Wimbledon, the most famous tennis tournament in the world, is where every young player dreams of one day thriving. But during the first week of the 2019 edition, this day came sooner rather than later for the 15-year-old who goes by the nickname of Coco as she held the fabled lawns and their bleachers captive with an outrageous display of juvenile ambition and talent.
Cori Gauff, who was dealing with school exams just days before the strawberries and crème de la crème event started, persevered through the qualifying event to secure her place in the main draw and set up, as fate would have it, a first-round match against Venus Williams.
Beating the five-time champion would have made the All England Club – given its rich history and sense of occasion – acutely aware that it might be seeing another young star burst forth under its watch. The club’s members have watched the likes of Boris Becker, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis and Roger Federer emerge and then bloom for many an English summer.
As much as they adore their legends, those on Henman Hill and other vantage points generally root for the underdog. Perhaps because it is the lesser lights that are the true dreamers, arriving in London with stars in their eyes and adrenaline coursing through their veins.
This is the ultimate stage. Wimbledon is the most special tournament in the world. It takes over an English village for a fortnight, with the eternal ping of string on ball followed by roars of approval.
Taking down Venus on her first day
It can be daunting for those easily overwhelmed by the history and storied buildings, the immaculately turned out crowds and the mid-summer hum of Britain. But that wasn’t Gauff on day one. She aimed for the stars and brazenly took down a planet. She thrilled the world with her poise. Her display against Venus Williams, in the opening round, was the stuff of dreams.
She had sent her coach a text message to find out who she was up against in her first main draw at Wimbledon. When the response came, she assumed she’d be having a practice session with Williams ahead of the match.
When it dawned on her that the older Williams sister was her opening opponent, the twinkle in her eye betrayed her true ambitions. The Williams sisters and their accomplishments have been a driving force ever since Gauff picked up a racquet. Watching them scorch through the 2000s, dominating and transcending the sport, convinced her of a career path. To this day, she has a poster of Serena on her bedroom wall.
The intimacy of Grand Slam tennis allows spectators to gauge the emotions of a player’s camp. Perched in their box, the Gauffs were a thrill a minute, willing their baby over the line, thumping chests swollen with parental pride.
Their daughter’s gift to them was to take down a legend. And then prove it was no fluke by taking Magdalena Rybarikova down in two sets in the second round, surviving two match points in the third against Polona Hercog and booking a date with eventual champion Simona Halep in round four, making it to the second week of the tournament.
It was truly outrageous, and it was her composure that stood out.
‘A complete star’
“It just shows that even though I’m young, my game gives these players a little bit of a hustle,” young Gauff said, trying to make sense of her adventure to reporters. “I can’t put into words how I feel. I don’t know how long it will take until it sinks in.”
She charmed Wimbledon and the world with her exuberance, her ability to hold her nerve amid the mounting attention and expectation and, most importantly, her skills on the tennis court.
“She’s a complete star. I personally was nothing like her at 15. First of all, I didn’t play like that,” said Serena Williams of the new kid on the block. “She’s just so poised. I was somewhere watching cartoons, for sure.”
As she prepared to play against Halep, Gauff received a message from former American first lady Michelle Obama, congratulating her on what had already come but, much more than that, what would still be.
“It was definitely the best week of my life,” she said bashfully to the British Broadcasting Corporation.
It seems highly likely that she will have even better weeks to come, but she crammed a heck of a lot into Coco Week at Wimbledon.
Already managed by the company formed by Federer, Gauff is well on her way to becoming a massive star. Once she is done with science and maths and literature, that is.
Incredibly, some of her school teachers in Florida didn’t know she played tennis until she showed up on their screens and in the news. Just a year ago, she struggled in the junior tournament on the same lawns, going out in the quarterfinals.
That anonymous junior performance made what she delivered in 2019 even more incredible. Out of seemingly nowhere, Gauff shocked the world. Just by qualifying through the Roehampton event, she made history as the youngest player in the main draw in the Open era.
When she got to the last 32, she was the youngest to do so since 15-year-old Capriati in 1991. The hotel at which she and her parents were based grew familiar with the Gauff routine at breakfast, when they headed to the reservations desk again and again to extend their stay.
