This Article, written by Annabel Croft, first appeared in the Times Newspaper 3rd July 2019
Cori “Coco” Gauff looks like she was born to perform on the big stage. Considering that she is only 15 years old, I was struck by how composed she was in defeating her idol, Venus Williams, in her first appearance on a grand slam show court.
The widespread reaction to this breakthrough victory on Monday shows that Gauff is going to be a star. Even those who are not avid tennis followers surely cannot fail to be captivated by her.
For someone who is so young, Gauff is an impressive physical specimen. She glides across the grass, moves very quickly up to the short ball and adapts well to whatever is thrown at her. On Monday, she played with so much freedom, and with no baggage attached. It is lovely to see teenagers feel like that on the court.
While Gauff has much aggression in her game, she also plays with a lot of variety. She changes the height of her forehand by putting more loop on it, then she will throw in a slice to change the pace. Her cross-court backhand is exquisite. Often, young players are ball bashers from the back of the court, but Gauff already possesses a tactical tennis brain.
Everybody with whom I have spoken about Gauff since Monday has enthused about her post-match interview. She is sweet, charming and engaging. Tennis is such a gladiatorial sport that personality counts so much in terms of connecting with fans, and she has already won so many over. She is quite a contrast to some youngsters, who can be brats at times.
Gauff may well have learned from Roger Federer, as a representative of his management company, Team8. He is one of the best communicators in sport because he was taught from a young age to treat the media as a bridge to his fans. The charm he possesses helps him cut through into the wider world and hold superstar status.
The challenge that Gauff now faces is that this will be a honeymoon period. She has announced herself on the big stage, beating Williams, one of the sport’s greats at the venue where she claimed five of her seven grand slam singles titles. It is so important for young players to claim wins over star names early on as that is what gives them a springboard to believe in themselves. Gauff will think after defeating Williams that the world is her oyster.
However, this will have alerted the rest of the tour. Many players won’t know her game or what it is like to face her, but they will now have a better idea. Look at Aryna Sabalenka, the 21-year-old from Belarus who was being talked about as a future grand slam champion at the start of this year. Players are now better prepared to play her, and she has struggled recently, losing in the first round here. There are countless other examples of players experiencing a dip in form the season after a breakthrough, in which they become the hunted.
Gauff will be a big name in every tournament at which she turns up from now on. Her life has changed overnight. She will be offered wild cards, appearance fees, and there will be huge media interest. It is important for her team to keep her feet on the ground so that she keeps working hard to improve. It would be easy for her head to be turned by everything going on around her.
Her second-round match today will be a big test. Magdalena Rybarikova, the 30-year-old from Slovakia, may be ranked a lowly No 139, but she reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2017 and is a grass-court specialist. She will mix and mess with the pace, slicing and dicing. We will find out a lot more about Gauff as she will not have come up against many junior opponents who play like that. If she gets through it, then there is further cause for excitement.