It’s early July and most schools in the Northern Hemisphere have just started their summer holidays — which is just as well for Cori Gauff. If it were any other time of the year, the 15-year old would have to explain her absence from the classroom missing her history lessons. As it stands now, Gauff — who prefers to be called by her nickname Coco — is making history.
The Florida schoolgirl, who turned 15 less than three months ago, is the youngest-ever player to make her debut at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club — Wimbledon — the oldest and most venerable tournament in the tennis world, certainly when it comes to the four Grand Slam titles of Australia, the US, France and Britain.
And what a debut it was! She eliminated Venus Williams, 24 years her senior.
Gauff’s first name is pronounced the same as her father’s, Corey. “He likes to say every time they call me ‘Cori,’ they’re cheering for him,” Cori said on Monday, with filial exasperation.
Gauff was born in Delray Beach, Florida on March 13, 2004. She grew up in Atlanta before moving back to Delray Beach to focus on tennis.
Her father, Corey, is her primary coach and was a basketball player at Georgia State. Her mother, Candi, was a hurdler and heptathlete at Florida State. All the members of Gauff’s immediate family have the initials C.D.G., including her younger brothers, Cody and Cameron — not that those initials have anything to do with her initial victory at Wimbledon.
Williams had won two of her five Wimbledon titles before Gauff made her appearance in this world. The little starlet had posters of both Venus and Serena Williams on her bedroom wall. A heroine, but certainly not enough for the teen to be awestruck, dismissing Venus 6-4, 6-4 in straight sets.
Motto: Wing it!
What’s more, Gauff became the youngest player to win a main-draw match at the tournament in London SW19 since Jennifer Capriati in 1991.
On Wednesday, Gauff followed up with a 6-3, 6-3 straight-set win over Magdealena Rybarikova to reach the third round. Rybarikova has reached the tournament’s semi-final in 2017.
“I just literally don’t play with any pressure,” Gauff said. “I just tell myself whatever happens happens. I mean, my motto is just, like, wing it.”
Wing it? Who is she trying to kid?
“I want to be the greatest,” she said, evoking boxing icon Muhammad Ali.
Hard-hitting talk indeed, but a look at her meteoric rise shows it’s not an unrealistic ambition from a precocious teen who has long been punching above her weight.
The match with Venus was Gauff’s grand-slam debut in the main draw of the women’s singles but she is already used to the slam stage. She reached the showpiece of the girls’ singles at the US Open in 2017 aged just 13, making her the youngest ever finalist.
At the French Open the following year she won the title just over two months after her 14th birthday.
Among those expecting great things from Gauff is Roger Federer, whose Team 8 management company represents the youngster.
“I’m super happy for her,” the Swiss great said. “I saw the last couple of games when she qualified. Obviously everybody was waiting to see what the draw was going to be like. It’s a great story. Coco is a nice girl, works really hard. I think she’s obviously got a wonderful future ahead of herself.”
She entered her Wimbledon debut ranked 313th by the Women’s Tennis Association, while Williams entered 44th. Despite the chasm in experience, Gauff swept her opponent aside with a mental strength that belied her years.
She entered her Wimbledon debut ranked 313th, while Williams entered 44th. Despite the chasm in experience, Gauff swept her opponent aside with a mental strength that belied her years.
Although she schooled Williams on the court on Monday, Gauff still has plenty of lessons to learn before she reaches the top — not least at school.
Gauff had to stay up late to take a science test at 11pm UK time the night before her final-round qualifier. She went on to beat Greet Minnen 6-1, 6-1 in less than an hour.
“I’ve always challenged her, from the beginning of this when we started, telling her that she’ll be able to change the world with her racket,” her father told the New York Times, with Coco admitting that her father-coach relationship has been difficult at times. Nevertheless, her career is accelerating fast and she is expected to earn $1 million this year in sponsorships from New Balance, racket maker Head and the pasta company Barilla. Small wonder then she’s causing such a racket on the tennis court.
—With inputs from agencies