San Diego Open: Coco, Robin and the Wisdom of Youth

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Karen Helf

San Diego

Wednesday, top tier Americans had a banner day at the San Diego Open. Coco Gauff, Jesse Pegula, and Danielle Collins all moved on in straight sets.

Post-match, Collins had a lot to say about not being ready for the tour as a teenager. While she admires the maturity of the younger players like Coco, she was not ready at that age. College enabled her to mature and understand more about herself. This season she’s learning even more about how to structure her schedule to be healthy, take care of herself and perform her best. This week, she took in the La Jolla surfers and spent time with some rescue cats at the Cat Cafe. Finding balance is paying dividends on and off court for the 2022 Australian Open finalist. 

Coco Gauff d. [Q] Robin Montgomery 6-4 6-3

The two-day match resumed Wednesday in the second set, with Coco up 3-2 after taking the first set Tuesday evening before rain fell. Given the score, Gauff had more freedom to take risks – and it paid off. The final scene ended with hugs and laughs. This was a match where the scoreline does not accurately describe the battle. For much of the first set, the US Open Junior singles and doubles champion went toe-to-toe with French Open finalist Gauff. The match had some of the longest power-punching rallies I’ve seen so far.

It’s a rare occasion when both a champion and an opponent smile following a match. Montgomery certainly wanted the win and believed in her chances. She believes everyone is beatable. Her attitude and lights-out play confirmed that. 

This was her first competition after a four-month break due to injury. She said fearless tennis is her brand. Playing with confidence and taking opportunities to dictate were positives. At age 18, she acknowledges tennis is now her job and there’s a different level of pressure. Robin is less concerned about ranking than playing her game and not being “freaked out by the person across the net.” She’s working the small details both on and off court. Her result in San Diego demonstrates that she belongs. 

Coco spoke of how it was weird to be the “senior” player on court. She knows Robin well as they have competed since they were eight. Coco felt the pressure of the moment. 

Gauff is known for her aggressive play, and speaking out on important issues like gun control, equality, abortion rights and homophobia. When asked about courage, she revealed her belief that everyone has it and they define it in their own way. Becoming a pro hasn’t changed Coco’s love of the game – she doesn’t really view it as a job. She knows money does not buy happiness. She also knows that neither she nor Robin has peaked. The teens laughed about the irony of facing each other in the first round. They both expect to meet in a final one day. I believe that.  

Next, Coco looks forward to playing the equally aggressive Canadian, Bianca Andreescu, on Thursday. She mentioned the slow San Diego conditions favor super-aggressive tactics. The playing conditions are inconsistent due to the unusual weather. Pegula spoke today of needing to adjust accordingly.

Grassroots Tennis – College Park

I spoke with Ray Benton, the CEO of Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland. This grass roots organization sought to bring opportunity for Northeast Washington, DC neighborhood kids fourteen years ago. Through neighborhood outreach, Ray met Montgomery when she was five. He noted she always had desire, discipline and maturity beyond her years. Robin spoke of working with coach Ali Agnamba and how she grew up in tennis. Arthur Ashe founded the National Junior Tennis League, creating competitive opportunities in partnership with the Geico Foundation and the JTCC.

The competitive structure founded by Ashe and the Geico support enabled Montgomery to afford the sport. When Robin was eight she approached coach Ali with the goal of wanting to improve her serve. Agnamba implored Robin to hit the courts, explaining that she’d need to hit 5,000 serves to achieve that outcome. Ali was thrilled and surprised when Robin later produced her own handwritten reports, showing how she’d done the work, hitting 5,000 serves. If the College Park program sounds familiar, that’s because ATP tour Frances Tiafoe hails from there. No doubt watching Frances’s recent surge is another inspiration for Montgomery.    

Iga Draws the Crowds

As I watched the crowd swarm the practice courts to see world No. 1 Iga Swiatek prepare for her opening match, a familiar face stood out – LaWanda Watts. LaWanda has become well known on social media due to her selfie collection with tour players. In fact, these days, players seek her out.

LaWanda does not see herself as anyone special. Her reward is the feelings she has by interacting with the game, and other people who love it. LaWanda’s first tennis inspiration came when Arthur Ashe visited her elementary school. She recalls how he spoke about the importance of having goals and to not limit herself. To this day she believes that that encounter influenced and encouraged her to think outside of the box. While she’s recognized around the courts, she’s clear that she wants to remain a fan, bringing positive energy to her followers and to just be herself.

Thursday Swiatek will open the day session. She takes on a very lucky opponent. Qinwen Zheng lost in the second round of the qualies. But, due to a late withdrawal by Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, she gained entry to the main draw. Tuesday night she took the court to face two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza. Deep into the first set, the Spaniard was unable to continue. Zheng, who won a set off of Swiatek deep into the French Open, has a big, tricky, hard court game. In many ways, she emulates her countrywoman, Li Na. Depending on your view of superstition, October 13th may bring luck again. Given her breakthrough season and the intense practice sessions I witnessed today, Zheng won’t rely on luck to seal her fate.

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