Through the end of June, 17-year-old Coco Gauff looked ready to make a run at tennis’ premier event, Wimbledon. After her 6-3, 6-3 victory last Saturday over Kaja Juvan of Slovenia on the famed Centre Court, the American teenager certainly deserved to be on the short list of players who could win the glistening Venus Rosewater Dish, presented to the ladies’ champion.
On Monday, Gauff’s run came to a halt after she was eliminated by the always dangerous Angelique Kerber (the 2018 Wimbledon champion) in the fourth round.
On Monday, Gauff’s run came to a halt after she was eliminated by the always dangerous Angelique Kerber (the 2018 Wimbledon champion) in the fourth round. But as the Daily Mail noted, Gauff’s loss doesn’t dim her future. At the least, Gauff looks almost ready to bear the torch of American tennis excellence that her idols, Venus and Serena Williams, have carried since the late 1990s.
Keep in mind, any 21st-century reference to U.S. tennis excellence is all about women — and mostly women of color. No American man has won a major tennis tournament (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, French Open, Australian Open) since Andy Roddick triumphed in the U.S. Open in 2003.
And much more would be made of U.S. male inferiority in tennis were it not for the camouflage provided by the prolific Williams sisters.
Serena’s 23 Grand Slam singles titles are the most in the Open era (since 1968). Venus has won seven majors in singles, and the sisters have combined for 14 major titles in doubles and eight Olympic gold medals (four for each).
Any musings on the enormous potential of Gauff would be incomplete without paying homage to the Williams sisters. Serena and Venus have not only shown U.S. tennis fans what winning looks like, but they have also inspired two generations of girls to consider the sport cool enough to play.
Coco, born Cori Gauff in Delray Beach, Florida, is one of those girls. (She goes by Coco because her father is named Corey.)
Thanks largely to the Williams sisters, Coco can stand on a tennis court as a Black girl in a predominantly white sport and not seem out of place. A trail first blazed by Althea Gibson in the 1950s and traveled by Arthur Ashe in the ’60s and ’70s has been cemented by Venus and Serena.
In the 1997 U.S. Open semifinals, Venus Williams’ Romanian opponent Irina Spirlea deliberately bumped her as they walked to their chairs. TV cameras caught Spirlea laughing about the bump. Afterward, she told reporters, “She thinks she’s the f—— Venus Williams and she doesn’t have to move.”
Williams won the contentious match in a third-set tiebreak. That she became a tennis legend and Spirlea a mere footnote is entirely fitting.
But what separates Gauff from other girls who dreamed of emulating the Williams sisters is her pedigree. Her father played basketball at Georgia State, and her mother, Candi, competed in gymnastics before excelling in track and field at Florida State.
The Gauffs have produced a player who stands 5-foot-9, competes fiercely, hits with authority from either side, runs down everything and can ace anyone in the women’s game.
Corey Gauff is Coco’s primary coach, but she also works with Patrick Mouratoglou, who coaches Serena and men’s star Stefanos Tsitsipas.
When you add it all up, Gauff is more than tennis’s next big thing. She’s ready for major trophies now.
Gauff showed the same speed, court coverage, solid groundstrokes and high tennis IQ she displayed in a coming-out party on Wimbledon grass in 2019.
At 17, Venus announced her arrival in the sport by reaching the ’97 U.S. Open final. Serena did big sis one better, by winning the ’99 U.S. Open at the same age.
To watch Gauff, in her stylish braided hair, conquer her more-experienced foes with precocity, athleticism and uncommon poise is to be reminded of what the Williams sisters accomplished nearly a quarter-century ago.
This year at Wimbledon, Gauff showed the same speed, court coverage, solid groundstrokes and high tennis IQ she displayed in a coming-out party on Wimbledon grass in 2019, when she defeated Venus in the first round and fell to eventual champion Simona Halep in the fourth round.
This year, Gauff unveiled a much-improved second serve, taking away one of her weaknesses. And it seemed like the path at Wimbledon would be smoother without Naomi Osaka, who withdrew. (Osaka announced she’ll play in the Olympics in her native country, Japan; Coco will play for Team USA.)
Serena also had to withdraw after she fell and injured her left leg in the first round. The withdrawal was something Gauff couldn’t bear to watch.
“I turned away because stuff like that makes me, like, really emotional,” she told reporters.
It is likely to be even more emotional for Gauff when her tennis idols bid farewell to the sport. Venus is 41; Serena turns 40 in September. But Gauff is already well on her way to follow in their footsteps. Crowds were once slow to warm to the Williams sisters. But after Gauff defeated Juvan, she heard the kind of raucous cheers normally reserved for British players.
“It’s not often that a 17-year-old gets to play [on Centre Court], so thank you,” she told a BBC commentator in an on-court interview after the match.
Kerber of Germany prevailed on Monday. But anyone watching can be sure that one day soon Coco will hoist a gleaming silver dish of her own.