Say what you want about the tennis season’s heights — how the Australian Open kicks it off, the topsy-turviness of Roland Garros and its brick red clay, or how the sport’s cultural traditions (like tennis whites) are baked into Wimbledon. It’s the US Open that is the epicenter of the tennis world.
The final Grand Slam tournament of the year can turn a rotten season into something magical. Look no further than the trajectory of 23-year-old Taylor Townsend, who was at one point America’s brightest junior tennis star. In her pro career, Townsend has struggled to translate her great talent into great success, but at this year’s American Grand Slam, Townsend came back to defeat the sport’s No. 4 seed, and 2019 Wimbledon winner, Simona Halep.
The US Open can also pull the rug out from underneath a player with a hot winning streak — just ask Halep.
2019’s tournament is even more exciting than usual, as it allows several top players the opportunity to make history. If Serena Williams walks away with championship, she will tie Margaret Court for the most Grand Slam tournament wins with 24; Novak Djokovic, the favorite on the men’s side, could up his total to 17 and get closer to Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slams.
But there’s one player whose US Open journey is eclipsing the others in this kaleidoscope of stories and stars: Coco Gauff.
At 15-years-old, Cori “Coco” Gauff is less than half of Williams’s age, and has played in 915 less matches than women’s tennis’s biggest star, yet she already commands just as much attention. That’s partly due to her impressive appearance at Wimbledon earlier this summer, and her nimble, shot-making game. Following her second-round win, she is set to play world no. 1 and defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka in the tournament’s third round on Saturday, August 31.
This spindly teenager from Florida has become one of tennis’s biggest names because she’s seen as the next great American tennis hope — an American player inspired by both Serena Williams and her older sister, fellow star Venus Williams, that may be able to carry the sisters’ legacy of dominance, and even surpass the achievements of other teenage tennis phenoms before her.
What makes Coco Gauff so special
The great thing about tennis is that there’s no such thing as a perfect tennis player.
Three-time Grand Slam winner Lindsay Davenport was blessed with impeccable timing and power — the sound, a meaty thump, of the ball coming off her racquet was completely different than any women’s tennis player at the time — but wasn’t a good mover. Martina Hingis, who holds five Grand Slam titles, had what may be the closest thing to a pre-cognitive mind for the sport, allowing her to see and construct points before shots were even hit, but lacked the firepower. And the reason why the Williams sisters were, and why Serena in particular still is, so dominant is that they could combine speed and power into a ferocious game.
Tennis is a game of maximizing your gifts to the point that they mitigate your weaknesses. The greatest players make it seem like they have no weaknesses, that there’s no way of beating them on their best day.
And the intriguing thing about Gauff is that she has a combination of physical gifts and mental toughness to be one of those players.
At five-foot-ten, Gauff’s height gives her an advantage at generating angles and velocity on her serve and allows her torque to hit powerful groundstrokes (her backhand is her best shot). But being so tall doesn’t hamper her movement on the court the way it might some other tall players. In fact, Gauff’s considered to be one of the speediest and agile players on the tour, even at her young age.
“I don’t think I have to win the point as many times against anyone as against her,” Timea Babos, whom Gauff defeated in the second round at the US Open, said in her post-match interview. In plain, non-tennis terminology, Babos believes that Coco’s speed allows her to play exceptional defense and get to shots that normal players wouldn’t get to.
Gauff is also mentally tenacious. Her three-set wins at the US Open are evidence of that. But that tenacity has been a trademark of her young professional and her illustrious junior career.
“What impressed me is that she took care of the biggest points with understanding of the importance of that point,” Pam Shriver, a former top tennis player and analyst for ESPN, said about Gauff for ESPN’s US Open preview. “You can’t really say that most of the time about the young, powerful, athletic players through decades.”
Gauff doesn’t give up, and gets to balls that other players don’t get to. But she also doesn’t play a sit-back-and-watch-your-opponent-miss brand of tennis — she takes risks, dictates the point with her power, and has electric shot-making ability. The result is a game that’s a joy to watch on television and in the stands. And the tantalizing thing is that she has the potential to get even better.
Tennis has a habit of turning teenage dreams into something a little more tragic
Without Googling, could you name the other 14 women (besides Gauff and Serena Williams) who reached the final round of 16 at Wimbledon? How about the French Open? The Australian Open? If you can, you’re probably in an elite sect of tennis fans. But my point is that there are a lot of players that get to the round of 16 in Grand Slams, and none of them have had the hype that Gauff has gotten in recent months.
Gauff’s talent aside, the attention she’s grabbing fits a pattern that we often see in tennis: We’re looking for the sport’s next transcendent, dominating figure, someone to stand among the Williams sisters, or Steffi Graf, or Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert — a player who will dominate and win multiple Grand Slams.
But for every once-in-a-lifetime player, there are also plenty of tennis phenoms that burn bright, burn fast, and burn out — sometimes due to factors outside of their control.
Consider Andrea Jaeger, who in 1980 became the youngest Wimbledon quarterfinalist ever, at age 15. She retired just five years later, due to injury. Jennifer Capriati was the youngest player to achieve a top-10 ranking at 14 years old in 1991, and then burned out; she was eventually arrested for marijuana possession at 18. Mirjana Lucic looked like the next great player in the 1990s, outhitting everyone at the age of 15, but then had to deal with a slew of personal problems, including an abusive father, that would take her away from tennis.
Granted, some of these players eventually came back to succeed on court, like Capriati and Lucic. But these stories of burnout and tragedy prompted the Women’s Tennis Association to institute a “player development” rule in 1995 that limited the number of tournaments teenagers could legally compete in.
Even then, as tennis correspondent Christopher Clarey wrote for the New York Times earlier this summer, the limitation rules didn’t protect phenoms like Cici Bellis, who reached the third-round of the US Open in 2016, from sustaining injuries.
But Gauff has yet to meet any adversity of similar scale.
She’s not only good, but she seems to be an exception to these stories of rising and falling. Of course, two of the greatest exceptions to the tragic teenage tennis phenom example are Venus and Serena Williams (their father Richard famously limited the number of tournaments the sisters played each year).
For all the reasons tennis fans are honing in on Gauff, though, none stand taller than the woman we see in her: Serena.
With Grand Slam tournaments becoming tougher for Williams to win after her tough recovery from her 2017 pregnancy , American tennis fans are desperate to identify her heir apparent. A young, black, American-born-and-bred player that Serena and her sister Venus inspired to eventually carry on their legacy is also a hell of a fairytale ending.
Every time Gauff takes the court, all of these outside questions and all of these future-gazing fantasies arise. Coco’s successes on court are the result of her own hard work and talent, but they also reflect our own desires (a happy ending, perhaps, or wish fulfillment).
For most of us regular humans, we will never be able to do what Coco, or any other professional tennis player, does. But any regular human can be inspired by Coco and find joy in her play. And that’s just one of the beautiful things about tennis.