If Coco Gauff Plays to Her Potential, Tennis Will Never Be the Same

Cori Gauff returns a shot to Hiroko Kuwata of Japan while qualifying for the Citi Open at Rock Creek Tennis Center on July 28, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Source Rob Carr/Getty

Why you should care

The 15-year-old American is as vexing as she is talented — and could be transcendent off the court too.

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Cori “Coco” Gauff knows how to take an opening when she sees it. 

That didn’t seem the case toward the tail end of her debut match at the U.S. Open on Tuesday. She had missed multiple first serves to start the third (tie-breaking) set. Her forehand floated long. Then it caught the net. The match, and the moment, threatened to get away from her. 

But then, as her opponent — fellow teenager Anastasia Potapova — served, Gauff roared back with the entire package. The powerful backhand. The smart volleys. The devastating placement. In the end, the 140th-ranked wild card bested her 72nd-ranking opponent with a thrilling comeback, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. 

The one thing you don’t want to do is look too hard at the results in the short term.

Martin Blackman, general manager of U.S. Tennis Association Player Development

The lesson: Gauff is as vexing as she is talented. In other words, exactly what a 15-year-old phenom should be. Even if her scintillating run at Wimbledon this summer (in which she upset former champion Venus Williams before a rousing fourth-round exit) raised expectations. But America has every right to keep watching, and not just because of the athletic spectacle. Because Gauff has the opportunity to become a major contender on the tennis court … and perhaps even a transcendent figure off it. Just like her idol, Serena Williams

Seem like a pipe dream? The connections are more than cursory. Gauff was born in Atlanta and raised in Delray Beach, Florida, daughter to Florida State track athlete Candi and Georgia State basketball guard Corey, who now doubles as her father and coach. Delray is near Palm Beach Gardens, where the Williams sisters grew up with their own father-coach, and Gauff has been a student of the tennis camps of Patrick Mouratoglou, who coached Serena as well. 

Gauff has already put herself in rarefied company. She was the youngest person ever to qualify for Wimbledon back in July, and previously she was the youngest world junior girls’ No. 1 in history after winning the junior event of the French Open in 2018. Her brand is raising the bar too. In March, Forbes reported that Gauff would make at least $1 million in endorsements — everything from New Balance shoes and Head rackets to Italian pasta maker Barilla, which also backs Roger Federer — and that was before her Wimbledon breakthrough.

 

Still, if you demand that she starts winning tournaments immediately, you’re missing the magic behind her early promise.

It was less than a half hour before Gauff was set to take the court Tuesday in New York when Martin Blackman was able to sneak away to rave about the budding American tennis star. “She was always ahead of her peer group,” says the general manager of U.S. Tennis Association Player Development, who’s been watching Gauff develop up close in various international camps the last five years. 

Yet Blackman also preached caution. “You look at what kind of game she is playing — how much variety she has. Is she creating new ways to hurt her opponents, to create pressure?” Blackman says. “The one thing you don’t want to do is look too hard at the results in the short term.”

When Gauff stumbled to begin the match, that warning seemed prescient. Even with Tuesday’s comeback victory, patience is a virtue, both for Gauff and the fans watching her. There are things to work out: the finicky forehand, loose cannon serves. “Honestly, I wanted to win and just wanted to calm myself down,” she said in the post-match interview, describing her feelings after losing that first set. “Really, it was the crowd that helped me [do that].” 

Still, the poise under the pressure, the athleticism, the singular focus — all are reminiscent of the Williams sisters. And it’s a comparison Gauff seems to invite, often noting that they were the reason she chose to pursue tennis as a child. The easy thing would be to say that they opened the door for her success, making it possible for Gauff to envision herself gracing the world’s most hallowed courts. “It’s wide open,” as Blackman puts it. 

But the truth is, the opportunity for young Black talents like Gauff has existed for decades. It began with women like Althea Gibson, the first African American to win a Grand Slam title, in 1956, and Zina Garrison, a three-time Grand Slam doubles champ in the ’90s.

The Williams sisters held the door open with their dominance of the last two decades, and through it came women like Sloane Stephens, who won the 2017 U.S. Open and is currently ranked 11th in the world.

And Gauff knows how to take advantage of an opening. If this 15-year-old lives up to her potential, her legacy could be that the door will never be closed — or, even better, discussed — again. 

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