Coco Gauff is a phenom and a delight. At the US Open, she and her doubles partner Caty McNally had a whimsical dialogue with Inside Tennis on the famous long-ago trumpet player Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, whom Coco called “Saxmo” because she thought he played the saxophone.
And earlier this year she had this touching exchange with her dad and coach, Corey Gauff, when he came on court to coach her.
Dad: “The one thing you did … you didn’t give out no free points on her damn serve.”
Coco: “You can’t curse,”
Dad: “I cursed?”
Coco: “You said the D-word.”
Dad: “Oh, that one doesn’t really count.”
Coco: “In some places it does.”
Dad: “OK, I’m sorry about that.”
We don’t imagine that the religious Venus Williams uses the “D” word. But we could understand if the seven-time Slam winner had said “Damn!” after she suffered a shock upset to Gauff in the first round of Wimbledon last summer. And we wouldn’t blame her if she’d used the “D” word when the Aussie Open draw came out, showing, incredibly, that she’d again face Coco in the first round. And we imagine she wasn’t too happy when she lost her first service game against the No. 67 Gauff, who was making her Aussie Open debut.
But Venus is Venus. It’s astounding that the 39-year-old legend – who has seven Slam trophies on her mantle and has long been dealing with Sjogren’s Syndrome – battles on. Time and apparent logic don’t seem to phase her. Noted historian Richard Evans commented, “There’s plenty of fight in the old lady, if you’d excuse me talking about a 39-year-old in those terms.”
Once she was a wire-thin girl who we saw make her debut in Oakland, California, in 1994. Long ago she morphed into a worldly champion who has seen it all. A while ago she told IT, “Sport is a little microcosm of life, and it shows the human spirit, just being out there on court, fighting against all odds. If you’re down, you keep going. Great champions come back from injuries or circumstances they could never have planned for. It’s very encouraging for people…[Tennis] champions helped change so many lives – motivated so many people by being their best.”
Today it couldn’t have been much fun to again face her fellow Floridian – a kid 24 years younger. “It must have been like seeing herself across the net,” noted one observer. “This is like Venus vs. mini-Venus.”
But, not surprisingly, as rain pounded on the roof of Margaret Court Arena, Venus pounded forehands deep to the baseline. She unleashed beautifully angled backhands and hit confident volleys. She found a rhythm, broke back and forced a first-set tie-break.
Amazingly, Venus was playing her 20th Aussie Open. Only Roger has played more. Her ranking has slipped to No. 55, but she is still an aggressor on court. Her serve punishes. Her brave first-set counterattack got to her young foe. Three times Coco had set points – each time she faltered. “Coco can’t believe she’s fluffed her lines,” said broadcaster Steve Pearce.
But Coco is an extraordinary athlete and a calm competitor. It’s no fluke that, as a qualifier, she reached Wimbledon’s fourth round. One veteran writer said he’d be shocked if she doesn’t become No. 1 in three years. Serena and Venus are her idols – but that doesn’t matter. “Coco is on a mission,” noted broadcaster Kim Burrel. “You can see it in her eyes.”
“My mission,” Coco told IT, “is to be the greatest. That’s my goal, to win as many Grand Slams as possible. But today my mission was to win.” So with her athleticism, her superb backhand and serve, her speed and focus, she turned the match around, to win 7-6 (5), 6-3 and keep alive the possibility of meeting Naomi Osaka in the third round.
For now, she just might celebrate: she’ll have a better ranking than Venus. And after she’d brought down the American icon, her best friend and doubles partner Cincinnati’s Katy McNally beat the Down Under star Sam Stosur in front of a stunned Aussie crowd.
So it was quite a good day for McCoco (that would be McNally and Coco). In fact, if you don’t mind being salty, you might say it was a damn good night.
OPENING NIGHT NOTES:
French visionaries used to tell us, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Well, today was the first day of the rest of the Grand Slams of this year and this decade. Only 559 days of play until the 2029 US Open. A clipped British accent in the press room asked a colleague, “Are you ready?” Today, all of tennis was ready.
QUOTES OF THE DAY: “Who’d have thought we’d get to 2020? – but here we are.” – Steve Pearce
“I wonder whether that makes her faster.” – Broadcaster Kim Burrell on Coco Gauff’s neon orange sneakers
GO FIGURE: A woman from Sydney emailed Aussie Open Radio to say she’d just walked through a sun shower…Roger Federer is wearing the same purple and black colors that Rafa Nadal wore en route to his US Open win…Serena and Venus have won 30 Slams. The rest of the field in Melbourne have won 26…France’s Alize Cornet has appeared in 53 straight Slams. Japan’s Ai Sugiyama has the woman’s record with 62.
NICK’S PERSPECTIVE: On Saturday, Nick Krygios admitted his focus was wavering. The Aussie star stated, “I guess my mind is still not completely on the tennis side of things…People are losing their families, homes. It’s not easy to just completely switch your concentration on the Australian Open – ‘How is your forehand going today?’ – when you put it in perspective of what is actually going on.”
IS EIGHT ENOUGH? Defending Melbourne champ Novak Djokovic, who has won more Aussie Opens than any other man, is seeking to become the third ATP player to win eight titles at a single Slam. Nadal has won 12 French Opens and Federer has 8 Wimbledons.
JUST WONDERING: Serena handily beat Russian Anastasia Potapova in her opening round match. That raises the question of how many matches Serena has won over players with “ova” in their names.