By Pritha Sarkar
LONDON (Reuters) – A quick glance at Cori Gauff’s Twitter account shows what a difference a week makes in the life of a 15-year-old tennis phenomenon.
The giggling teenager, who likes to be called Coco, came to Wimbledon with a following of around 4,000 on Twitter. By the time her sensational run had ended on Monday, those numbers had risen to over 125,000 and included a number of celebrities.
Not bad for a player who is ranked 313 in the world and one who has yet to win a main-tour tournament.
But then again, there is nothing ordinary about a high school student who manages to pass a science test in the midst of qualifying for Wimbledon, then jettisons five-times champion Venus Williams in the first round before storming back from a set and two match points down to reach the second week of the most famous tennis tournament.
The tennis world had gone Coco-crazy for Gauff but when her remarkable run was finally ended by Simona Halep in the fourth round, Wimbledon’s most prolific champion had some words of advice.
“I just hope she backs off after the tournament and takes a breath,” said American great Billie Jean King, the winner of 20 titles at the All England Club across singles and doubles.
“I would say ‘remember how blessed you are to be in this position… take care of yourself and always stay humble. Right now you can get full of yourself very quickly because everyone’s around you’.
“The most important things for her now is to recalibrate and stay focused on her goals. We’re going to know her as a human being and not just a tennis player, and that’s what people are interested in.”
What fans do not want to see is a repetition of Jennifer Capriati’s sorry teenaged saga.
At 13, she was a six-million-dollar girl, showered with endorsement contracts even before she played her first professional match in March 1990.
In 1991, she became the youngest Wimbledon semi-finalist aged 15. But within two years Capriati had tired of the game and was arrested for shoplifting and for possession of marijuana.
The support network around Gauff, which includes Roger Federer’s agent Tony Godsick, suggests she is well protected from such pitfalls or the temptation to chase every sponsorship dollar thrown her way.
“I’ve heard they’ve had over 400 (sponsorship) offers and lots more are going to come her way,” said former world number one Tracy Austin, who was also a teenage prodigy.
“It’s very important that she’s got that veteran agent to know how to deal with it all. She’s got to stay humble and be choosy because at 15, she’s got a long career ahead of her, there will be plenty of money in the future.”
Although she is expected to shoot into the world’s top 140 when the new WTA rankings are released next Monday, Gauff will need to plan the rest of her year more judiciously. A WTA rule introduced after Capriati’s downfall means that she is allowed to play only five more tournaments before her 16th birthday next March – even if she wins them all.
One of those events will almost certainly be the U.S. Open in August because as John McEnroe commented, organisers at Flushing Meadows will be clamouring to sign her up as “she sells tickets, people love her and she’s got it all.”
That was certainly true at Wimbledon.
Among all the players who had made it into round four – Gauff was one of only six – along with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and British number one Jo Konta – who had played all their matches on Wimbledon’s two main show courts.
Rather than getting big headed about all the hoopla surrounding her, Gauff simply said: “I’m really thankful for this experience… I’m just happy that people believe in me.”
If Gauff eventually pens her autobiography, she may well divide it into two sections – Before and After Wimbledon 2019.
The chapters in the first section have already been well documented but the tennis world will wait with bated breath to see how the rest of AW2019 pans out.
(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Clare Lovell)