The Coco Train is Bound for Glory

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Bill Simons

Wimbledon

It’s called a first week story – a feel-good narrative that pops up early in a major – a dandy surprise that ignites the imagination before a Grand Slam morphs into a somber march and gets down to its no-nonsense “business end.”

Certainly, kid Coco Gauff’s flash emergence in the tennis cosmos was a fabulous first-round story. She’s so young, so athletic, so poised, so likable. Celebs from Michelle Obama to Rihanna and Beyoncé’s mom gushed. Coco blushed: “It’s amazing how crazy it’s gotten.” Even stodgy old Wimbledon went Coco-loco. Gauff said she felt the English throng were her teammates.

Observers recalled that 18-year-olds John McEnroe and Jennifer Capriati made magical runs to the Wimbledon semis. And in 2016 local teaching pro Marcus Willis had 15 minutes of wild and wacky fame. And, of course, there was teen Boris Becker’s run to the 1985 title.

The London Coco tale was hard to believe. Just six weeks ago in Paris, the 15-year-old Floridian crashed out of the second round of qualifying at the French Open. But here she downed legends, avoided letdowns, saved match points, embraced the media, winked at the hype and captured hearts.

Still, there were whispers. Her wins came over a 39-year-old icon in her twilight, a Slovokian ranked No. 139, who’d lost seven times in Wimbledon’s first round and a Slovenian veteran ranked No. 60 in the world.

In her first week, foes had been tall, an average of six feet. Coco toppled them all, while dropping just one set. But today Gauff faced a taller order from a smaller player. Simona Halep’s just 5’ 6” and recently has been losing to young players.  But the Romanian is a savvy vet. The former No. 1 and ex-French champ once reached the Wimbledon semis. Her speed, focus, defense and experience imposed. She didn’t give Coco a chance. Plus, the kid didn’t feel well, although she didn’t explain. Ultimately, she played her age. She overhit, was impatient, and time and again her shots were kind of wild.

In the second set she fought back to break Halep’s serve. But it was far too little too late. She saved a couple of match points – and she’ll remember that. But when Coco sits down with her grandkids decades from now, what she’ll remember is one grand and glorious debut.

Gauff proved that she’s no mere darling du jour. And Halep was impressed. The Romanian said her foe – whom she handily beat 6-3, 6-3 – “would be top ten – and soon.” Simona told IT, “Coco has a very strong backhand and the serve is pretty tough. She’s moving very well. She’s tall, so it is not easy to move that fast. She’s still young. She needs a little bit more power. But she’s a very, very good player already. [And I like] the fact that she tries to be aggressive and tries to work with the first serve and her second serve is not soft. She has a great game already.”

Serena, too, jumped on the Coco train. She laughed, ”I personally was nothing like her at 15…I didn’t play like that. I didn’t look like that. She’s just so poised. I was somewhere watching cartoons.”

After her defeat, Coco candidly explained, “I’m a bad loser, not in a bad way, but I kind of take it hard. I think that’s a good thing because I use that to motivate myself to work harder.” She observed that her best quality is being a fighter and never giving up. She said her next goal is to win her next tournament.

Coco could emerge to be a Slam champ and an icon in her own right. USTA President Patrick Galbraith said, “She has an energy that transcends the game.” Some dub Coco as America’s next great hope. We’ll see. But for now, we delighted in her enchanting ways. And, of course, there’s only one first time. Cinderella goes off to the ball just once. And here at Wimbledon we were stunned by a dazzling debut, a coming out party that was one heck of a first week story that we’ll cherish for many years to come.

*****

The Risky Business of Risking Life and Limb while Facing Riske on Grass With All its Risk Factors

Actually it wasn’t that Ash Barty was risking life and limb. Still, playing Alison Riske on grass is always risky. Just ask any of the 13 players who have fallen to the American on the green stuff this year.

Yes, Barty has been the “it” girl of the WTA season. She won the Miami and French Opens, was on a 15-match win streak, and was No. 1 in the world. Still, she’d be facing a lot of “Riske” factors in her fourth-round match against a seasoned player who has such flat shots and loves to charge the net. And few others so adore grass. Ali says the best moment of her year is when she hits her first strokes on a grass court.

Obviously, Barty’s Court Two face-off against the appealing 29-year-old Pittsburgh native was rife with both Riske and reward. But in the end, Ash’s Riske management fell short. Barty fell 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 and revealed that in fact, she was Riske averse. Ali, who’s ranked number 55, but, according to the UTR ratings, is the No. 7 player on grass, has “only” won $487,000 in her career and two titles. But once again, she fought hard and won her fourth three-set match at Wimbledon to reach her first Slam quarterfinal ever. Of course, things will not get any easier. She will be first-on Tuesday on Centre Court against a player who has faced plenty of risks in her life – Serena Williams.

In defeat today, Ash mused: “It’s time for me to reflect on the journey I’ve been on. There’s nothing but positives…The sun will come up tomorrow.”

Still, a sad song lyric came to mind: “It’s time to turn off the lights – the Barty is over.”

Also Reporting – Lucia Hoffman

 

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