she can’t do?

Here’s Australian tennis legend Rod Laver explaining why Ashleigh Barty is “a cut above the rest”.

US Open champ Bianca Andreescu talks about how visualizing her success made it happen. 

A great column in the Telegraph by coach Judy Murray: “Women must stand up for themselves – and each other – to conquer sport’s gender imbalance”.

Judy also received UK Coaching’s lifetime achievement award – well deserved!

Great stuff from the Thailand Open: Tamarine Tanasugarn, Thailand’s only female tennis player to have reached the Top 20, will be back as an ambassador. And the tournament announced an initiative that supports breast cancer research.

This is interesting: WTA President Micky Lawler expressed support for the creation of a single governing body that would ‘merge’ WTA with the ATP. 

Tweet of the Week

Five at the IX: Martina Hingis

Following today’s theme of the age rule, I’ll let tennis legend Martina Hingis present the case against. I got a chance to chat with her at the WTA Finals, and as the owner of several “youngest ever” records, she’s uniquely qualified to speak on this topic. She had lots to say – to me and to press – about Coco Gauff, the age rule, and the pressures of early success.

Here are some excerpts:

Q. What were some of the biggest lessons that you learned after seeing so much success at such a young age? How did you manage the pressure?

HINGIS: I felt like I didn’t really feel the pressure as much. Of course, there was pressure that I put on myself, but that’s normal. But I also felt like there is so much time. I have so many years ahead of me, so I felt like if everything doesn’t fall into place straightaway, like, oh yeah there’s years to come! (laughs)

So that was really cool to experience all this. But you’re kind of thrown into it, you’re 16, and no one can prepare you for this. I mean, it’s different to be No.1, No.5, or No.10 already at this age. No.1 is just really something different. There’s so much more media, so much… 

I felt sometimes like to play tennis or to go to practice, that was almost like an escape from everything that was happening around me, you know? You were like, okay breathe, this is something that I actually am good at! Because having to speak English and different languages, sometimes people twist things around, and maybe you didn’t mean it that way. 

I wasn’t prepared for all of this. I mean, in a way yes, but no, you’re not. Never. You’re really never prepared. 

And there’s also the sponsors, and all of this. The demands on you, which were more mental demands than physical sometimes. That was almost the harder part. Everyone wants a piece of you, which is nice and great, because you’re so good, but on the other hand it’s like, I wanna just play my matches! (laughs)

Q. The WTA Finals has grown so much over the years, do you remember your first time playing it? What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen?

HINGIS: Yeah, I played it in New York I believe it was 96 or 97, my first time, Madison Square Garden. That was an amazing feeling. I mean, just the Top 8 qualify, right? I don’t even know when throughout the year I made it, but I think I went into it as the No.4 or something. Or I ended up at No.4 in the world. 

So that was really cool, to be part of this unique and elite group of people. And it was a cool venue and everything felt so spectacular. I mean, you get the daily gifts on your bed, you get the perks, that’s really cool. You just feel special, and it’s something that not everybody gets to experience it. Even in Grand Slams, there’s 128 players – here, it’s just 8. In the locker room, every player gets their own locker room. I mean, we didn’t have that back then, but I think it’s really, really cool.

Q: As one of the youngest ever WTA Finals champions, what do you make of the youth surge we’re seeing recently?

HINGIS: I mean that’s great. To see that they did well in juniors, and to have them play well in the pros, and this kind of breakthrough year with [Naomi] Osaka winning two Grand Slams, the US Open last year and Aussie Open. 

And with Belinda [Bencic] playing well again… I think she’s more – I think she has arrived now, I would say. More grounded. You know, before she played well and won tournaments, and everything happened really fast, I think. Now, it’s a little bit more wisdom, I’d say, five years later (laughs). More wisdom. 

Q. When you look back at all of the stories we’ve seen this season, what are your thoughts on where the game is at right now? Where do you want to see it go

HINGIS: I think it’s definitely going well in the right direction, seeing all these young players. One of them we didn’t even talk about yet is Coco Gauff. Hopefully she’ll have another great year, I mean winning a tournament at 15 is great for her. 

I mean, if you have players like that who have a chance, who have the right support system, it’s still possible to be young champions. I always said that, because the rules are very, very strict up until 18. So if they loosen up a little bit, I wouldn’t mind. They need to have special this, and reach special that – but if they do, just let them go and play. Because if they have the level, they’re gonna success. If they don’t, they won’t. Either they have it or they don’t, it’s not only about the age.  

Q. As someone whose name pops up a lot [with Gauff’s], what advice can you offer to her or her family to help navigate what might be coming in 2020? 

HINGIS: I met Coco a couple years ago when she already won the US Open, right? Her dad, she was there. From Mouratoglou [Academy], I knew they always talk about her. I followed her career for the last two years. 

It’s great to see someone young and fresh in the women’s game. Obviously at Wimbledon she was watched more than even [Rafael] Nadal. Everybody followed her. That was amazing. It’s a great new face out there. 

Yeah, I was always against the rules anyways. I thought we all were given the chance to play at 14. Maybe 18 is a little too late. Maybe somewhere in between, 16. You can drive a car in the U.S. All these rules, there are pros and [cons]. 

I think at 16, yeah, they definitely should be able to proceed and do their job. She’s one of those that actually can play at that level and do well. 

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Stephanie Livaudais, @Livaudais
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @Elindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.