Former tennis prodigy Andrea Jaeger approached 15-year-old Cori "Coco" Gauff on the grounds of Wimbledon last month, shortly before the youngest-ever qualifier in the tournament's history played her first match.
Jaeger, who was playing in the Legends event, introduced herself and flashed her competitor credential. She told Gauff who she once was: a phenom much like Gauff, a pro by age 14, No. 2 in the world rankings at 16, a Wimbledon finalist in 1983.
"Coco's eyes got kind of big," Jaeger, who is now 54 and head of the charitable Little Star Foundation, told ESPN.com a few days later. Jaeger said she chatted with Gauff about how exciting it all was. She left Gauff with her business card and said, "If you ever have questions or feel confused about what you are going through, this is where you can find me."
"She was so cute," Jaeger said. "She looked serious and said, 'I'm gonna keep this,' and she took a picture of my card with her phone."
Jaeger took it upon herself to reach out because she was one of the wunderkinds whose experience as a 15-year-old on the tour was not an entirely happy one. Like some other prodigies, including Jennifer Capriati, Jelena Dokic and Mirjana Lucic, Jaeger struggled with the pressures and demands created by her precocious success. Jaeger competed in Grand Slam events for only six years (all before she turned 21) and retired -- mostly because of a badly damaged shoulder -- before her 23rd birthday.
The appearance of a prodigy always triggers great enthusiasm and expectations. Every tennis phenom might as well be the first one because we're always looking for The Next Big Thing. But a lot of prodigies have come and gone in tennis, and not all of them have known the kind of success and satisfaction as, say, a Chris Evert, Martina Hingis or Steffi Graf.
What will Gauff's experience be like? With Gauff back in the news this week after earning a spot in the Citi Open (she lost in the first round after winning two matches in qualifying to make the main draw) and ahead of the US Open later this month, it's helpful to ask how she is different from -- or similar to -- the prodigies who came before her. Here are five key areas of comparison:
Almost all prodigies are from families where tennis is a dominant theme, often because one or both parents were tennis nuts (Tracy Austin), or once highly ranked amateurs (Hingis), teaching pros (Evert) or elite athletes in other disciplines (Lindsay Davenport). Gauff's parents fall into the latter, flourishing category
Corey Gauff played basketball at Georgia State University. Candi Gauff was a hurdler and heptathlete at Florida State. The only other prodigy with anything like those credentials was Davenport, whose father, Wink Davenport, was a member of the U.S. volleyball team at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Lindsay went on to have a long, extremely successful career.
"One common attribute of families that have a prodigy is that the parents dream big," said Pam Shriver, who was a 16-year-old US Open finalist in 1978 and is now an ESPN analyst. "There's a kind of parent who allows the bar to be set very high, eliminating the idea that there's some kind of ceiling. I see that in the Gauffs."
The Gauffs were well-prepared to handle Coco's breakthrough. They were poised, open and more aware of challenges they face than some predecessors. It's partly because of the amount of information and help that is available. In the past, parents, especially those who also coached their kids, sometimes didn't know what to expect on the tour. They mistrusted outsiders and adopted a siege mentality.
Corey Gauff is different. He has been doing his due diligence all along. He told The New York Times that he has studied former prodigies closely: "I went through every one of their situations and looked at where they were at a certain age, what they were doing. ... I was concerned about burnout."
Candi Gauff is more involved than some mothers have been. She's the family psychologist.
Coco said at Wimbledon, "My dad, he's the reason why I dream so big. I think the kind of believing part of my dad and the more [psychological], 'Stay focused, stay calm,' part of my mom is like a good mix."
Solid fundamentals, excellent nerves and consistency have been the hallmark of most prodigies. But few had the combination of Gauff's power and athleticism -- critical gifts in today's game at such a young age.
"[Former prodigy] Tracy [Austin] was a slip of a thing, and Jaeger was really small too," Shriver said. "But it's a different era. Counter-punching alone won't do it. Today you need mature power. Coco's power and also her movement are at an exceptional level."
But power and mobility alone didn't propel Gauff into the second week at Wimbledon. Her precocious understanding of strategy and decision-making also were critical. Austin, a two-time US Open champion and now a BBC and Tennis Channel analyst, was impressed by the way Gauff responded to veteran Polona Hercog's midmatch decision to slow the pace in their third-round clash at Wimbledon. Gauff matched Hercog, slice for slice, moonball for moonball, and won the battle of wits, prompting Austin to remark: "It was an incredibly mature match from Coco."
ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert is convinced Gauff will be competing for Grand Slam titles while still a teenager. "She's 5-foot-10, she can already hit the serve at almost 120 miles per hour, and she's still improving."
Corey Gauff has described his daughter's coaching arrangement as a "village of coaches." That's one of the most striking differences between the prodigy experience, then and now. A large number of Gauff's forerunners were coached exclusively by either of their parents (among them: Evert, Jaeger, Graf, Hingis and Monica Seles). Some, like Melanie Molitor (Hingis' mother) and Jimmy Evert, left their children with rock-solid games. Others, like Roland Jaeger, Peter Graf and Karolj Seles, made it up as they went along. As Andrea Jaeger said, "I came out of a DIY mold."
