Keith Strudler: The Best Laid Plans

Jul 11, 2019

It’s always good to have a plan. Not just a plan for today, or tomorrow. But an honest to goodness, long term plan. That’s the marquis of any strong organization. Where will you be in five years, or even ten.

Cori Gauff, or Coco as she’s known, has a plan. And the 15-year-old American tennis phenom is executing upon it, as evidenced by her advancing to the fourth round at Wimbledon this week, a run that ended with a loss to world sixth ranked Simona Halep, who is 12 years her senior and a former world number one. Coco came into her first Grand Slam event ranked somewhere in the 300’s and hours away from playing on the junior’s circuit. That all changed with her first round win over Venus Williams, and subsequent wins in the second and third rounds. All of which made Coco instantaneously a household name in the US, something that’s not easy to do in the media vacuum that has been the World Cup.

To be fair, this plan may actually be the brainchild of Coco’s parents, Corey and Candi Gauff, who seven years ago built a ten year plan for Coco to play in a grand slam final. That’s about when they all moved to Florida, quit their jobs, and focused pretty much full time on helping Coco to towards that end. It’s entirely possible they are actually ahead of schedule.

Coco is by no means the first teenage female tennis prodigy. Tracy Austin was a 14-year-old superstar in the 70’s and won two major tournaments by age 17. She retired just a few years later with chronic injuries. Martina Hingis won several majors before most people can drive. And of course, Jennifer Capriati became the posterchild for too much/too soon in women’s tennis. At some point, it almost felt as if you were an anomaly if you were old enough legally drink and rent a car.

By all accounts, Gauff is well positioned to avoid the pitfalls of fame and fortune – which is coming quickly thanks to new sponsorships coming her way. If you are planning on selling something in the next year, there’s a decent chance Coco Geoff will be a part of that. There are also rules that will keep Gauff from playing too many tournaments until she’s 18, something created to hopefully prevent, well, a lot of stuff. Whether that’s fair or not is a matter of perspective.

There are a lot of hopes and aspirations that will fall on Coco’s shoulders in the upcoming years. She’s already been assumed the future of American’s women’s tennis, particularly as the Williams sisters enter what we have to assume is the twilight of their respective careers – although Serena’s play shows no sign of that. As an African American, Coco may also be viewed through the prism of race, although the success of Sloane Stevens and Madison Keys have likely reduced that focus and pressure. And with the cameras on, she’ll have to navigate the challenge of losing all sense of privacy, the cost of playing an induvial sport at the highest level. Even LeBron James can get lost in the juxtaposition of team. Tennis players have no such luxury.

But perhaps the most interesting narrative around Coco Gauff is that of becoming a childhood athletic superstar. Gauff, and really her family, gambled a whole lot on her doing exactly what she’s doing right now. They risked their careers, they moved, they homeschooled – pretty much an all-in proposition on Coco Gauff fulfilling her remarkable destiny as a tennis pro. Which looks like it’s going to pay off thanks to their investment and Coco’s incredible confluence of talent, relentless hard work, and determination.

But what should be remembered is that the exception proves the rule. See, for every Coco Gauff, there are millions of kids who aren’t. And thousands of parents who think their kids are. Families that make similar investments in a future that won’t end in the fourth round of Wimbledon, or even a single pro tournament. Or even a college scholarship. Parents who think that with enough time and money and sacrifice, they too might watch their kid beat their idol at Center Court before signing a multi-million-dollar deal with Nike. And for the vast, vast, vast majority, it’s a fool’s errand.

That’s the challenge with a fantastic story like this one. It’s not that Coco Gauff has done the remarkable. It’s that others might not recognize just how remarkable it is. And that Coco Gauff’s plan is definitely not for everyone.

Of course, as they say, it’s always good to have a plan.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.