LONDON, UK - All three of the players who will play a Grand Slam main draw for the first time at Wimbledon 2019 earned their place by navigating three qualifying rounds in Roehampton this week. Get to know Varvara Flink, Cori 'Coco' Gauff and Catherine 'Caty' McNally here at wtatennis.com.
Varvara Flink (RUS)
22-year-old Varvara Flink may be the most under-the-radar of the three debutantes, but the Russian was in fact a top junior who hit World No.2 after winning the 2013 Orange Bowl. But a litany of injuries have beset her almost continually since then. Having played with pain throughout 2014, a ruptured wrist tendon was finally diagnosed - but that was only the beginning of what she described as "a long, long journey" after her third-round qualifying win over Elena Rybakina this week.
"There was one injury behind another one," Flink recalls. "I had a wrist surgery when I had just turned 19 that took me out for two years, then I competed for seven months. Then I had an arm problem, then a hip problem, then a shoulder problem." The Muscovite made her WTA main draw debut back in 2012 when she received a wildcard to Baku and stretched Tamarine Tanasugarn to three sets in the first round, and scored a pair of Top 100 wins en route to qualifying for her first Premier event in Cincinnati in 2016, but long spells on the sidelines - between June 2014 to October 2015, November 2016 to May 2017 and July 2017 to March 2018 - have put her back at square one each time.
Flink, who only picked up a racquet for the first time at the age of nine - "I was a late starter, especially compared to Russian kids" - has become something of a globetrotter: her training and injury recovery have taken her to Florida, the Netherlands, Madrid and Germany over the years. These days, she shares her love of travel with coach and husband Dietrich Dernowski, whom she married last October before beginning what she wryly says is "the first year I'm competing fully healthy ever". The results have been immediate: Flink zoomed from World No.623 to World No.189 in just nine months last year, compiling a 53-18 win-loss record, has continued to rise to sit at World No.140 now - and this week she successfully navigated Wimbledon qualifying on her first go, showing off a battling mentality and some bold net skills to triumph in a 6-3, 4-6, 8-6 epic over Rybakina in the last round. In the main draw, Flink will face fellow qualifier Paula Badosa.
Cori Gauff (USA)
Wildcard Cori 'Coco' Gauff has been the major story of Roehampton this week: the 15-year-old opened her campaign by stunning No.1 seed Aliona Bolsova 6-3, 6-4, becoming the youngest player since Martina Hingis in 1995 to claim a Top 100 scalp at a major, and ended it by blitzing Greet Minnen 6-1, 6-1 to become the youngest Wimbledon qualifier in the Open Era. In a remarkable turn of fate, she has been drawn against the oldest player in the main draw, five-time champion Venus Williams, a full 24 years Gauff's elder.
It's delayed gratification for the teenager, who revealed that "at the Miami Open I was more disappointed that I lost [to Daria Kasatkina] the round before I got to play Venus than that I lost in general". Not that Gauff is one to be fazed. "No matter who I can play I think I can win," she announced after defeating Bolsova, and despite insisting that she's seen herself as the underdog all week, her self-belief shone through again after the Minnen win when the 2018 Roland Garros junior champion declared: "I can do anything I put my mind to."
Though Gauff's first specific recollection of Wimbledon is Eugenie Bouchard's run to the 2014 final - "I remember thinking, I want to do that one day" - her ultimate inspiration, and the reason she wanted to play tennis, remains Serena Williams - a legend who has been ingrained in Gauff from an early age. "I think I've seen Serena so many times, before I even knew how to make memories," she says. Since the age of 10, she's followed in the 23-time major champion's footsteps by training at Patrick Mouratoglou's academy in France.
Tennis wasn't Gauff's first sport: her father Corey played Division 1 basketball, and dreamed that all of his children would take up the sport as well. The team element didn't sit well with young Cori, though. "I like tennis because you can only blame yourself and you can only control yourself," she says. "Sometimes when I was on the basketball court I'd be trying to control other people - like, c'mon man, bring the ball up. I like the individual aspect - I like doubles too, but just one person on my team is enough."
