There were two compelling storylines in the world of sports recently, and both concerned American women, one of whom is just a teenager. And the main reason those women are so compelling isn’t because of what they just accomplished, but because of the impact they could have on the future.
The biggest headlines, of course, went to the women’s World Cup team for their bravura performance as they won a second straight championship. The U.S. women were brash and bold and very, very good throughout the tournament and it seemed predestined that they would win the Cup.
The other storyline was about a 15-year-old tennis phenom who made a name for herself in the sport’s biggest showcase, Wimbledon.
Coco Gauff started off with a bang, upsetting Venus Williams in the opening round and becoming the youngest player in history to make the main draw. Gauff made it to the second week of the tournament, an impressive feat for one so young, before losing to 2018 French Open champion Simona Halep in the fourth round.
Like the women’s soccer team, Gauff won over the fans with her gritty determination and amazing talent. And practically overnight she became known and admired by millions. Or, as Gauff put it, “Life literally changed in seconds.”
People are still celebrating the U.S. team and the U.S. teen, but that will soon fade as new storylines are created (and don’t forget, Eagles training camp starts soon) and new heroes are born. That’s when we’ll find out if those inspiring athletes have a lasting impact.
For the soccer team, most of the debate has been about the disparity in pay between the men’s and women’s teams, and that’s a valid discussion. But the bigger issue is whether the success and the spirit of the U.S. team inspires and motivates more girls to play soccer and just follow soccer as fans.
Many women don’t support women’s sports or simply don’t care about sports in general, and that’s the audience leagues like the WNBA need to attract to get the big-bucks television contracts and endorsements that the NBA players have. So, if millions of young girls have posters of Alex Morgan on their walls – just like millions of young boys have posters of LeBron James on their walls – than their mission will be accomplished.
There was a big boost in interest and participation in soccer – and especially women’s soccer – after the women’s 1999 team won the first World Cup for the U.S. The players on that team became icons who inspired millions of young girls, players like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Brianna Scurry and Julie Foudy. And the 2019 team will do the same, and it has an advantage the 1999 team did not have – social media.
As for Gauff, it’s not a secret that tennis has been fading in popularity in America for a long time now, and one reason for that is the lack of big-time American stars other than the Williams sisters.
More than any other sport, tennis cries for an American who can capture the public’s imagination like Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe or Chris Evert or Andre Agassi. Tiger Woods almost single-handedly made golf tournaments must-see events and tennis, especially U.S. tennis, needs someone like that badly. And now the hope is that this 15-year-old girl will be the one or at least one of the ones.
Richard Lewis, the chief executive of the All England Club, home of Wimbledon, said this about Gauff: “To say the least, a star has been born.”
Then Lewis added: “It’s good for the sport. It’s good for the event.”
However, both the U.S. team and Gauff have things working against them. For the U.S. team, their World Cup run is over and it won’t resume for another four years. It’s not like they’re an NFL team and you can follow them in the off-season and then gear up for another regular season every year. The World Cup success is lightning in a bottle and that’s hard to sustain once the tournament and its immediate after-glow are over.
And speaking of lightning in a bottle – now we’ll find out if Gauff will have long-range success or whether her Wimbledon run was just a fluke. Of course, it’s way too early to make predictions about a 15-year-old and her future, but it’s just a fact that she will now have more scrutiny and feel more pressure when she plays.
It wasn’t that long ago that Michelle Wie was the Gauff of women’s golf. Wie was young and precocious and talented and the media and the public loved her – just like Gauff. But injuries and other factors made Wie just another golfer, and so far she has played in 264 LPGA tournaments and won just five times.
So, nothing is guaranteed, no matter how many amazing things have happened in the last couple of weeks. But at least now there is hope that women’s soccer will get the respect it deserves and women’s tennis will get the star player it needs.