Pretty Coco Wins Ugly

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons 

The girl seemed blessed.

She had it all – athleticism, speed, poise, charm. In an unforgettable flash, the fearless 15-year-old, Coco Gauff, shocked Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2019 and quickly grabbed our hearts. 

She would draw praise for her social justice stances. And after mighty Serena retired and Naomi Osaka retreated, the Floridian became the WTA’s most charismatic star, as well as the most intriguing “work-in-progress” player in the game.

Yes, she reached the French Open final and became No. 1 in doubles. But America’s sports culture is unsparing. The critics soon pounced, saying, “That Coco is a nice girl but she hasn’t won a big title. What’s wrong with her forehand? Where’s the depth?” Never mind that Gauff was still so young – the haters shouted, “Why is her serve so dodgy? What’s up with all her double faults? She gets so much love, but she hasn’t lifted any of those big shiny trophies.”

Coco endured many teary nights, and her tennis life seemed to hit rock bottom when she lost to Sofia Kenin in the first round at Wimbledon. 

Something had to change. Coco brought on the savvy Brad Gilbert. She won the Cincinnati Masters – and then the US Open.

The doubts of the past seemed to vanish. Her fame soared, her ranking rose to No. 4. An ambassador for the sport, in our book she became the world’s most famous teenager.

The world was Coco’s oyster. She improved her serve (thank you, Andy Roddick). This year she’d won all nine of her matches and at the Aussie Open had to be chuckling when her prime foe, Iga Swiatek, and a slew of other seeds were toppled.

Coco soared in Melbourne. Off-court, she wowed the tennis world with her wit and wisdom. She’s open, insightful, and spontaneous, and loves to tease her dad. Martina Navratilova contends that eventually Coco will fulfill the message emblazoned on her shoes: “Change the world with your racket.”

In New Zealand Coco had bungee jumped off a tower. In Australia she leapt through the draw as, with little drama, she became the youngest teen since Agnieszka Radwanska 16 years ago to reach the Aussie Open quarterfinals. Her foes, No. 82 Alycia Parks in the third round and No. 69 Magdalena Frech in the fourth round, were not that fearsome.

But big-hitting Marta Kostyuk is a different customer. Once No. 22 and now No. 37, the Ukrainian has been a fierce advocate for her nation’s noble cause. On court, the 21-year-old big hitter is equally fierce. While her mother sends her videos of missiles flying outside her home in Kyiv, on-court, Marta unleashes her own missiles.

Still, Kostyuk was the underdog today. After all, Coco hadn’t lost a match to a player outside the top 25 since May. She hadn’t dropped a set in Melbourne, had won 19 straight service games and hadn’t faced a breakpoint in her past two matches.

But today Coco wobbled. She was oddly off, passive and adrift early in the match. Her serves were errant, her forehands were short, and she muffed easy swinging volleys as she fell behind 5-1 in the opening set. Broadcaster Steve Pearce commented, “Coco’s a little befuddled at what’s coming at her. We have a situation we were not anticipating.” Mary Joe Fernandez added, “She has to keep battling and seek something in her game that will elevate her.”

No kidding. 

When Gauff won the US Open, she told us the one thing she learned from her triumphant run was that you can win when you’re not playing your best.

To her credit, Coco didn’t panic. She unleashed what broadcaster Candy Reid called “a Lamborghini of a first serve,” saved a set point and turned the topsy-turvy match on a dime as she forced a first-set tiebreak.

But Kostyuk often had the upper hand as she seemed to grind Coco down, and she gained another set point. Then Marta muffed a forehand and Coco promptly counterattacked. On Gauff’s first set point she used her athleticism and doubles skills as she hit a convincing backhand volley to grab the first set.

But AO Radio noted, “Kostyuk likes to get herself into these positions where the whole world is against her.” In a match where the combatants seemed to be constantly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, it was now Marta’s turn to flip the script. She relentlessly pounded Coco’s forehand, won a stunning 36-stroke point, took full advantage of Gauff’s nine double faults and, when she wasn’t flinging her racket or barking at her coach, showed surprising patience.

As Coco’s unforced error count soared, her spirits sagged. AO Radio noted, “There’s only one person who’s attacking and it’s not Coco. She’s a bit of a spectator.” Kostyuk won the second-set tiebreak 7-3 to even the battle.

But then Coco took an off-court break and something clicked. Gauff is still is such a sweet, giggly girl, who’s so chill, that it’s easy to forget what a fierce, “Don’t tread on me” competitor she is. 

As she walked back on court, the American brushed aside the advice her coach Brad Gilbert was shouting at her. It was as if Coco was saying, “Not interested, buddy, this girl has it all under control.”

She did. 

Less errant and far more powerful, Gauff hit out, stepped up her serve, managed her weaknesses and showed who was the US Open champ and No. 4 player in the world – and who was the wannabe.

Gauff reduced Kostyuk to hitting awkward shovel shots or futile tweeners. The Ukrainian could no longer get to Coco’s kryptonite: her forehand. Instead, America’s superwoman wrested control of the match. 

In a fiercely competitive tournament that had already seen an astounding 79 matches go to the final set, it was only fitting that today’s 3:08 thriller went the distance.

Coco’s coach Brad Gilbert made a small fortune by writing the tennis classic, “Winning Ugly.” And that’s just what his prime charge, who had 51 errors out there, did today. But when Coco finally prevailed 7-6 (6), 3-6 (3), 6-2, she sure looked pretty. 

Also reporting – Vinay Venkatesh 

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