LONDON -- Cori "Coco" Gauff waved her racket upward in frustration, and then she slowly made her way to the net. Her magical Wimbledon run was over in the fourth round after she hit the ball wide. She graciously shook hands with Simona Halep, her opponent, but never cracked a smile.
The crowd showered her with a raucous, standing ovation, and "We love you, Coco!" cheers. But though the fans were clearly impressed with her play throughout the tournament at the All England Club, she seemed annoyed with herself, as if she knew she could have done more.
Just 15, Gauff found herself the darling of the tournament as she became the youngest qualifier in history to make the main draw. She went on to knock off her longtime hero, Venus Williams, in the first round, and then beat Magdalena Rybarikova in dominating fashion, before pulling off a comeback over Polona Hercog that will live on in Wimbledon lore. Facing match point in the second set, Gauff rallied for a dramatic three-set victory on Centre Court -- "Cocomania" officially took hold of the tennis world. She received congratulatory messages from Michelle Obama and Jaden Smith, among many others, and her matches became must-see affairs, both in the grounds and on television.
But it wasn't enough. She knew the odds were against her -- heck, she and her family had to stay in three different accommodations during their stay because they hadn't booked their stay for long enough -- but she didn't just want to be a nice, feel-good story for the first week of Wimbledon. She truly believed she could win it all. Because Gauff has big dreams for herself. She wants to be the greatest of all time, and believes she can do it.
"I was obviously disappointed," she said after the loss. "I mean, I would be disappointed in any loss no matter if I was playing a former world No. 1 or somebody younger than me. I think I just need to go back to work and keep working hard and get ready for my next couple tournaments.
"I don't know my schedule right now because I wasn't expecting to be here. But my next goal would be to win the next tournament I play. I don't know what the next tournament will be."
The past eight days have felt like a coronation of sorts for Gauff, as she has enamored herself to fans the world over, and the expectations for her future are sky-high. So, what's next for the young star? Well, it's more complicated than you might think.
Due to her age, she can't exactly just play in whatever event she wants, hence her hesitation about where she will next be playing. Despite her soon-to-be massive jump in the rankings, and tournaments surely wanting to grant her a wild card due to her sudden popularity, the WTA's age restriction policy will severely limit the amount of tournaments she can play in.
Introduced in 1994, and revised somewhat over the years, players aged 13 and under are not allowed to play at all, and 14- to 17-year old players have decreasing restrictions, with 14-year-olds capped at eight professional events (and only three where the prize money is greater than $60,000), and a 17-year-old is allowed to play 16 events. If the player has done well at the junior level, she could potentially have that limitation increased slightly.
For Gauff, that would typically mean she could play in 10 professional events as a 15-year-old, but the WTA has already relaxed its rules slightly for her, and she can now play in 12, as a result of her exceptional play at the junior level, with the possibility of two additional tournaments. Since her birthday in March, she has played in eight events, including Wimbledon. Consequently, she will need to be somewhat choosy about which events she plays over the next several months until she turns 16. (Although, it's worth noting, Serena Williams hasn't played more than 14 tournaments in a calendar year since 2014.)
Interestingly, the same policy even limits how much time young players can spend talking to the media. Gauff is not allowed more than four hours in total during the duration of a tournament -- something that has clearly proven difficult during Wimbledon, where she has been in incredibly high demand.
There are no restrictions for male players over the age of 16, while 14-year-old boys can play eight events, and 15-year-olds can play 12. Roger Federer, whose management company Team8 represents Gauff, thinks it's time for the women's game to change the policy.
"I've told the WTA they should loosen up the rules," he said. "I loved seeing [Martina] Hingis doing what she did at a young age. I think it would be nice, you know, if they could play more. I feel like it puts, in some ways, extra pressure on them every tournament they play. It's like their week, 'This is now where I finally am allowed to play, I have to do well,' right? I'm not sure if it's maybe to some extent counterproductive.
"Maybe your best time [in a player's career] is from 14 to 20 for some reason. It's not like for everybody else from 20 to 30. So in a way you take away that opportunity, you know. ... It's up to debate. I don't have the perfect solution. I see why they did it, because we've had the history of some tough parents out there. But at the same time you're also increasing the pressure for that player each week to produce."
Coco was raised to be limitless
Tom Rinaldi sits down with Coco Gauff and her parents to talk about raising her to be limitless and the difference in her maturity on and off the court.
Hingis achieved incredible success as a teen and remains the youngest player to ever win a match at a Grand Slam, as a 14-year-old at the 1995 Australian Open. She won the doubles title at the All England Club (with Helena Sukova) at 15, before winning the singles title at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open and taking over the No. 1 ranking the following year. Ultimately, she won all five of her Grand Slam singles titles as a teenager. She retired at 22 due to ankle injuries, and though she went on to return and have a spectacular doubles career, it is clear her best play came before she could legally have a glass of wine in the United States.
"I know the idea is to protect young players, but the job of these young players is to compete," said Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams' coach whom Gauff has been working with at the Mouratoglou Academy in France since she was 10. "To do well, you need experience, but then they don't let them get experience in competing. Why are they protected by playing less? We all know that the ones who aren't getting to play matches are just having to practice twice as much.
