When Coco Gauff played – and won – her first ever main draw match at the US Open last year, Steve Tignor of tennis.com loudly proclaimed, “The Coco Gauff Show has come to New York.” The sentiment seemed perfectly apt at the time; Gauff’s match was a perversely enthralling affair that was chock full of nervy errors and gutsy shot-making, and it did resemble a traveling circus act whose greatest USP was the novelty factor.
Now Gauff is in Melbourne, upsetting a quality opponent for what seems like the millionth time already, and it would be fair to say she has outgrown the circus act. She is still just 15 years old, and still gets busy with homework when she’s not on the court, but over the last six months or so she has shown that her big-match moxie is no laughing matter.
Gauff has famously said that the Williams sisters are her role models, and when she got the chance to play the elder Williams at the Australian Open – for the second time in the last three Slams – she played with the perfect mixture of respect and desire. It was a tougher battle than the 7-6, 6-3 scoreline suggests, but it likely wouldn’t have gone Gauff’s way if she hadn’t displayed the immense composure that is quickly becoming her trademark.
Venus was scratchy at the start, getting broken in the very first game of the match. Gauff then took care of her own serve and even manufactured two set points with Venus serving at 3-5, only for the seven-time Slam champion to erase them both with some terrific play.
When Gauff failed to serve out the set at 5-4, the din in the stadium reached breaking point. The crowd were mostly pro-Gauff, but they also wanted a competitive match – and now at 5-5, they had one.
For those who’ve been following Gauff’s journey, the restoration of parity also felt like a precursor for the prodigy’s real strengths to show up. In her short career so far, Gauff has rarely brought out her best when she’s allowed to coast; it is only when she is pushed, that the high-wire act begins.
Venus being the champion that she is quickly held for 6-5, meaning that Gauff had to serve to stay in the set. Being in a position like that, after seeing three set points come and go, is usually enough to send even the most experienced veterans off the edge. But somehow, everyone watching at that point almost expected Gauff to show maturity beyond her years and steady the ship.
In that crucial game Gauff sent down some big serves – her average speed was higher than Venus’ on both the first and the second delivery – and also elicited some timely unforced errors from her opponent. Venus wasn’t particularly sharp with her groundstrokes, but that was at least partly down to how comfortably Gauff was getting to so many of her potential winners.
When the two met at Wimbledon, many said that it felt like Venus was playing a mirror image of herself. But on Monday in Melbourne, it felt more like Venus was playing a scrappier, quicker and steadier version of herself.
That last bit is particularly unusual given the well-documented age difference between the two. Gauff has spent less than half of Venus’ 39 years on earth; how could it be, then, that she would be twice as strong on the big points?
And yet that’s exactly what she was. After getting past the disappointment of the missed set points, Gauff dominated the tiebreaker like a pro. Sure, she did squander yet another set point on serve at 6-4. But when she scampered to retrieve a crosscourt forehand bullet on her fifth set point, you almost knew her moment was due.
The second set was more of the same, except that this time Gauff didn’t falter when she had to serve it out. Venus kept powering her groundstrokes into the corners – she hit 25 winners on the day – but for every big shot that sailed out of Gauff’s reach, two more came back.
The teenager may not have the offensive tools to be a world-beater yet, but her movement and defense are already among the best on tour. In that respect, she does play like her age. Ask her to run after the ball without thinking, and she’ll use her incredible athleticism to do that better than just about anybody. But give her time to choose between alternatives, and she struggles to make the right decisions.
Gauff’s putaway shots need quite a bit of work too. Against Venus she went to the drop shot well a lot, and that worked for the most part since Venus is not the most fleet-footed anymore. But to challenge the very best players Gauff will need to fine-tune her weaker forehand wing, and make sure it goes flat enough and deep enough when she has the open court.
The thing with Gauff though is that she is so young, it’s hard to estimate just how much she can improve. Five years from now she might be half a foot taller, or a step slower, or both; there’s just so much growing up still left for her to do, that she could well turn into a different player by the time she hits her prime.
And that’s a scary thought, considering Gauff’s game is already good enough to compete at the Slams. It’s also good enough to get any stadium on its feet, as the screams of “Coco! Coco!” reverberating around Margaret Court Arena attested.
“I just want to say thank you guys, you guys were chanting my name and I only thought that would happen at US Open,” Gauff said after the match. “To hear that in Australia means a lot to me.”
You could say the Coco Gauff Show has come to Melbourne. But it might be more appropriate to say the Coco Gauff Show is not a show anymore; it is an inescapable and inevitable reality.
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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2020 18:39:28 IST