American tennis prodigy Cori “Coco” Gauff is on the path to stardom, but the 15-year-old's early success is a rarity in the grueling world of youth tennis, where parents commit countless hours and six-figure sums to train their kids for a shot at the pros.
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Of the estimated 2.83 million “core” youth tennis players active in the U.S., according to Tennis Industry Association statistics, only some will experience success on the amateur circuit, with even fewer reaching the pros. Serious youth players often start private lessons by age eight or earlier, with U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) junior tournaments beginning by age 12.
For access to top trainers, parents often enroll their kids at tennis academies that cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 per year. The cost of travel, equipment, food and individual coaches can reach more than $3,000 per week. Competitive youth players undergo a rigorous daily training regimen, according to Mark Bowtell, associate director of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York.
“Generally a lot of these top juniors are home-schooled, just because of the demands of travel to tournaments and also, obviously, the training schedule,” Bowtell told FOX Business. “They get tennis out of the way in the morning to allow for schoolwork in the afternoon, but these kids who are going to make it, they’re putting in about five hours a day, which would include tennis and fitness.”
While few amateur players end up as successful pros, the potential payoff is enormous. At age 15, Gauff already has endorsement deals with New Balance, Barilla pasta and tennis racket maker Head. Earlier this year, Gauff became the youngest-ever player to qualify for the main draw at the Wimbledon tournament, then ousted Venus Williams in straight sets in the opening round.
High-end coaching and equipment are expensive, but there are ways to offset the costs. Many tennis academies offer scholarships or other forms of financial aid to prospects. For example, the Johnny Mac Tennis Project provides financial assistance to New York City-area youth players intent on a college or pro career.
Top junior players often land equipment sponsorships from companies such as Wilson or Head, which provide rackets, strings, grips and other gear.
For players who fall short of their pro aspirations, the youth tennis circuit can have other benefits. Many top universities have competitive tennis programs, providing standout teenagers with a pathway to a free education that yields a solid career.
“Although tennis is a very expensive sport and it requires a lot of investment and time from parents and their children, at the end of the day, if it doesn’t work and they’re not cut out to be a potential tennis player, college is an amazing fallback, in the sense that they’ll obtain this four-year degree and hopefully have college 100 percent paid for,” Bowtell said.
Born and raised in Florida by parents who were both college athletes, Gauff began tennis training in elementary school and quickly outgrew basic lessons. Like many top youth players, she is home-schooled, the New York Times reported.
While Gauff and other youth players are able to play in some pro events, the USTA enacts age-eligibility rules to limit tournament play for players under age 18.
After defeating Anastasia Potapova in the U.S. Open’s first round, Gauff will face Timea Babos at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday.