Have you ever thought that tennis players seem to be getting younger? Every tennis fan must have been aware of the star potential of 15-year-old American prodigy Cori “Coco” Gauff, who stormed through to week two of Wimbledon, taking out veteran former champion Venus Williams on the way.
While tennis is a very physical sport, age doesn’t matter, as long as the players have the skills and the correct mindset to succeed. Gauff, the former number one junior player, became the youngest women’s player to enter the championship in the modern era. Had she won, she would have been the youngest ever champion.
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Another 15-year-old won the Wimbledon women’s championship more than a century ago. Charlotte “Lottie” Dod won the title in 1887, at the age of 15 years and 285 days. However, it was a very different set-up in those days, when few women entered.
Cheshire-born Dod had to survive only two rounds, although she was playing older opponents. She went on to win four more Wimbledon singles titles and was recognised as one of the pioneers of women’s tennis.
As the daughter of wealthy cotton trader Joseph Dod, she was lucky that her father was able to fund her career, in the days before big sponsorship deals existed. She received a private education and learned to play tennis at the family’s private courts at their estate, Edgeworth.
Famous young players
During the late 20th century, a series of teenage tennis phenomena hit the headlines. At the age of 16, Martina Hingis won the Australian Open in 1997. She also won five grand slams before the age of 19. However, she didn’t win another major singles title after this.
Boris Becker won the Wimbledon men’s singles title at the age of 17 in 1985, while Maria Sharapova won the women’s title at the same age in 2004. Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, Michael Chang, Monica Seles and Tracy Austin were all teenage champions.
American teenager Jennifer Capriati reached the semi-final at Wimbledon in 1990, at the age of only 14. Further success eluded her, after problems in her personal life at the age of 17 caused her to take a 14-month break from professional tennis. She returned to the circuit and in her mid-20s won three grand slams.
When do players peak?
Gauff’s sudden emergence has the tennis pundits wondering if she will defy the fate that befell a number of teenage prodigies, who were burned out before they were 20.
Academic research carried out at the University of Exeter in 2018 analysed data on the 100 highest-earning male and female players. They found the speed and accuracy of their serve (a vital part of any player’s game) peaked between the ages of 26 and 28. If this is the trend, then anyone facing Gauff in 10 years’ time had best beware!
Wimbledon hits and misses
Other young players who made their mark this summer at Wimbledon included 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, of Canada, who lasted until the end of the first week, when he said the “pressure got to” him. Veteran player and commentator John McEnroe hotly tipped him as a player to look out for in the future.
Jay Clarke, of Great Britain, aged 20, also played well against Roger Federer in the men’s singles, although he lost the match.
However, Clarke hit the headlines for the wrong reasons after he dumped his doubles partner, Harriet Dart, in favour of partnering newcomer Gauff instead! They were knocked out after being completely overpowered in straight sets by Robert Lindstedt and Jelena Ostapenko.
Top-ranking Greek prodigy
Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas, 20, had arrived at Wimbledon tipped to do great things, but lost in the first round. He is currently the youngest player in the world top 10, ranked by the Association of Tennis Professionals.
His highest career-ranking is sixth in the world. He is currently the highest-ranked Greek player since records began. To date, he has won three ATP singles tournaments and has reached a total of seven finals.
A young tennis prodigy’s life isn’t simple – even though Gauff has wowed the fans with her performances thus far, the rules governing the games limit her to playing only 12 tournaments a year.
This rule was introduced in 1994 – partly in response to the burnout young players had experienced in the late 20th century. Players must be 18 years old before they can play in as many tournaments as they choose.
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