The youngster's individualism extends to her attitude to on-court coaching, too. "I'm fine without it," she states. "My dad is my coach and I hear him all the time anyway. And when he came on court to coach me [in juniors] it wasn't anything tactical, he was just telling me to stay calm and focused. I've been hearing that for five years so I think I have it drilled into my mind by now."
But Gauff does credit her father for what she describes as a "mental growth" in the two weeks before Wimbledon. In Roland Garros qualifying, where she defeated Ankita Raina before losing to Kaja Juvan, she had "put so much expectation and pressure on myself", and her memories were mostly of being nervous. "But after this past week at home my dad was like, you're 15 and playing Grand Slams," the World No.301 reveals. "There are many people who dream of playing them so you should just enjoy yourself. And once you enjoy yourself you'll be able to have good results. I finally listened to him, I guess."
Gauff can often seem mature beyond her years - she herself says she feels like an 18-year-old, something she ascribes to being the elder sister to two brothers, Cody ("He doesn't listen to me," sighs Gauff) and Cameron ("He follows everything we do," she says with somewhat more satisfaction). Even in school, where literature is her favorite subject, she says "learning just comes more naturally to me than other people". Having had to sit a science exam at 11pm the night before her final qualifying round this week, Gauff confidently predicted herself a B grade. But there are flashes of a youthful spirit, not least when she revealed that her mind hasn't always been on tennis during her wins.
"Before the point started I kept thinking about song lyrics," she admitted, with Jaden's 'Icon' and Lil Nas X's 'Old Town Road' being the earworms in question. "It wasn't a pre-match playlist - it was an on-court playlist in my head!"
Catherine McNally (USA)
It's appropriate that Gauff and her good friend Catherine 'Caty' McNally are making their Grand Slam debuts together: McNally was runner-up to Gauff in last year's Roland Garros junior event, and was also defeated by her in Miami this year, but also partnered her to win the US Open girls' doubles title in September. The American first made her mark at senior level in 2017, when - as the 15-year-old second alternate for a qualifying wildcard at the US Open - she notched up her first Slam qualifying win over Polina Monova. But it's over the last eight months that McNally has started to soar. Ranked World No.993 last October, she is now at a career high of World No.164 thanks to a 27-10 win-loss record since then. That includes the ITF W100 title in Midland in February and six Top 100 scalps - the most impressive of which was a defeat of Alison Van Uytvanck on the grass of Surbiton three weeks ago.
It's no surprise that McNally has taken to grass so smoothly. Boasting a biting slice and wonderfully natural net instincts, her all-court game was reminiscent of the current World No.1, Ashleigh Barty - whom McNally calls a "big inspiration". However, her classic style has its roots further back. Born into a tennis-mad family - older brother John plays the sport at college level for Ohio State - McNally's mother Lynn Nabors-McNally was herself a professional player who reached the Top 250 in doubles.
"I think I got it from my mom because she had a one-handed backhand, she used to slice and she had an all-court game, just like me," says the 17-year-old. "When I was growing up she helped me develop that, because she knew that's what would be successful on the tour." However, McNally is clear that she picked up tennis of her own volition - out of necessity to stave off boredom: "I'd be at the club where my mom worked as the main pro, so I'd just go on the wall and hit for hours by myself," she recalls.
All that time has paid off. "I have more of an imagination," muses McNally. "Some people just play a flat, aggressive game, so that's all they know how to do, just hit as hard as possible - but for me, I like to mix in my slice, I think it throws a lot of girls off." That was certainly the case in three qualifying wins over Kurumi Nara, Priscilla Hon and Jana Cepelova - and in the main draw, the Post Malone fan will get to test her tactics against local wildcard Heather Watson in the first round.