Coco Gauff, like Serena Williams did, tempts us to look ahead
Entering the US Open, the 19-year-old is coming off two of the biggest wins of her career
Four years ago, when Coco Gauff defeated her heroine, Venus Williams, we wanted to fast-track her to the top. She looked and sounded like a Williams sister on the biggest stage in tennis – Wimbledon.
We forgot about the little things.
There are hints of meticulousness in the pro landscape – the manicured lawns, the pitch-perfect presentations. Those hints should remind us that greatness requires a similar attention to detail.
The game itself doesn’t care whether you’re a teen prodigy or not. Lofty expectations can be quickly struck down by opponents who perceive weakness. Concerns about Gauff’s forehand play rose after a loss in February to Veronika Kudermetova in Qatar, which inspired ESPN commentator and former pro Mary Jo Fernandez to suggest a “six- to eight-month break.”
Months later, at the site of her introduction to the world, Gauff lost a three-set heartbreaker to Sofia Kenin at Wimbledon. Targeting Gauff’s forehand had become an effective strategy.
We’ve seen a different Gauff ever since her Wimbledon setback — one who has made highlights at the net and has done the work to transition from child genius to contender ahead of this week’s US Open.
In those clips, her game reminds me of Serena Williams — specifically a video that had captured my dad and kid brother far beyond social media attention spans. I walked in my dad’s house a few weeks ago, and they were trapped in a YouTube rabbit hole – 21 Minutes of Incredible Serena Williams Points at Wimbledon.
“Why are y’all watching this?” I inquired.
“Why not?” my kid brother responded.
I settled in and just laughed – at improbable shots and line-tagging lasers. Excellence at the net and affirmative exultation.
When Gauff won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati on Aug. 20, I noticed a hint of greatness. It wasn’t because she finally knocked off world’s No. 1 Iga Swiatek or had a streak of 11 wins in 12 matches. It was that trademark twirl that Gauff displayed, the same playful pirouette from Venus and Serena Williams that personified grace under fire.
It’s been a banner summer for Black women in sports competition. Simone Biles made her triumphant return with an eighth U.S. gymnastics championship, and Gabby Douglas told us that she’s taking aim at the Olympic Games in 2024. During the same weekend Gauff wrapped up the singles title, the unseeded duo of Taylor Townsend and Alycia Parks clinched the doubles crown in Cincinnati. Off the court, Naomi Osaka, famously a picture of serenity, became a mother.
Perhaps the most compelling comeback story was that of Sha’Carri Richardson. The sprinter’s finishing kick at the 100 meters of the World Athletics Championships overcame the favored Jamaican speedsters and offered a defiant and long-awaited rebuke of naysayers who said that Richardson – widely seen as the second coming of Olympic sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner – was a flash in the pan.
In short, we’ve been spoiled. Much like Serena Williams painted the white lines at Wimbledon and all over the world, the surname Williams is spread throughout the list of major championship winners from 1999 to 2017. I’ve gotten so used to Black women – excuse me, Williamses – lifting the trophy over their heads that Osaka’s back-to-back majors from the US Open in 2018 and the Australian Open in 2019 are not enough to satisfy me.
“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” my dad would tell me in my days as a ravenous child. Despite the brilliance of Black women in tennis, the game is not a buffet line. We should appreciate the fine dining of it all.
Part of the brilliance of “King Richard,” the father of Venus and Serena Williams, is that he knew where his greatness stopped. He was a master motivator and meticulous dream merchant. His daughters needed more, hence the addition of tennis coach Paul Cohen to the Williams empire.
Gauff’s team made changes before her first-round loss to Sofia Kenin at Wimbledon. First came a coaching change before Wimbledon in the hiring of Pere Riba in June, then shortly after the tournament, the acquisition of Brad Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi to Grand Slam glory and and Andy Roddick to win the US Open, in July.
It would have been easy to chalk the loss up to a bad draw against Kenin, a former major winner who was once ranked second in the world, but that’s not how championship accountability works. Kenin hit toward Gauff’s forehand and forced 16 forehand errors. Overall, Gauff had 33 unforced errors.
After the match, Gauff lamented her serve and the tentativeness of her forehand in an interview with ESPN:
“When asked after the match what she feels she needs to work on in the coming months, Gauff said, ” ‘Taking care of my service games. I do think I’m a better server than [Kenin], but she took care of more of the plus-ones and plus-twos a lot better than I did. And, obviously, my forehand, being more aggressive on those shots.’ “
Perhaps Wimbledon, for better and for worse, is a flashpoint for Gauff. She has followed up the tournament with two of the biggest wins in her career, both in Cincinnati and at the Citi Open in Washington. The Citi Open win earlier in August was her first at the WTA 500 mark, and the Western & Southern Open crown was her first win at the WTA 1000 level. She joked about “doubling up” on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, but as the final major of the year quickly approaches, I can’t help but quote the late rapper Nipsey Hussle:
“Double up / I ain’t tellin’ no lies,” he famously rapped. “I just run it up / Never let a hard time humble us.”
The temptation to look ahead is ever present. Five hundred rankings points, one thousand points, two thousand points for a Grand Slam. A win in the US Open would put Gauff, who will be the sixth seed at the Open, among the queens – the Gibsons, Williamses, Osakas and Sloane Stephenses of the world.
Much like Gauff has charted her path with her experiences at Wimbledon, Serena Williams did the same at the Open. She won her first major there in 1999 over Martina Hingis at the age of 17. She twirled toward retirement just last year as she summoned her magic for three memorable rounds.
I’m trying my best to temper my expectations, even as there are so many signs that it’s happening again – a Black family leading its wunderkind daughter to tennis immortality. For now, I’ll just be satisfied with a victorious twirl – the most confident of signs that things are turning in our favor once again.