"Momentum in tennis is so important. When it's the right moment, it's the right moment, and I'm not sure Martina Hingis would've been No. 1 in the world at 16, or ever, if she had to deal with this rule, or if she couldn't start really competing until a few years later. It was her time right then."
Hingis, as well as Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova and others born in 1980 and the start of 1981, were grandfathered in, and they were the last group that did not have to adhere to the new policy. The age restrictions were put in place by a panel of WTA-appointed experts on adolescence in response to the struggles of Jennifer Capriati. The American phenom burst onto the professional tennis scene as a 13-year-old in 1990, and she reached the finals in two of her first three events and advanced to the semifinals at the French Open in her first major appearance. Gauff is the youngest player to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon since Capriati in 1991.
Despite her astounding early success, Capriati struggled off the court. She was charged with shoplifting at 17, arrested for marijuana possession at 18, and later revealed she had contemplated suicide due to the pressures she faced at such a young age. She took a break from play for most of 1994 and 1995.
She did ultimately return to tennis, and even won three Grand Slam titles, but she is often considered the poster child for teenage burnout, and "too much, too soon."
And while many think the policy as it stands today is unfair, and they want players like Gauff to have the potential to play a full tour schedule, others believe it is still very much necessary.
"I can't say no quick enough to the question of if the rule should be eliminated," said Pam Shriver, who reached the final of the US Open as a 16-year-old in 1978. "I lived through it, and from '78 to when I retired in '97, I saw countless victims of overplaying, not managing their early career well, feeling the pressures, the burnout. It is there for a very good reason. Even though there will always be some young phenoms, some young players that can manage it all, most have problems.
"I have great faith in the experts who were on that panel. Ph.D.s, medical doctors, experts in adolescence. I mean the expertise on that panel, the thoughtfulness of the deliberations, I am in no place to say that they didn't do a great job. When you look at how long careers are now -- people are playing until their late 30s -- this is not a sprint. I think the rule can really help set a healthy pace at the beginning."
While Venus Williams didn't have to follow the policy, Serena Williams was among the first to have restrictions during her first years on tour. She does not seem to feel strongly either way about the rule, but she also says she wasn't as talented a player as Gauff at 15.
"I was not a good player at 15," she said. "I do know when I was younger, I was limited to tournaments. I also was able to go to school and be able to do things that I'll never get back. When I started playing, Hingis was No. 1 at 16; she had won Grand Slams. Everyone was winning as a teenager. Capriati had won things. She was like 14. I won a Grand Slam, I was 17. It was a ton of teenagers doing things, so it was a lot of pressure. You were almost expected to win.
"If Martina was No. 1 at 16, then we were underachieving at 17. It was definitely a ton of pressure for us. It switched somewhere in between where people started winning a little bit later. I don't know. Maybe this is a trend back where the players are going to be teenagers and winning again."
Serena won her first major singles title, weeks before her 18th birthday, at the 1999 US Open. Now 37, she has won 22 since.
Of course, the WTA isn't exactly alone in having age restriction policies. The LPGA requires members to be 18 but will grant exceptions for those younger if warranted, as it did in 2014 for Lydia Ko, who had already become the youngest player ever to win a title as a 15-year-old. She played a full tour schedule, beginning at 16. She won the LPGA's Player of the Year honors in her first season. She has since won two major titles.
But Gauff doesn't care too much about why the rule is in place or how other leagues handle such decisions, she just knows that it means she can't really play the tournaments she wants to play. She doesn't feel ready to play a full schedule, but she would like the opportunity to capitalize on her current momentum.
"Even if the restrictions weren't there, I still think I wouldn't play as much as the older players do, just because I'm still trying to develop my game and I'm still trying to train," she said. "I feel like I would obviously play more than the rules state, but I think I wouldn't try to overdo it, because I'm still 15. My game isn't nearly as good as I want it to be.
"I definitely understand why the rules are there. It's definitely to protect the player. But obviously I will want to play more. We'll see. I heard the rule is under review, so we'll see what happens there."
At this point nothing is certain about her summer plans -- other than finishing her freshman year of high school, that is -- but she hopes to play in at least one of the US Open Series hard-court events. She will ultimately need a wild card to play in the main draw in Flushing Meadows, or she could potentially earn her way in through qualifying again, as she did at Wimbledon.
So while her short-term future is somewhat in doubt, if this stint at Wimbledon proved anything, it's that she seems destined for big things. It just might take a little longer than she wants.
"She has potential to be a very good player soon," Halep said after the match. "It's a huge thing that she's able to play in the fourth round of Wimbledon. It's a great performance. I think if she keeps going, she will be top 10 soon."
And that's not exactly news to those who have known her for a long time.
"When I first met her, she looked at me in the eyes and told me she wanted to be the greatest of all time," Mouratoglou said. "At first I thought it sounded fake, so I pushed her on it, and asked her what that actually meant, and it was not fake. I asked her what made her better than others, and why she thought she could be great. I don't remember what she said, but I remember the look in her eye. There was so much intensity, and so much belief. She is special."