Coco Gauff – “The Next”…Time Will Tell

By Mark Winters

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Staying updated in today’s tennis world has become a matter of regular tweet checks. For many quick-news subscribers, July 1, 2019 remains memorable. On that Monday, at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Cori “Coco” Gauff defeated Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-4 in the first round of The Championships.

Actually, June 28 was more significant because Gauff, who received a wild card for the qualifying event, overwhelmed Greet Minnen of Belgium 6-1, 6-1 to become the youngest player in the Open Era to qualify for Wimbledon.

Coco Gauff
Coco Gauff pictured in June 2019, before the start of the Wimbledon Championships. Photo: Paul Marriott

Those successes vaulted the 15-year-old to the top of “The Next” list. She improved her standing further by scoring a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia in the second round.

Her next match earned feature story status as she escaped with a dramatic 3-6, 7-6, 7-5 decision against Polona Hercog of Slovenia. Simona Halep of Romania, who ended up winning the Ladies’ Singles championship, finally put a stop to Gauff’s run 6-3, 6-3 in the fourth round.

After her London debut, the Coco Gauff version of the “Magical Mystery Tour” continued. Last summer, she qualified at the Citi Open, in Washington, D.C., but lost in the first round of singles. Undaunted, she teamed with her good friend Caty McNally, and together they won the doubles title.

After their victory at the 2019 Citi Open, Caty McNally & Cori Gauff team again at the US Open. Photo: Jimmie48 Photography

At the US Open, defending champion Naomi Osaka of Japan defeated Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in the third round. 

In October, the Linz Open hosted the next “Coco Moment” After losing in the final round of qualifying, she earned a spot in the main draw as a Lucky Loser. She, then, marched through the competitive field, defeating Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 in the final.

Not only did she claim her first WTA tour title, she became the youngest champion since 2004 and with the victory, she made her Top 100 singles debut.

“Coco-Mania” has become a tennis tsunami. It is captivating; enchanting says it better. It grows each time she is interviewed. The Delray Beach, Florida resident has extraordinary presence that is supported by a growing sophistication bolstered by her eclectic attitudes and surprisingly mature intellect.

More important, it is clear she understands the game’s on and off court complexities. Quite simply, she has established “The Gauff Standard.”

Maxi Duncan and Cori Gauff
Maxi Duncan and Cori Gauff – National Girls’ 12 Clay Court Doubles finalists. Photo: USTA

Her solid grasp of all that is involved in dealing with “The Next” expectations is well founded. Her parents, Corey and Candi Gauff, along with direction offered by Patrick Mouratoglou, who has guided Serena Williams for years, have helped the youngster remain poised and focused.

“The Next” has been a tennis topic with a half-life similar to that of Bismuth. Like the element, it has been around forever. Because of the nature of the sport, the women’s game is a book full of “The Next” chapters – some short, some long.

It is actually fitting that the one of the most well-read chapters took place twenty-years before in London. At The Championships in 1999, three youngsters were Coco before Coco.

Jelena Dokic, a 16-year-old Australian qualifier, defeated the No. 1 seed Martina Hingis of Switzerland, 6-2, 6-0 in the first round. Her storybook first Wimbledon appearance continued up to the quarterfinals when Alexandra Stevenson of the US, an 18-year-old qualifier also playing the event for the first time, won 6-3, 1-6, 6-3. Lindsay Davenport of the US eliminated Stevenson, 6-1, 6-1 in the semifinals.

Mirjana Lucic (who is now Mirjana Lucic Baroni) of Croatia was 17 and as a Special Exempt was taking part in The Championships for the second time. She played with a veteran’s maturity reaching the semifinals where Steffi Graf of Germany edged her 6-7, 6-4, 6-3. (Davenport downed Graf in the title round 6-4, 7-5.)

Sadly, Dokic and Lucic will forever be associated because of the cruelty of their fathers. Damir Dokic’s abuse of Jelena was regularly documented. Marinko Lucic’s dealings with Mirjana didn’t receive quite as much attention, but his actions were equally brutal.

Stevenson was in an altogether different situation because her father was a newsmaker in another way. She grew up in San Diego, California and early in her tennis career, it was rumored that her mother, Samantha Stevenson, a long-time journalist, had had a liaison with Julius Erving, the former National Basketball Association star known as “Dr. J”, when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers. The relationship resulted in Alexandra’s birth in December 1980.

