Written by Christopher Clarey
Though Cori Gauff is only 15, tennis people in the know have been speaking in hushed tones about her talent for years.
With her precocious blend of power, athleticism, court savvy and competitive drive, Gauff was the youngest U.S. Open junior girls finalist in history at age 13 and the second youngest French Open junior girls champion at age 14.
But even if the potential is abundantly clear, it is never clear how a teenager will handle the moment when she takes the court at the highest level against an established champion.
— Coco Gauff (@CocoGauff) July 1, 2019
On Monday, tennis got an emphatic answer as Gauff, displaying remarkable poise, upset Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-4, in the first round of Wimbledon.
It was the first Grand Slam singles match of Gauff’s career, and it made quite an impression on those who watched from near and far, including Williams, a five-time Wimbledon singles champion. Two of those titles came before Gauff was born on March 13, 2004, in Delray Beach, Florida.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 1, 2019
“I think the sky’s the limit, it really is,” said Williams, unseeded at age 39 but still resistant to hyperbole.
In a sense, it was her own family’s fault that an exceptional young American talent like Gauff was in a position to defeat her Monday.
Gauff’s father, Corey, was a point guard at Georgia State and her mother, Candi, was a heptathlete and hurdler at Florida State. She might well have gravitated to a different sport, a more widely popular sport in the United States if Serena and Venus Williams had not been winning big titles when she was a little girl setting her priorities.
Gauff chose tennis (she also liked the skirts, her father said), and it was hard not to agree with the decision Monday as she slammed bold first and second serves under pressure, leaned into groundstrokes and covered the court with the same sort of gap-closing speed displayed by Venus Williams in her youth.
Until Monday, Gauff’s most extended contact with Williams was as a hitting partner with the U.S. Fed Cup team in February 2018. While Williams played, Gauff attended team dinners and cheered.
Much has changed in just 16 months.
“On the court, I was not thinking about Venus,” Gauff said. “I was just playing my game. No matter who I play against, I want to win. So that’s what I was just thinking about the whole time. I wasn’t really thinking about who I was facing on the other side of the net.”
But with victory secured, she was definitely thinking about whom she was facing across the net. As they shook hands, Gauff maintained her grip a bit longer than is customary as she sought Williams gaze and told her what she has meant to her.
“I was just telling her thank you for everything she’s done for the sport,” Gauff said. “She’s been an inspiration for many people. I was just really telling her thank you. I met her before, but I didn’t really have the guts to say anything.
“I mean, now or never.”
It is a fine mantra, and Gauff then waved to the crowd in No. 1 Court that had offered her plenty of support, went to her chair, squatted down, put her head against the butt of her racket and cried as she said a prayer.
“Before every match since I was 8, my dad and I say a prayer together,” Gauff said. “We don’t really pray about victory, just that me and my opponent stay safe. After the match, I was just thanking God for this opportunity.”
Gauff was unruffled from the start Monday, repeatedly trumping the inconsistent Williams in both quick exchanges and longer baseline rallies. Above all, she maintained a tight grip on her own service games, routinely hitting first serves more than 110 mph and sometimes hitting second serves more than 100 mph as well.
Williams managed to break Gauff’s serve only once in the 1-hour-19-minute match. That break made it 4-4 in the second set, but Gauff responded by breaking Williams straight back.
It was then time to serve for the victory, a situation she had discussed with her father as they walked toward No. 1 Court before the match.
“I told her you are going to have to go for it,” Corey Gauff said. “I said, ‘Go after your serve.’ You’ve got to win the match. She’s not going to give it you. She’s a champion. She’s been there too many times. It’s better to double fault and make sure she knows you are going to hit the ball, then to dink it in and let her hit winners.”
So it played out. After Williams saved the first three match points she faced with clean winners, Gauff faced a break point and produced a 108-mph serve that Williams could not return.
She won the next two points to close out the upset. She will face a player with a very different skill set in the second round: Magdalena Rybarikova, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2017.
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