“First we were just booked for a week, and then we extended that for another week. And then we’re having to extend that again,” Gauff’s father smiled. “Coco wanted to get to the second week and now she really wants to win the tournament,” said Corey Gauff on the WTA’s official website ahead of her fourth-round match against Halep.
A Halep of a roadblock
It wasn’t to be, but the impression she made at Wimbledon earned her an ovation and left spectators wanting more. Gauff’s thriller against Hercog even forced the all-star mixed doubles pairing of Serena Williams and Andy Murray to wait a day before taking centre stage.
As Gauff exited, the relentless Williams found another gear. She drove towards yet another singles final and, perhaps more poignantly, thrilled audiences with her mixed doubles turn with Murray.
The two champions were slapping high fives and flicking smiles at each other and Wimbledon lapped it up, besotted with two legends having a genuine laugh, even in sincere competition.
For Williams, there has been a lot going on. Along with a double pursuit for glory, she also released an essay on what happened in the 2018 US Open final against Naomi Osaka.
Her clash with the chair umpire overshadowed Osaka’s maiden Grand Slam victory and the emotional swell that followed haunted Williams for months.
She assessed her place in the game, reached out to Osaka, and then resolved to keep standing up for herself, as she has done throughout her career. Williams’ place in tennis history was assured a long, long time ago, but she wants her legacy to be about more than just winning multiple Slams. Breaking boundaries and shaking off the shackles of oppression in a sport that took a long time to love her is important to Williams.
There are also other battles to be fought in women’s tennis and the likes of Williams and former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka are at the forefront of the drive to better address women’s needs in the sport.
They are mothers now and want to see motherhood afforded the respect and time it deserves. As such, the leading players are pushing for paid maternity leave in the game. “Tennis is just a game, but family is forever,” Williams once said.
Advocating for women’s rights and better pay
Some sponsors still see motherhood as a loophole to pay women less, as happened to Azarenka. It is a mindset that discriminates against women and the noise against that stance is finally becoming louder than a murmur.
Williams has long advocated for women to be paid better for their exploits. As the most decorated player of her era, her voice is one of the loudest and she doesn’t shy away from the responsibility to improve standards for all.
Williams’ essay showed glimpses of the deep pain the game has caused her, even amid significant triumph and joy. At nearly 38 years of age, the game doesn’t know how much longer it will have Williams around. While men’s tennis has a clutch of rivalries, Williams has often carried the torch alone.
Her numbers are phenomenal, while her longevity and ensuring quality are a testament to ambition and dedication. Gauff and the next generation couldn’t have wished for a more shimmering example of talent truly fulfilled.
It was on that premise that most assumed she would find a way to her 24th Grand Slam singles title. Destiny and all that. But no one reckoned on Halep finding the touch of her life on grass and dealing Williams an even more emphatic defeat than she had inflicted on Gauff in the fourth round.
There was stunned silence initially, but that grew into a wonderful ovation for the Romanian tennis star. Halep won over any fence-sitters with a victory speech so refreshingly honest, charming and revealing that only the most stony spectator could begrudge her this moment.
For Williams, the All England Club provided even more sustained ovations for a queen of the sport whose reign has spanned two decades and influenced millions. That reign is nearing its end, though, as Williams focuses beyond tennis.
The next few years may be the last that the initials SW are seen in the singles competition and that is a reality the game would rather not confront. They love their champions in this enchanted corner of the world and would rather say goodbye to the likes of Federer and Williams in victory.
But SW19 is also acutely aware of the vagaries of time. Even truly wondrous players like Williams and Federer eventually slow down to join the Stefan Edbergs and Bjorn Borgs, the Billie-Jean Kings and Martina Navratilovas in the members’ seats.
Wimbledon loves a fairy tale, but happily ever after is not how this unending story wraps itself up. The grass will grow again in 2020 and the next generation will play again, chasing their chapter of tennis rapture.
Whether we will see Federer and Williams at Wimbledon again is anyone’s guess. But come what may, all the world can say is thank you. For everything. Not only did they make magic at Wimbledon, but their star power continues to inspire many generations, those who have played at Wimbledon and those who will do so in the future.
Even when Serena isn’t winning any titles, she is still winning thanks to her courageous fight for equality and inspiring generations who wouldn’t have graced this hallowed grass if it wasn’t for her.