Magical Coco and Other Dispatches From Down Under

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(Photo by Chaz Niell/Getty Images)

Bill Simons

Melbourne

Coco Gauff is magical. And get this, the kid is still just 15. Sure, her game remains a glorious work in progress. Picky critics whisper, “Get a second serve that can’t be attacked. Upgrade your forehand. Cool it with all those double faults. And let’s even out those dips in your game.”

But forget it, folks – let’s be here now. The Floridian is a gleaming gem – the greatest teen phenom in America since Venus and Serena. Fast, athletic and blessed with an attack-mode first serve, she brings it against big stars like Venus (whom she’s downed twice). There are not that many expectations – so she can play free. Still, she takes care of business against the lesser lights in the game. While she shines on storied stages in London, New York and Melbourne, she brings it at smaller venues like Linz, Austria, where she won this fall. And don’t forget: with Caty McNally she’s one fearsome doubles player. They won the title in Washington. She’s got some ‘tude out there.

Off-court she delights in her youth. Making her Aussie Open debut, she’s the youngest player in the Melbourne main draw. She told us that getting her driver’s license would be her biggest accomplishment. She now has her learner’s permit and her brothers say she doesn’t drive fast enough. She told IT, “When I’m 16 [on March 13th] and get my license, I’m going to be going to Chick-Fil-A and everywhere without my parents.”

Of course, during a Grand Slam match, you are all on your own. There, tennis, in good measure, is about problem-solving and coping with crises. “Mentally and emotionally, Coco handles herself so well on court,” said the venerable Chris Evert. Gauff’s matches always entertain – they’re easy on the eye. She’s beautiful, she’s graceful, she’s powerful and fast.

Serena said, ”She’s impressive all around – from her personality to the way she plays. When I was 15, I was nowhere close to her level, nowhere as smart and elegant.”

But Coco is hardly drama free. Today, against Sorana Cirstea, she double-faulted, fell behind 0-3 and lost the first set. Then she counterattacked and took the second set. Her fans relaxed. “She has this thing wrapped up,” they assumed. But she blinked. Early in the third set, she fell behind 0-3.

No worries. She blasted forehands, stepped up on her serve and played to the open court. She recalled that when she was down 0-3, 0-30, “I think I kind of changed everything and decided to be more aggressive.” Such a tough fighter – she has a touch of Serena’s will. She surged to break her Romanian foe and win 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 to set up the women’s match everyone’s been craving to see.

On Friday, in the third round, there’ll be a glamor rematch of the two most appealing young stars in the game: two-time Slam champion Naomi Osaka versus the kid we love, Coco Gauff.

Many will recall that after Osaka crushed Gauff 6-3, 6-0 at the US Open, Naomi invited the weepy Gauff to join her for the on-court interview. At first Coco said no, because she knew  she would cry. But Osaka said it would be better to weep there out there on court, rather than in the shower. Coco spoke of the impact of the poignant courtside moment, “Little girls watching and little boys can see what sportsmanship is really [like]…That’s something I would want my child to see…You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them.”

These days tennis loves both Coco and Naomi. Their match should be fun. And the winner probably play a real tough opponent – Serena.

•••

THE WONDER DOWN UNDER NOTEBOOK

SPLIT SCREEN: A shot on the big screen at Laver Arena that featured Serena doing a split drew howls of pleasure from many an Aussie.

GO FIGURE: Serena said that Venus, for sure, will play longer than she does.

MOST USELESS STAT: Tennys Sandgren has switched to a sleeveless shirt. So the American and Rafa are the only two men in the 128-player draw without sleeves.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Sandgren was asked what he would do on court with all his emotions, now that he could no longer wear them on his sleeve.

WONDERFUL AUSSIES: Local hero Ash Barty won the French Open and the WTA Championships, became No. 1, led Australia to the Fed Cup finals and won the Aussie Open warmup in Adelaide. And yeah, she’s on the side of Melbourne trolleys, too. Billboards boosting Vegemite are common sights downtown. The down-to-earth Barty noted, “My face is everywhere, isn’t it? I’m a bit sick of it, to be honest.” She was later asked whether she had a sense of what the impact would be if, as an Aussie, she won the tourney, in light of what everyone in the country has been through. She replied, “Tennis is just a game. Honestly, there are so many bigger things going on in Australia right now. I don’t think anyone could care less if an Aussie wins. First and foremost, it’s about the safety and well-being of Aussies across the nation, the wildlife, everything…The whole nation is coming together. What’s amazing about Australians is that when our backs are against the wall, we come together and support each other.”

A SPORT STEPS UP: Aussie Nick Kyrgios kicked off the Bush Fire Relief effort by donating $200 per ace he hits during the Australian summer. Others jumped on board, including Federer and Nadal, who committed a combined $250,000. John McEnroe pledged $1,000 for every set Kyrgios wins. Alexander Zverev has pledged $10,000 for every match he wins and every cent of his prize money if he wins the title, which would be $4.12 million. In Auckland, tourney winner Serena donated all of her $43,000 prize money. And Belinda Bencic, knowing she probably won’t hit many aces, pledged $200 for every double fault.

NOT A BELIEVER: Brad Gilbert said Frenchman Benoit Paire, who is ranked No. 21, has perhaps the worst forehand in “maybe the top 500.”

THE GOOD, THE  BAD AND THE FOGNINI: Following his two-day win over Riley Opelka, Italian Fabio Fognini can claim to have come back from two sets down in all four Grand Slams. He said that the 6’ 11” Opelka, whom he has played three times since late August, is the best mover from the baseline of all the big men. He added that Opelka is so tall it seems like he’s serving from the fifth story of a building.

QUOTEBOOK: 

  • “The fly screen is ajar, but the door is hardly open.” – Broadcaster Craig Gabriel as Maria Sharapova unsuccessfully tried to turn her match around against Donna Vekic
  • “Hearing ‘Ohio!’ chants made me feel like I was at home playing, and was something very special. Time for some McCoco action now.” – Caty McNally after her loss today

AMERICAN MEN: John Isner is into the second round. Sam Querrey and Tennys Sandgren will meet in the third round. And Tommy Paul is also into the third round.

SHARAPOVA IN THE SHADOWS: Five-time Slam champ Maria Sharapova, who fell in the first round to Donna Vekic, hasn’t won a match since Cincinnati. Now No. 145, her ranking will plummet further, and she would not assure fans or the media whether she will return to the Aussie Open next year.

THE PAUL SIMON SOUND OF SILENCE MOMENT: Naomi Osaka’s press conferences still enchant. And nobody thinks out loud to herself like the Aussie Open defending champ. In a recent interview, she hesitated for a moment and then told the press, “That pause didn’t sound good.” The comment begged the question: do pauses have sounds?

THE WRITER WHO HATES TO WRITE: Venus Williams was asked if, in the future, she wrote, what that would be like. She replied, “I hate writing. I’m not a writer. It’s never going to happen.” Next she was asked what were the one or two key things she’s learned from tennis. She replied, “I wrote a book about it.”

ROGERS’ REVERSAL OF FORTUNE: You have to feel for American Shelby Rogers. She beat Garbine Muguruza 6-0 in the first set and then dropped 12 of the next 13 games to fall 0-6, 6-1, 6-0.

LOW PROFILE COURT: Fifty years ago Margaret Court won the Grand Slam. Earlier this week she was on site in Melbourne, but with little fanfare. It seemed like a stealth appearance.

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