The day Stevenson reached the semifinals, Washington Post staff writer, Rachel Alexander, who is now Rachel Nichols and covers the NBA for ESPN television, announced in her column that Dr. J was Stevenson’s father.

Wimbledon was a premier for Dokic, Lucic Baroni and Stevenson. One can only speculate what the first two players could have realized had they not been haunted by their fathers’ behavior. Stevenson’s mother, Samantha, became her “stage” parent and seems to have never allowed her to grow into an adult.

Given the emotional turmoil they all dealt with, the three had decent though not compelling professional careers. In the end, it doesn’t appear they realized the “future” that seemed to be theirs for the taking in 1999.

For all that goes into playing the game well, tennis’s evaluation equation is painfully simple. In a match, there is a winner and a loser. Problems result when young winners are pushed into the glare of the spotlight far too soon. With all the hype surrounding “The Next”, pages are regularly being added to the story. Women from the US are often in the narrative.

Taylor Townsend, the 2012 International Tennis Federation Junior World Champion (the year she turned pro), is a case in point. The left-hander, who enthralled spectators with a masterful serve and volley performance during the tournament, upset Simona Halep of Romania 6-2, 3-6, 7-6, in the second-round of last year’s US Open.

In what became a career best showing at a major, Townsend reached the fourth round before Bianca Andreescu of Canada, the tournament’s eventual champion, triumphed 6-1, 4-6, 6-2. Overall, Townsend, who turns 24 in April, has produced wildly fluctuating year-end rankings. In 2013, she finished the season No. 274. When the curtain came at the end of 2019, she was No. 80.

At 15, Whitney Osuigwe of the US defeated countrywoman Claire Liu in the 2017 Roland Garros Junior Girls’ final. She finished the year as the ITF Junior World Champion.

In 2018, she won the US National Girls’ 18 singles title and earned a wild card into the US Open women’s singles draw. Since then her progress has been hindered by untimely losses and injuries. Nonetheless, as of this writing, she is the youngest player ranked inside the WTA Top 200 at 139.

Being athletic and having the ability to hit telling strokes is only a part of becoming a “real” player. Stating the obvious, professional tennis is physically demanding.

The career of Tornado Alicia Black of the US is a prime example. A 2013 US Open Girls’ Junior finalist to Ana Konjuh of Croatia, she is now 22 and has been unable to compete since having hip surgery in 2017. Along with her sister Hurricane Tyra, who is 19, the Blacks were touted as “The Next” Williams sisters…but there has been little such talk of late.

The long-running effort to find a player(s) to step into Serena and Venus’s shoes has been unrelenting. 

Robin Montgomery, who will be 16 in September, and Clervie Ngounoue, who turns 14 in July, are among the latest being discussed. The US youngsters have been drawing rave reviews. Since they will play junior grand slam and ITF events in 2020, they are in the “Wait and See” category.

It is not surprising that Gauff and Osuigwe, who have yet to turn 18, are in a select group of youngsters ranked in the WTA Top 240. As it turns out, they aren’t alone. Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, Lelah Annie Fernandez of Canada and Daria Snigur of Ukraine are also members of the elite Under 18 group.

Will any of these candidates become “The Next”? Before there is any clarity, it is important to pause and wait to see if Gauff, and her cohorts, have the mental dexterity to balance the stress of playing against the best week in and week out.

Physical development, along with wisely scheduling practices and competitions, are steps essential for progress to be made. Currently, Gauff, who is long and lanky, and the others, are growing into their bodies. Avoiding the injury issues that have impaled so many other young careers is of critical importance.

Being new on the competitive scene, other players were initially unaware of Gauff’s playing patterns and the “go-to shots” she used on important points. Now that there is no longer a “surprise factor”, opponents are developing a “book” on her tactics. This means Gauff, who appears to be very strategically savvy, will have to broaden the dimensions of her game.

Looking ahead, it is important to remember she will have points to defend at Wimbledon, Citi Open and the US Open. Certainly, her objective will be to surpass the 2019 success she enjoyed at these tournaments. In the process, it is critical that is allowed to develop while remaining true to herself.

Will Coco Gauff be “The Next”, time, as always, will tell. But, an indication of what the future may hold can be found in a comment she made as a 12-year-old, speaking with ESPN Senior Writer Greg Garber. “I want to be the greatest of all time.” That was in January 2017.

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