“A Serena is born.” called out an elated observer from a distant corner of the Wimbledon press room. It was a nice sentiment – we got the point. But I countered, “No, No, No!” – There is only been one Serena, there will never be another. But no worries, today a Coco was born. Martina Navratilova gushed: “I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone come to their first Slam in such a flash.”
After Coco Gauff’s wonderful 3-6, 7-6, 7-5 third-round comeback win over Slovenian Polona Hercog today, the BBC said, “The fairy tale continues.” “No,” countered Navratilova. “I’d call it a love affair between Wimbledon and Coco.”
The world was stunned. Darn it, climate change hadn’t been reversed. War hadn’t been banished, Still, British TV didn’t hold back: “This was more than a tennis match – this was a moment for the ages.”
Tennis nerds know well the Coco tale. At eight she won big at the Little Mo Championships. This was her moment of inspiration – “Watch me, I’m going to the top.” At ten, she took off to Patrick Mouratoglou’s French Academy. Then she collected the Orange Bowl, became the youngest finalist ever at the US Open juniors, and won the French Open juniors.
This May she stumbled at the qualifying for the French Open. Then she got the call. Never mind that she was ranked No. 313. Wimbledon gave her a wildcard into the qualifying. It doesn’t hurt that you’re the future of American tennis and just happen to have the same agent as Roger Federer.
Coco zoomed through the Wimbledon qualifying without losing a set – what a breeze. What was less than a breeze was that the 15-year-old soon found herself front and center at that chamber torture they call the Wimbledon interview room. There, nosy reporters (well, it was me) demanded to know what grade she got in that science test she’d just taken.
The kid reported it was a B. But at the University of Tennis, Coco aced her first three exams. Taking down your idol Venus Williams on a show court – no problemo. Avoiding any hint of a let-down and beating a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, Magdalena Rybarikova – no big deal.
But playing on Wimbledon’s hallowed Centre Court against a 13-year veteran is a whole different test. Mouratoglou’s advice was simple: “Don’t start thinking.” But one woman from Kent muttered, “That American cup of Coco is melting.” Gauff lost seven games in a row. She faced not one but two match points. A Hercog double fault helped. All the while, the incredibly composed Gauff told herself, “Keep on hitting out.” She displayed speed, defense and inspired volleys, and took off on a nine-stride sprint that would have impressed any track coach.
Finally, Coco was back on track. When the Slovenian stroked a final shot long the 2:46 Centre Court marathon was over. Coco exploded with joy. Her mom, who was a track star at Florida State, offered a soon-to-be-famous shimmy.
Tennis has long celebrated dreamy break-out moments. Chrissie Evert and Tracy Austin were US Open darlings. They called the first tournament Jennifer Capriati played in the “Virginia Slims of Capriati.” Monica Seles threw flowers on court at the French Open. A giddy Steffi Graf said she had a perfect life. Martina Hingis won her first pro match just four days after she turned 14. The Williamses dazzled. And, last September, a once-innocent 20-year-old, Naomi Osaka, won the US Open. Perhaps more than any other breakthrough, there was the 1985 Wimbledon triumph of the bounding 17-year-old German, Boris Becker.
But Gauff’s stay calm, feel-good, go-for-your-shots, run-like-a-deer, don’t-worry-that-you’re-changing-this-sport-forever-and-capturing-hearts-everywhere triumph was an inspiration American tennis will long relish.
To put the magic in perspective, Inside Tennis spoke to Coco’s mentor Patrtick Mouratoglou.
Inside Tennis: What did that kid show us today?
PM: She showed us something she didn’t show before: her refusal to lose. That’s something only champions do.
IT: Coco came to your academy in France when she was just ten – what did you see?
PM: I didn’t see what she has now, because she could not show that. But I saw someone who was completely driven. Someone who believed in herself so much, someone that had high ambitions. And I saw an incredible athlete and a great competitor because we made her play a lot of matches and she beat players that were better than her.
IT: She’s so composed. But Monday she’ll face the formidable Simona Halep.
PM: One thing at a time – but anything is possible. It’s going to be tough for Halep, because you saw in the French she played someone young, Amanda Anisimova. Simona has everything to lose. It’s going be difficult emotionally. If Coco plays the match she can play, anything is possible.
IT: In your heart, how do you feel when you see one of your students doing so incredibly well?”
PM: I can only be happy. I’m working for that every day of my life, to help young people achieve their dreams.
Also Reporting – Lucia Hoffman