Wimbledon 2019: 15-year-old Coco Gauff’s rousing run at All England Club made tennis feel young again

During the changeover at 5-2 in the second set, Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff, the centre of attention of a 12,000-strong crowd at Court 1 and the latest darling of the tennis world, cut a lost and lonesome figure. The 15-year-old wonder girl, who had defied odds to get into the final 16 and stared down defeat in the third round, looked bemused and drained. Like all the excitement of the past week had finally caught up to her.

 Wimbledon 2019: 15-year-old Coco Gauff’s rousing run at All England Club made tennis feel young again

Cori Gauff of the US celebrates winning her first round match against Venus Williams. Reuters

Having added Michele Obama and Serena Williams, among thousands of others, to her fan list, Gauff exited Wimbledon after a 3-6, 3-6 defeat to world No 7 Simona Halep in a much-anticipated fourth-round clash on Monday.

“The fairytale has ended but it's only just beginning for Coco Gauff,” Tracy Austin, who won first of her US Open titles in 1979 at 16 years of age, told BBC. “It's been a lot of fun watching her at Wimbledon this year.”

While it might be tempting to call Gauff a breath of fresh air, she has ended up storming through the place, leaving tennis a much-altered landscape in her wake. The ageing game reveled in the prospect of a teenage prodigy again, and the simple, unfiltered joy that comes with it. There was no baggage, and seemingly no nerves, as she went about knocking out proven champions and more seasoned stars.

But the American wasn’t your typical break-out star, hitting out of trouble fearlessly. Standing at 5’10 already, Gauff has the easy athleticism, incredible foot speed and a ripping backhand. But she also has the understanding of when to go for it and when to hold back.

“Her judgement is so good at such a young age that she resists the temptation to use her full power all the time,” Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach whose academy Gauff trains at while in Europe, said. “She doesn’t overplay. She plays within the margins.”

The stars had started aligning for Gauff as she was drawn to play one of her idols, Venus Williams, in the first round of Wimbledon. If Gauff was giddy with excitement she hid it well. She played with a poker face and steady hand, cruising past her hero 6-4, 6-4. The fact that she was 15, or ranked 313 in the world, or playing her first-ever senior Grand Slam, seemed to melt into the background when Gauff’s measured and matured play was in action.

By the time she had defeated Williams, we had learnt a lot more about Gauff. That she is called Coco or that she is from Florida and the 2018 girls French Open champion, that her father Corey is a former basketball player and her mother Candi is a former track athlete and a teacher. That may help us understand where she gets her athleticism from, but what about the poise?

What about the 15-year-old walking out there alone on the court and battling adversities? The American’s bravest performance came in the third round, when put in the spotlight of Wimbledon’s Centre Court, she fought back from a set, break and two match points down to defeat Polona Hercog. The wave of celebration, and wonder, which started at Centre Court swept across the world. Gauff beating her chest (after winning the second set), and her mother Candi dancing in Wimbledon’s player box swept through social media.

With the focus firmly on her, World No 7 and 2018 French Open champion Simona Halep seemed almost an underdog going into their fourth-round clash on Monday. The Romanian quickly dispersed any notions that she would be another prized scalp on Gauff’s march to glory. She broke the American’s serve in the very first game and ran her ragged through the match. Gauff may be very good for her age, but Halep was too good on the day.

Halep made her play a lot more, run a lot more, made her hit one ball too many. The constant pressure seemed to get to the teenager, who made 29 unforced errors on the day. In the second set, Gauff had to call a trainer on court for treatment and just didn’t seem to have any fight left after she pulled a backhand crosscourt wide to go down 2-4 in the second set.

“I wasn't feeling very well but I still played my best. I'm not sure what it was but I still had fun even though I was losing,” she said after the match. “I learned a lot about how to play in front of a big crowd and how to play under pressure. I am really grateful for the experience.”

Even in defeat there was a lot to like about Gauff: her confidence in moving up the court, her deft touch at the net. A 15-year-old practicing the dying art of volley was just part of the charm. On Monday, Gauff came to the net 17 times and won 13 of those points.

“When I was 15, I didn't even know I was going to play professional tennis,” two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova had written, referencing Gauff, in her column for the BBC. “I was in my home town of Fulnek in the Czech Republic and practising with my dad and I was just enjoying time on the court. I never thought that I would play at Wimbledon at that time. If I was to give her any advice, it would be to be patient.”

Gauff, who will leave Wimbledon £176,875, has got a taste of the adulation at her first major outing. But she will have to learn to live with inevitable defeats too.

The WTA has tried to soften the blow for teenagers, by putting in place the age eligibility rules that state that players aged 15 will be allowed to play only 10 events on tour. Because of the American’s exceptional talent, the upper limit for her has been stretched to 12. Normal rules just don’t apply to this teen.

Updated Date: Jul 09, 2019 14:48:39 IST