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Coco Gauff Is 15 Years Old. Could She Be The Next Steffi Graf?

Women’s tennis has a new child prodigy. Fifteen-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff won her first two Grand Slam wins at Wimbledon this week, with a bold serve and a poise that belies her age. Gauff beat Magdaléna Rybáriková on Wednesday in the second round after a Monday debut that saw her thump Venus Williams, a 39-year-old who won her first Wimbledon in 2000 — four years before Gauff was born.

“I think the sky’s the limit,” Williams said about Gauff.

The question is, how much should we expect from Gauff’s future because of her Slam debut? The prospects are quite good. In the women’s Open era,1 just 26 previous players under the age of 16 had won at least one match in their first Grand Slams. Nine of those players ended up winning major titles, led by Steffi Graf, who made her Grand Slam debut at the 1983 French Open just before she turned 14. Graf beat fellow qualifier Carina Karlsson in her first match before losing in the second round, but that was just a small taste of what was to come: She would go on to enjoy one of the most decorated careers in tennis history, winning 22 Slams and 107 events all together.

Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles made even splashier debuts at Roland Garros a few years later. Both players would reach the semifinals in their first Slam appearances, and both were yet to turn 16. (Capriati was 14, Seles 15.) Perhaps fittingly, it was Graf who ended Seles’s debut run in 1989, while it was Seles who ended Capriati’s the following year. Capriati would have to wait more than a decade to capture the first of her three majors, but Seles was an immediate sensation. She likely would have won more majors, too, if she had not been stabbed during a tennis match in Germany in 1993. (Seles won nine majors in all, but eight of them came before the attack.)

Among the 26 players who won their first Slam match before turning 16, six would go on to become No. 1 in the world: Martina Hingis, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Tracy Austin — in addition to Graf, Seles, and Capriati.

But even if Gauff’s fine start doesn’t make her a lock to reach that level, it is a pretty good sign that she will evolve into a top contender. In all, 13 of the 26 reached at least No. 4 in the world. And this list just includes those youngsters who won their Slam debut. Notable 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds who didn’t win that first match but went on to great things include former No. 1s Lindsay Davenport (age 15 at the 1991 U.S. Open) and Maria Sharapova (15 at the 2003 Australian Open).

Tennis prodigies have mixed records

Women’s players in the Open Era to win their Grand Slam debut before turning 16

Career
Year slam Winner Age Slams Wins Highest Rank
1983 French Steffi Graf 13.98 22 107 1
1990 French Jennifer Capriati 14.20 3 14 1
1981 French K. Rinaldi-Stunkel 14.21 0 3 7
1984 U.S. Gabriela Sabatini 14.32 1 27 3
1995 Australian Martina Hingis 14.33 5 45 1
1977 Wimbledon Tracy Austin 14.55 2 30 1
1992 U.S. Iva Majoli 15.09 1 10 4
1985 French Emmanuelle Derly 15.11 0 1 115
1990 Australian Anke Huber 15.15 0 12 4
1990 French Magdalena Maleeva 15.19 0 11 4
1978 U.S. Bettina Bunge 15.24 0 4 6
1996 U.S. Anna Kournikova 15.25 0 2 8
1982 French M. Maleeva-Fragniere 15.31 0 19 3
2019 Wimbledon Cori Gauff 15.33 ? ? 299
2005 French Alize Cornet 15.37 0 9 11
1990 French Mary Pierce 15.40 2 20 3
1983 U.S. Grace Kim 15.41 0 0 78
2014 U.S. Catherine Bellis 15.42 0 7 35
1987 French A. Sanchez Vicario 15.47 4 29 1
1997 U.S. Mirjana Lucic 15.50 0 7 20
1989 French Monica Seles 15.52 9 53 1
2018 Australian Marta Kostyuk 15.59 0 2 116
1985 U.S. Linda Gates 15.71 0 1 N/A
1999 Australian Jelena Dokic 15.81 0 14 4
1988 U.S. Laxmi Poruri 15.84 0 0 110
1989 Australian Kimberly Kessaris 15.84 0 0 124
1988 French Noelle Van Lottum 15.90 0 4 57

Source: WTA

There are, of course, plenty of possible prodigies that don’t reach the heights of Graf, Seles and Capriati. Alizé Cornet, who won her debut at the 2005 French Open at age 15, is still playing today at age 29 but has never won more than three matches in a single Slam. Kathy Rinaldi-Stunkel reached the quarterfinals at the 1981 French Open at age 14 but never got farther than a Slam semifinal.2 After Emmanuelle Derly won her French Open debut at 15, she played seven more Slam matches and lost in the first round four times and her rank never went higher than No. 115.

Even if Gauff doesn’t make an immediate ascent, she has plenty of time to emerge as a top contender in women’s tennis. If she struggles out of the gate, she can look for inspiration no further than the top of the Wimbledon bracket. Ashleigh Barty, the current No. 1 in the world, is 23 and also made her Slam debut at age 15. But Barty lost in the first round of the 2012 Australian Open and won only two singles matches in her next eight Slams. It was another seven years — including two years out of the sport altogether — before Barty would win the 2019 French Open and cement her status at the top.

Gauff likely has tough moments and doubts ahead of her. But at the very least, she is serious about her intentions.

“No matter who I play against, I want to win,” Gauff said.



From ABC News:


Ari Levin contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. Starting in 1968.

  2. Wimbledon in 1985.

Tom Perrotta is a tennis writer based out of Brooklyn and frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

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