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Cori “Coco” Gauff, Fifteen Year Old Tennis Phenom & The Story of Wimbledon

Wimbledon, tennis’s third Grand Slam of the year, is one of the few times of the year when tennis is on full display. Tennis fans flock to their televisions to watch Serena serve, to see Federer hit a backhand. And yet, as a recent Tennis Podcast episode pointed out, this Wimbledon has featured very few exciting matches. Instead, it has been highlighted by its stories — and Cori “Coco” Gauff has certainly been the main one.

Gauff’s Wimbledon run has been described as something out of a fairytale. 15 year old wins her first ever Grand Slam match by beating her childhood idol; the stories write themselves. “Could she be the next Steffi Graff?” a FiveThirtyEight article reads. “Coco-mania”, the Washington Post calls the hype.

In her first qualifying match, Gauff beat the top seed before going on to win both of her next two matches to become the youngest woman in the Open Era (a period of time that began in 1968 when the Grand Slams allowed pro players to compete) to qualify for a Grand Slam tournament main draw.

Gauff’s first main draw match at Wimbledon was against no other than Venus Williams, one of her idols. With a huge serve, excellent movement, and a crushing backhand, Gauff beat Williams 6-4 6-4. At the net, Gauff finally showed her age. “At the end, I was just telling her thank you for everything she’s done, her and her sister,” Gauff said, “They’ve been, like, heroes for me and many other little girls out there. So I was just thanking her. And then she said thank you for saying that to her.”

Gauff stated, “I was just trying to play her like a normal— like I would play somebody else. During the match, I kind of did not think about it as ‘oh, I’m playing Venus Williams’, but as soon as match point was over, I literally was like ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’ and I still can’t believe it as well.” 

Gauff’s match against Williams earned the respect of many in the tennis world. Mary Joe Fernandez, ESPN analyst, Fed Cup captain, and former teen phenom, said that Gauff “was so excited to play Venus, but she knew she could win. That’s something impressive at that age— to play your idol and hold your nerve the way she did at the end of the match.”

By winning this match, Gauff became the youngest player to win a match at a major since Anna Kournikova, who reached the fourth round of the 1996 U.S. Open. She is also the youngest to win a match at Wimbledon since Jennifer Capriati reached the semifinals in 1991.

In the second round, Gauff defeated Magdalena Rybarikova 6-3, 6-3, playing steadily as if she were the favorite. Then, in the third round, Wimbledon slotted her match against Polona Hercog on Centre Court. While it may have been a match between the world #313 and #60, it was an acknowledgement of the media hype Gauff was receiving. This marked the first time a 15-year-old played on Wimbledon’s Centre Court since 1996.

Gauff dropped the first set 6-3 and fell 5-2 down in the second; it seemed as if her Wimbledon run was going to be over. But with a mentality typically only seen in older, veteran players, Gauff held on tight and managed to get to a second set tiebreak. She won the match 3-6, 7-6(7), 7-5.

A fan attending Wimbledon that day, Joe, said, “I was on Court 18 for [Nick] Kyrgios’s mixed doubles and all you could hear from there was the Hill”  — an area for fans in front of a large screen — “going crazy over her.”

Centre Court and the entirety of the U.K. cheered her on. BBC stats revealed an audience of 5.2 million, the highest of the week. In fact, all three of Gauff’s matches were in the top eight most watched matches of Wimbledon’s first week. All of them were the most watched in the U.S. on the days she played. Gauff was #1 trending on Twitter throughout her third round match.

Coco Gauff’s story became spread everywhere. Philipp Joubert, a German journalist, said that “the story has really gone mainstream. I haven’t seen a German audience captivated with a tennis story like this in a while. … The first three, four days of a slam are always reserved for these kinds of stories. But I think you could notice from the very first moment that this was different.”

Nick McCarvel, a reporter for the Wimbledon Channel, added an important point. “I don’t think you can discount the fact that she beat Venus in the first round. If she would have beaten an Ekaterina Alexandrova in the first round, sure, fine. But [Venus] is what the American media grabbed onto first and the storm has only grown since then.

“It’s the perfect storm. We all see ourselves in athletes and when a young athlete breaks through, you only want them to succeed because you see the innocence and the human side. Tennis has been missing the young guns for the last couple of decades. She’s this young, charismatic, athletic, black woman from the States with this inviting personality and this massive tennis talent.”

Gauff’s Instagram followers skyrocketed from 30,000 to 120,000. She’s been recognized by Samuel L. Jackson, Jaden Smith, Michelle Obama. Alicia Keys, Kamala Harris, Tina Knowles. Serena Williams called her “an absolute star”

At the heart of it all, though, Gauff is still only fifteen. After her third round match, she said, “I know this is off topic, but I wanted to say please stream ERYS by Jaden Smith. His album dropped yesterday.” Then, when asked about which celebrity message was the most unexpected to her, it was: “Ms. Tina Knowles, Beyoncé’s mom, posted me on Instagram. I was, like, screaming! I don’t know, like I hope Beyoncé saw that. I hope she told her daughter about me because I would love to go to a concert.” She then went on to describe a time that she had to babysit her two brothers because her parents had gone out, only to find that they were at a Beyonce and Jay-Z concert.

Gauff went on Instagram live to an audience of 2,000, rather than the 20 she was used to. At one point, in shock, she collapsed on her bed, saying, “Jaden just tweeted me! Bro, this is crazy.” 

On Monday, Gauff faced Simona Halep, the eventual Wimbledon champion, and lost 6-3, 6-3.

However, Gauff did test Halep’s resolve. Halep is a counterpuncher, a type of tennis player that relies on returning every ball and forcing their opponent to make mistakes. Yet Gauff hit many backhand winners down the line that elicited cheers and gasps from the audience. 

More importantly, Gauff has an amazing court sense. Jean-Christophe Faurel, Gauff’s coach, said, “You see women who have won Grand Slams just hitting hard off both sides without really trying to hit slice or volleys and sometimes not even running all that fast. Coco can do all of that. I have rarely seen a player cover court like she does. She can hit hard off both sides, and on top of that, she has good touch. I don’t see any limits.”

Gauff called this week “the best week of [her] life.”  “I learned a lot,” she said, “I learned how to play in front of a big crowd. I learned what it was like to be under pressure. I learned a lot and I’m really thankful for this experience. I hope they learned about me — that I’m a fighter and I’ll never give up. I hope they learned from me that anything is possible if you work hard, just continue to dream big.”

It’s necessary to remember that above all, teenage talents are just that — teens. Placing high hopes and expectations on Coco Gauff to be the next great female tennis player can lead to burnout. Coco Gauff is not going to be the next Serena Williams, the next Steffi Graff  — as her Instagram bio used to say, she is “going to be the first Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff.” 

“I woke up today, and I’m still living a dream,” Gauff said to TODAY Magazine, “I’m walking on the street people are asking for pictures. That’s just really crazy, and I don’t think I’ll ever believe it, to be honest.” 

Featured image from Carine06 on Flickr

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