ABOVE: Gauff begins new season with routine win in Adelaide

BELOW: As we approach the start of the new tennis season, we'll answer 10 thought-provoking questions that may define the game in 2022.

Once upon a time, teenage women’s champions were the rule rather than the exception in tennis. Chris Evert, Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, and Maria Sharapova were just a few of the WTA legends who won their first majors before their 20th birthdays. In fact, Hingis won all five of hers before she turned 20.

In those days of youthful rule, which ended in the mid-2000s, it made sense for us to assess the Slam-winning potential of every prodigy, and to begin critiquing their development right away. If you didn’t break through by your early 20s, chances were you were never going to break through. But time is not of the same kind of essence that it once was in tennis. Sharapova’s 2004 Wimbledon win at 17 was the last for a teenager until 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu won the US Open in 2019.

These days, if your name is Ash Barty, you can win the Wimbledon girls title at 15, hang up your racquets for a few years, and then pick them back up and win the Wimbledon ladies title at 25. If your name is Barbora Krejcikova, you can do next to nothing at the majors until your mid-20s, and then win Roland Garros and reach No. 3 in the rankings in one summer swoop.

What does that mean for the most promising U.S. teen prodigy of the moment, Coco Gauff, and our expectations for her in 2022? Believe it or not, Gauff is still just 17 (she’ll turn 18 in March). If we use Krejcikova’s timeline as a benchmark, we don’t have to start worrying about her progress until 2029, when she turns 25. The Floridian could experience half a dozen surges and setbacks over the next few years, and still have plenty of time to get her game together and fulfill all of her obvious potential.

But there’s another, shorter, less-forgiving timeline at work with Gauff. It was given to me a couple of years ago by her sometime-coach Patrick Mouratoglou. He said that, typically, players have until they’re 18 to fix any technical flaws in their games. After that, it gets harder to make significant improvements. As good as Gauff already was at 15 or 16, she wasn’t without flaws—her doubles faults came in bunches, and her forehand wasn’t the killer putaway shot that’s standard among most top players.


Gauff begins the New Year at No. 22 on the WTA rankings.

Gauff begins the New Year at No. 22 on the WTA rankings.

Over the last 12 months, Gauff has made some fixes. The biggest of them was her seemingly miraculous ability to stop double faulting so much. She said it was a mental adjustment more than a physical one that made the difference; let’s hope she can keep that mentality going in the future. Gauff also began using her forehand in different ways, and as a set-up shot for her excellent two-handed backhand.

These changes brought results. Gauff moved from No. 48 to No. 22 in 2021, and cracked the Top 20 for the first time in September; went 36-16 in singles; made the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the fourth round at Wimbledon; showed a high degree of comfort on clay by winning a title in Parma and making the semifinals in Rome; and reached the final of the US Open doubles with fellow American Caty McNally. At 15, Gauff promised U.S. fans she would do whatever it took to win in the future; at 17, she showed that she’s making good on that promise.

Will that be enough for us? By the end of 2021, the WTA prodigy field had grown more crowded than it was when Gauff first appeared. In 2019, she was the toast of the US Open, but this year that honor went to two other teenagers, Emma Raducanu of Great Britain and Leylah Fernandez of Canada, who both turned 19 in the fall. While Gauff fell in the first round in singles, Raducanu and Fernandez put the tournament on their young shoulders and made it all the way to the final. When it comes to Grand Slam breakthroughs, Coco has some catching up to do.

What we shouldn’t expect in 2022 is for Gauff to make up that ground all at once. So far she seems to be the steady and dogged type; the one-step-at-a-time type; the grinding and defending type; the type who fights for every inch of ground and every point, rather than blowing past her opponents with ease, the way Raducanu did at the Open. That means there will likely be more struggles and early losses as Gauff continues to work on her serve and forehand, and to learn to build points. But it also means she won’t give up in her quest.

For this year, a more effective forehand, a first trip to a major semifinal, and continued upward motion in the rankings would count as solid progress. The goal for now should be to establish herself as a Top 20 player. If she can do that in the short term, she’ll have plenty of time to do much more, and to win those major titles, in the long term. I look forward to seeing her hold the Wimbledon winner’s dish in 2035.