Thursday, September 29, 2022

Coco Gauff Poised to Steal WTA Spotlight

Coco Gauff in action during a women’s singles match at the 2022 US Open, Sunday, Sep. 4, 2022, in Flushing, NY. (Darren Carroll/USTA)

*Flushing, New York – Cori “Coco” Gauff, the 18-year-old burgeoning tennis sensation, looks a little like she’s in her mom Candi’s closet, playing in her too-big shoes as her 2022 US Open bid unfolds on New York’s Arthur Ashe court. It’s the largest tennis stadium on the planet, bears the name of a trailblazing legend and in it, Coco seems a mere young hopeful working to grow into the enormity of the facility and what it represents. And that “shoes” analogy is all the more befitting after having just witnessed the GOAT of women’s tennis, Serena Williams, take her auspicious final bow on it. 

The bar is set as high as can be.

Serena Williams was just like Coco once upon a time, that young brown girl with big dreams and raw talent. But she went on to sufficiently pay her dues and then some. She recently concluded her career with 23 Grand Slam wins (just one shy of all-time highest), having made ginormous strides up through the years overcoming the hottest hell and plenty of high water. She kicked down many barriers along the way (race, pay, and more) to the top. That said, Serena more than filled the huge shoes her predecessors, the late Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, left her to “play” in. Now, with the bonafide legend’s “evolution” away from the sport officially official, the door is left swinging wide open and the stage is set for a fresh narrative … and Coco is poised to assume the role. 

Coco Gauff, born in the ATL, enjoyed an illustrious juniors career managed by her parents, Corey (coach) and Candi, both former athletes. Under their close-knit care, she put in the work and excelled at tennis’ upstart basics, earning the spot of juniors world no. 1. But as it is with that starter platform, at some elusive point it must be left behind for going pro. And some juniors transition seamlessly into the big leagues and others bow to the pressure and choose other careers … and it was at that make-it-or-break-it juncture that I became acquainted with Coco. 

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Coco Gauff and Amanda Anisimova during the 2017 US Open.

It was the 2017 US Open and I decided to take a break from watching the marquee matches. I ventured over to the newly renovated Court 17 and there she was, a gangly baby-faced brown girl ready to square off with Amanda Anisimova (another young American phenom) in that year’s girls’ final. It was a big moment for her … she was the youngest girls’ finalist in US Open history at just 13 years old. But it turned out she was overmatched on the day and lost pretty decisively, 0-6, 2-6. And I couldn’t help but notice that in doing so she vacillated in and out of bouts of teen-aged pouting and looking to her parents and team in her players’ box for validation. That wasn’t atypical of a juniors player, but she aspired to go pro and if she were going to survive in that “big girls world,” she was going to eventually have to shed those vulnerabilities. 

So, back to the drawing board she went, the work she had left to do readily apparent. But ironically, Coco had as part of her coaching team, Patrick Mouratoglou, the then-coach of her idol, the great Serena Williams. The Frenchman was instrumental in helping Serena get over a mid-career slump and go on to win 10 additional Grand Slams and a gold medal, so Coco was in good hands, to say the least. After watching her lose that match, I saw her decompressing in the belly of Arthur Ashe stadium with her mother and Moratoglou. I wanted to ask her for a photo for the sake of memorialization of the moment, but I let her be because I had a feeling I’d have plenty more opportunities. 

I was right.

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Fast forward to US Open 2019 which found Coco holding a wild card entry to that year’s Wimbledon Championships and a 1st round main draw match up against 5-time Wimbledon champion, the trailblazing Venus Williams, also her idol. How auspicious … and poetic … and exciting … and terrifying all at the same time. But despite that privileged yet unenviable setup, she took to the court and played her game. And guess what … she pulled off the upset. She took down a woman she aspired to emulate.

That seminal win set a trajectory for the teen that now finds her as a true contender in the sport.

Since then, it’s been hard work off the court for Coco and showing and proving it. She’s claimed enough big scalps – including avenging her loss to Anisimova – at this point to be taken seriously when she shows up in some of the top-most player’s draws. And after watching her take on China’s steely Shuai Zhang in this year’s US Open, it’s clear that she’s on her way to the top. The now 18-year-old was decisive, powerful and – most impressively, emotionally SOLID. The match experienced a few ebbs and flows that found her playing a little catch-up, but her resolve was never shaken. There were no pouts and she didn’t peer up at her box even once. She just kept her shoulder to the grindstone and played her relentless game of power, piercing precision and relentless retrieval.

Coco won the match 7-5, 7-5, making the first quarterfinal of her career … the youngest to do it since 2009.

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The now quarterfinalist continues to make laurels lists, which is indicative of her abilities. And to be clear that she’s no one-dimensional fluke, the current WTA no. 12 has even clawed her way to the no. 1 ranking in women’s doubles. Her game is comprehensive and certified and she has nearly $5 million in career prize money to prove it.  Not the typical claim for an 18-year-old.

Though there’s certainly a respectable degree of hoopla surrounding Coco, she still somewhat unassuming and flies under the radar. She’s not equipped with the unrepeatable turbulent history, neither the superstar flash of the Williams sisters that increased the wattage of their spotlight. She’s always respectful, uncharacteristically composed for a girl her age and even comes off a little shy. But there’s a lioness in there with a pretty big roar. It’s apparent the way she plays and the steady ascension she’s earning as she navigates life on the dog-eat-dog WTA tour. 

Coco was recently featured in a “coming of age” spread in ESPN magazine where she was dressed in more mature clothing and was noticeably in full-face makeup. It didn’t seem to fit her – yet – in my estimation, but it was definitely a precursor to that unavoidably awkward shift from girl to woman in the public eye, if not in her own eyes. But it will take a little more than make up and clothes to get her there; she has to just putting one foot in front of the other in those big shoes and in due time she’ll officially fill them and own the spotlight.

But for now, she’ll remain “the little Coco that could,” youthful in presentation but capable of playing like a grown *ss woman.

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