With a breathtaking display of speed and power, Coco Gauff had just unstrung Maria Sakkari to take a 3-0 lead in the third set. There was a considerable commotion only a dozen yards away as a busy grounds crew, hoses flailing, prepared adjacent Court 4 for play. And yet Gauff sat in her changeover, oblivious, alone with her thoughts in the glaring midday sun.
Back in January, in only her second match of the year, Gauff had lost to Sakkari in Abu Dhabi. On Wednesday, at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, we witnessed the accelerated learning curve of this precocious 17-year-old. In one of the more surreal score lines you will see, Gauff won 6-1, 1-6, 6-1 to advance to the round of 16.
“My match today was definitely a roller coaster,” Gauff said in press afterward. “Got super-high, then super-low, then back to super-high. I just wanted to stay in the match because I lost to her a couple of times before.
“Today was definitely a confidence booster.”
What did she do differently?
“Definitely being more mentally engaged on every point,” Gauff said. “There’s so many times she came back, even in Miami down six match points [to Jessica Pegula]. You’re kind of on edge every time you play [her]. It was a little bit stressful.”
Sakkari is 25 years old and an accomplished player ranked No.19; she reached the semifinals in Abu Dhabi and again in Miami, beating world No.2 Naomi Osaka to get there. Still, these are the kind of matches Gauff needs to win if she is to fulfill the destiny so many predict for her.
Nearly five years ago, Gauff became one of the first to go on record.
She had just collected her first Junior Orange Bowl title in December of 2016, winning all seven matches in straight sets. That put her into an elite group of former 12-under champions: Steffi Graf (1981), Monica Seles (1985) and Jennifer Capriati (1986) – who later combined to win 34 Grand Slam singles titles.
During her first national interview, the 12-year-old Gauff was asked how good she could be.
“I want to be,” she said without hesitation, “the greatest of all time.”
Although extrapolating junior success into professional dominance is a dicey business, Gauff certainly seems on track. She turned 17 in March and is sitting at a career-high No.35 among WTA players. She’s advanced to two quarterfinals already this year (Dubai and Charleston) and the semifinal in Adelaide.
And there were tremors well before this. As a 15-year-old she:
- Raced into the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2019, beating one of her idols, Venus Williams, in the first round.
- Won her first WTA title in October, in Linz.
- Defeated Naomi Osaka in the third round of the 2020 Australian Open.
That’s a good resume for some players.
Like so many exceptional athletes, Gauff is blessed with good genes. Her father, Corey, her namesake, played point guard at Georgia State. Her mother, Candi, was a gymnast, a five-time Florida high school champion heptathlete and later a track star at Florida State University. Corey carries the nickname of Coco and he has bestowed it upon his daughter as well.
Corey played recreational tennis growing up in Florida and when Coco turned 6, she enjoyed her first stab at the sport at a camp in Delray Beach.
“She took to it,” Corey said. “She liked the skirts.”
It wasn’t her physical prowess that impressed her parents, it was her power of concentration. They decided to go all in on coaching and see what would develop. A few years later, she won the “Little Mo” 8-under Nationals and, in 2014, the USTA Clay Court National 12-under title – as the No. 17 seed.
At the time Corey told his daughter, “It’s a lot of hard work. You’re going to have to say no to things other kids say yes to. And yes to things other kids say no to.”
His goal, he said, was to help her achieve her dream of being No.1 and winning Grand Slams.
“What’s it going to take?’ asked 12-year-old Coco. “Hard work and a lot of practice. A lot of motivation and discipline.
“And, yeah, listening to my parents.”
Yes, there was a giggle tucked in there somewhere. But … so far, so good.
She’s been working with Patrick Mouratoglou, who happens to be Serena Williams’ coach, since she was 10. She has an apparel contract with New Balance and is represented by Team8, the firm co-founded by Roger Federer and Tony Godsick.
“She has such a much bigger game, maybe more dynamic, than [Martina] Hingis, [Tracy] Austin and Chrissie [Evert],” ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. “She’s consistent, hungry, speed around the court. What worries me is that she has some flaws in the forehand and the serve that just gives me some hesitation.”
Indeed, her greatest weakness at this early point in the curve is a tendency to double fault, as cited several times by three-time Grand Slam champion and Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport. Gauff had 124 going into Rome, tied for third most on tour with Paula Badosa, behind Aryna Sabalenka (134) and Elise Mertens (127).
“I’m not really all that comfortable comparing major successes at an early age,” Shriver said. “I think it’s proven it’s harder to have that major success at an early age. So I would hate for her to feel there’s a timetable or a time limit. I’d be the one in the camp taking the pressure off.
“With a good team around you, and proper training, we’re talking game’s going to improve each and every year for five years. Let’s figure out how to take the pressure off her.”
Gauff is doing her part, trying to filter out the white noise of social media – something those champions of yesteryear didn’t have to contend with.
“I think I was just trying not to be on social media as much because a lot of people have opinions on you and how they think you should play,” she told reporters before the Volvo Car Open last month. “But I think it’s important that you focus on your journey, your path, and you’re going to have a different path than other players. That’s what I’ve been working on lately, is just focusing on my journey and my path.
“I think you want results to happen fast, but I’m also still developing my game and figuring out how I want to play on the court and how I want to construct my points. So it’s just definitely a learning process and I feel like with every tournament, even though some tournaments I don’t do as well as others, I feel like with each one I’m getting better and getting closer to figuring out my game and figuring out what I like to do.”
What she likes to do is spring upsets. Against Sakkari on Wednesday, she was generally poised and issued only two double faults. Thursday’s task in Rome is to defeat world No.4 Sabalenka – a 7-5, 6-1 winner over Sara Sorribes Tormo – to advance to the quarterfinals.
More than most, Tracy Austin knows where Coco Gauff is coming from. That’s because she’s already been there.
Austin won her first Grand Slam singles title at the age of 16, upsetting Chris Evert in the 1979 US Open final.
“She’s certainly physically ready,” said Austin, a Tennis Channel analyst. “A lot of times 16-year-olds are not physically ready to contend with women. Coco, every six months she’s getting stronger and stronger. She definitely can contend with anybody physically.
“People don’t seem to be pressuring her. I am glad people are giving her time.”