Friday, April 17, 2020

Coco Gauff Admits Stress From Hype; Rubin's Influence Grows Behind the Racquet

Coco Gauff turned 16 last month, when tennis had shut down and no one was paying attention to much of anything but the Covid-19 pandemic. That milestone gave Gauff a fresh start when it came to the WTA's Age Eligibility rules, but that is currently irrelevant. After winning her first WTA title last fall and reaching the round of 16 at the Australian Open, her last event, Gauff is up to 50 in the now frozen WTA rankings.

But earlier this week, Gauff wrote a Behind the Racquet post that revealed how she struggled with expectations and pressure prior to last year's Wimbledon breakout. Although she says that her tennis results weren't really affected, she was having doubts about her place in professional tennis.

Throughout my life, I was always the youngest to do things, which added hype that I didn’t want. It added this pressure that I needed to do well fast. Once I let that all go, that when I started to have the results I wanted. Right before Wimbledon, going back to around 2017/18, I was struggling to figure out if this was really what I wanted. I always had the results so that wasn’t the issue, I just found myself not enjoying what I loved. I realized I needed to start playing for myself and not other people. For about a year I was really depressed.

Gauff stopped playing junior events after she won the 2018 Orange Bowl title, with a impressive comeback in the final, so I didn't speak with her after this interview from the $100K 2019 Dow Tennis Classic in Midland in January of 2019, but I never sensed any of the ambivalence she talks about in the post. She seemed candid and genuine then, but as she reveals her struggle to deal with hype and pressure, it's a reminder that what is going on in a player's mind is not always going to be verbalized in a competitive situation. That should happen only on the player's timeline and in their comfort zone, which leads me to mention once again the huge service Noah Rubin has provided the tennis community when he introduced Behind the Racquet last year.

Former Kalamazoo 18s and Wimbledon boys champion Rubin, who played at Wake Forest for one year, reaching the NCAA singles final in 2015, has been able to shine a light on the issues of a vast array of tennis players, most of them professionals, but all willing to voice their mental and emotional struggles. Reducing the stigma surrounding conversations like this, which can't be had in press conferences during competition, is just one of the many ways Behind the Racquet has changed the media landscape in tennis. In a little over a year, Rubin has had such an impact that he was recently named to French sports daily L'Equipe's Twenty Most Influential People in Tennis. He is one of six active players on the list, with the others Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, and Andy Murray.

For more on the genesis of Behind the Racquet, see this article or listen to this interview. Mike Cation and Rubin also have a weekly podcast on issues affecting the professional players outside the Top 100.


Jane loves tennis said...

I would think Coco Gauff's stress also comes from the fact that there is no way to live up to the hype. The hype literally is that she is going to have a career on par with Serena when that is not reality. Serena came into tennis with a huge physical advantage, 20-40 lbs of muscle on every other player, a serve better than anyone, a forehand that was as good as any. And Serena also came in when much fewer female players where weight training so the game was less physical her first 7-8 years.

Gauff has no physical advantage. She is not taller or stronger than most other top players. Her serve is good but not clearly better like Serena's was, her forehand is not really a dominant weapon. She has to battle almost every match. She will not win early matches with 15 aces for easy points like prime Serena did. Winning 1-2 Grand Slams would be great, more than 2 would be an amazing career. Its just such a physical and competitive tour now, no player can dominate like Serena did when in her prime.

Thats a lot of pressure on CoCo, trying to live up to the hype while not having a clear advantage over another top 20-30 players. And the pressure was actually less when she was 15, no one expected much. As she gets older, the pressure will only build.

Bob Lanier said...

The Behind the Racquet crusade is from a pre virus time. Not from the stand point of the mental health aspect, that is always a valuable discussion if anyone is dealing with those issues, no matter if they play tennis or not. But as far as "players outside the top 100" and if they can earn a living from tennis, that is going to be a moot point going forward. Tennis Federations, fans, sponsoring equipment and apparel companies, tournament sponsors, will all be in a tighter financial position. A lot lower number of players will be able to make a living from tennis in the future. If that number is 100 men and 100 women before the pandemic, it will likely be far lower in the future. College scholarships will be tougher to get, coaching jobs tougher to get. I would advise those players outside the top 100 to start seriously thinking about how they will earn a living outside of earning money from actual tournaments. Pandemics change ways of life, and this one will vastly change the number of players who can earn a living from tennis.