When phenoms are successful, the lure of the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality is powerful. It's uncertain if Seles succeeded because of -- or in spite of -- that radical two-handed forehand, but it's certain she hit a slice backhand about as often as we have a solar eclipse.
Things have changed a great deal in the past decade or two. If the game is more demanding, the volume of available expertise has grown exponentially. It probably takes a village now to mine all the useful information about nutrition, fitness, technique, psychology and mental health. Gauff is light years ahead of where former prodigies were at the same age in so many critical "learning" areas, including sports psychology.
By age 10, Gauff was a prize scholarship pupil at the elite [Patrick] Mouratoglou Tennis Academy (headed by the longtime coach of Serena Williams) in France. That ensured her fundamentals would be airtight. A few months ago, Corey Gauff added another coach to the team, former ATP pro Jean-Christophe Faurel. After her landmark win over Hercog, Gauff publicly thanked Faurel and her hitting partner for recently emphasizing the slice game.
Gauff's loose-knit team encompasses a number of coaches and advisers, including former prodigy and ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez ("She's been giving me awesome advice," Gauff said in London). There's no other village in tennis quite like it.
"My parents didn't have a manual when I became a pro," Jaeger said. Referring to Team8, the management company co-founded by Roger Federer and his longtime agent, Tony Godsick, Jaeger added, "Coco already has influential people in her corner, so she'll be protected and have a platform."
Federer has already gone to bat for the Gauffs, in an uncharacteristic, controversial way. He has challenged the WTA's age eligibility rules, which limit participation in WTA events by age until unlimited play is allowed at age 18. Corey Gauff also has called for revisiting the rules that restrict Coco to 12 events until she turns 16 next March (she has four remaining).
"I've told the WTA they should loosen up the rules," Federer said at Wimbledon. "I loved seeing Hingis doing what she did at a young age."
Hingis and the Williams sisters were notably exempt due to the advanced state of their careers when the WTA created age-eligibility rules to combat the potentially harmful physical and emotional effects of burnout. They did not appear to suffer from being free to play. But the WTA rules still have some fierce proponents.
"I can't say 'no' quick enough to the question of if the rule should be eliminated," Shriver said. "I lived through it ... I saw countless victims of overplaying, (players) not managing their early career well, feeling the pressures, the burnout."
Despite the attention dumped on Capriati for her shoplifting and drug-related brushes with the law, the elephant in the room for prodigies is injury. At the moment, four exceptional young players are -- or have been -- sidelined for lengthy periods because of injury: Laura Robson, Cici Bellis, Ana Konjuh and Belinda Bencic. Chronic injury severely curtailed the careers of Jaeger and Austin (back). The heightened physical effort demanded in today's pro game raises an enormous red flag, yet it's impossible to predict the durability of young players.
Like her precocious forebears, Gauff would like to be free to play as much as she likes. Unlike many of them, she's protected from external pressures to push her limits by the counsel of a first-class team, as well as the significant income she already has earned.
Davenport almost decided against playing the French Open for fear she might miss her 1994 graduation from Murrieta Valley High School in California. Evert and Jaeger each remember reporters snooping around their high schools when they returned after making headlines in Grand Slam tournaments. By contrast, at comparable ages, Seles and Graf were full-fledged touring pros most often sequestered at tournaments with their immediate families.
Things are different now. More options exist.
Home schooling or working toward a GED while training at an elite tennis academy are the norm. The European model of cradle-to-grave professionalism has been embraced by almost everyone, but prodigies aren't living isolated lives in the cocoon of family. Robust development and support systems, training with peers, social media and the internet allow plenty of exposure to that mythic "real" world. The idea that Gauff is denied a "normal" life is misleading; what she has is a different life.
On the down side, the demands on the time of a phenom have grown exponentially, which is why Evert recently offered this bit of advice: "The one thing I see that once a player starts to have success, all of a sudden they're on every talk show and they're doing every interview and they're doing appearances and they're changing coaches and changing agents. She (Gauff) just has to keep everything the same, and be humble."
The new wild card in all of this is social media. We saw at Wimbledon how avidly Gauff follows and participates on various social media platforms. We don't yet understand how social media shapes a young mind or affects a player's motivation. Is Gauff, at age 15, motivated or feeling as if she's already a great star because of all those Instagram messages she received from celebrities?
"Some things are, and will be, easier for her; some things will be harder," Austin said. "I put social media in the 'harder' category. Everyone knows everything she does now, every place she goes and who she goes with."
Finding an emotional comfort zone on the tour was a challenge for some prodigies. Capriati, for all her success, didn't enjoy the pro tennis ecosystem. Jaeger felt lost as a teenager adrift amid older women whose competitiveness, she felt, often spilled over into the personal realm. Austin traveled with her mother, who was more companion than coach, and never played more than two consecutive weeks because she didn't want to miss the grounding effect of school.
School might be off the table for Gauff. But the pro tour environment has changed for the better in many ways, including in its diversity. She has a formidable support system. It's unlikely you'll see her sitting around in the player lounge at tournaments with just her father or mother for company, as did so many prodigies in the past.
It's a different world now. In many ways, it's Gauff's world for the taking.