INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- In the broad context of mainstream society, Coco Gauff is still a kid. In professional tennis, though …
“I’ve been here awhile,” she said before the BNP Paribas Open began. “I feel like I’ve played most of the tournaments now. I have friendships with other players. But, yeah, I feel on the game and inexperience-wise, I’m still on the younger end compared to some other players.
“But I guess in the vibe, just walking around, I don’t feel like the new kid on the block anymore.”
To that point: On Sunday, her last day as an 18-year-old, she actually played someone eight months younger, Linda Noskova of the Czech Republic. She was ranked outside the Top 200 a year ago, but has already beaten two Top 10 players this season.
Gauff did not look fazed. She took out Noskova 6-4, 6-3 and has now won her past 28 matches against opponents outside the Top 50. It was their first meeting but almost certainly not the last.
Gauff has an undeniable sense of timing. Facing her first break point of the match, Gauff fired back-to-back aces. She finished off the first set with back-to-back overheads. For the match, she had seven aces and won 30 of her 34 first-serve points. She’ll play qualifier Rebecca Peterson in a Round of 16 match on Tuesday.
This was a match between two of the four teenagers ranked among the Hologic WTA Tour’s Top 100 -- No.6 Gauff, No.53 Linda Fruhvirtova (17), No.54 Noskova and No.94 Diana Shnaider (18).
Gauff is by far the most decorated player among them. She has already made the final of a Grand Slam -- at last year’s French Open -- and achieved a Top 10 ranking. Despite this precocity, Gauff’s rise has left observers wondering when the major breakthrough will come. Maybe it’s because there has been a sharp sense of anticipation since she crashed into the fourth round of 2019 Wimbledon as a 15-year-old.
That was approaching four years ago.
Because of the way her career played out, Pam Shriver is uniquely positioned to understand Gauff’s situation. In 18 years as a professional, Shriver won 22 Grand Slam doubles championships and 21 WTA singles titles. She reached the final of the 1978 US Open -- as a 16-year-old amateur. Shriver defeated Martina Navratilova in the semifinals but fell to Chris Evert in the final. She naturally figured there would be other opportunities, but fate intervened.
“Never got back to a major singles final,” Shriver said Sunday.
Subsequently, she lost each of the eight major semifinals she played over the rest of her career.
“I know how it is to burst onto the scene, the expectations it creates,” Shriver said. “There are simply no guarantees of anything -- nothing.”
There are plenty of recent examples of early success. Jelena Ostapenko, on her 20th birthday, won the 2017 French Open. Bianca Andreescu was 19 when she won the 2019 US Open, and Emma Raducanu was 18 when she won the 2021 US Open, defeating 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez in the final.
While her movement is dazzling and her net skills formidable, Gauff’s forehand is still a work in progress.
“It’s not easy to overcome," said Shriver, who is coaching Donna Vekic in addition to her broadcast responsibilities for Tennis Channel and ESPN, "because everyone you play is trying to break down that side. I have no doubt that they’re doing everything they can to get that solved.
“I just think Coco has to ratchet down the expectations, take it one day at a time and continue to be the professional she is. At the same time while still being a teenager and having some sense of normalcy in a not-normal setting. She’s exceptional, and I feel like she’s finding that balance.”
Gauff, coached by her parents Corey and Candi, carries a remarkable poise. In interviews, she is equally graceful and insightful talking about backhands, as well as the move to ban some Black history books in her home state of Florida.
“I feel like adults have a little construct as they get older and think kids can’t handle certain information,” Gauff said after her first-round match. “But you have to remember they have a clean slate and they’re looking at things. What we teach them can kind of help shape who they are going to be in the future.
“If we want to have good morals and hopefully a better history in the future, I think we have to teach even the dark parts of it, in an age-appropriate way of course.”
As her doubles partner Jessica Pegula said, “She has a good head on her shoulders.”
Listed at 5-foot-9, Gauff will likely grow into that lean body, which should mean even more power. Shriver, who stresses patience, thinks it might be harder to break through this year with the continued presence of Swiatek, the emerging confidence of Australian Open winner Aryna Sabalenka and the return to Grand Slam form by Barbora Krejcikova.
So how many major titles for Gauff? Will she be able to continually break through at top-tier WTA events like Indian Wells?
“If you just go on her movement, her serve, all her attributes, she’ll win plenty.”