Samuel L Jackson. Jaden Smith. Earvin Magic Johnson. Reese Witherspoon. Sportswriter Bill Simmons. Mrs. Tina Knowles, more commonly known as Beyoncé’s mom. Joel Embiid. Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States. My aunt in little ol’ South Carolina. Senator Kamala Harris.
These are a few celebrities and notable figures who have gone out of their way to watch Wimbledon as the Coco Surge has turned from dream to reality.
It’s a dizzying peak of excitement for what Cori “Coco” Gauff is accomplishing. Her success is literally transcending the sport beyond tennis borders.
In the United Kingdom alone, 5 million people watched Gauff become the youngest player to reach the fourth round in a major since 1991. Gauff’s latest win was also the first time a 15-year-old had played on Centre Court at Wimbledon since Steffi Graf defeated 15-year-old Martina Hingis in 1996, not to mention being the first American to cheekily be given a Henman Hill nickname (Coco Cliff). That is a colloquial sign of affection usually reserved for the greatest British hope at the time.
Coco Fever is here, and how dare you not be entertained?
I first saw Coco Gauff play tennis in 2017. She was still only 13, but quietly people had been starting to take notice of her talent since 2012. I don’t normally watch junior events, but as someone who is notable for taking an interest in African American tennis history, a twitter friend messaged me and said, “Hey there’s a young girl who’s taking the U.S. Open junior event by storm, you should probably check her out!”
Turns out that young girl was Coco Gauff.
Instantly I could see why she was being touted for the future. She was tall and athletic. She had excellent movement and shotmaking capacities from defensive positions. Both her forehand and backhand were steady. Her serve needed work, but once the point started it was hard to outcompete Gauff. Even from the young age of 8, she has had a penchant for winning events without dropping a set. Her father Corey noticed during her first tennis lessons that she had an uncanny ability to focus for 15-20 minutes as a six-year-old. With parents who are both athletes — her father was an NCAA-level point guard and her mom was a gymnast, high school champion heptathlete, and NCAA-level track athlete — it’s almost as though tennis is fortunate that Gauff chose the sport.
Still the 2017 U.S. Open was the first junior major she ever played. Gauff entered as a wild card and flew through the draw to the final. It was a lot of fun to watch her compete, solve opponents who were often older than her, and to see how she took direction from her father during the trial coaching sessions that year. Unfortunately her fairy-tale run ended in the final against another player you may have heard about on a big stage recently, 2019 Roland Garros semifinalist Amanda Anisimova.
Funny enough, the most youthful thing about Gauff in that final was her attitude. Her game was professional, as we can see in 2019, but she was prone to bouts of negative emotion. Two years later it’s still astounding to see the strides she has made in two years for a sport that is quite frankly desperate for a changing of the guard, late in an era that has seen four super champions bloom in Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Serena.
Yet we shouldn’t be so quick to wish them away, as Gauff showed in her memorable net exchange last Monday with the perennial Venus Williams:
“At the end, I was just telling her thank you for everything she’s done, her and her sister. They’ve been, like, heroes for me and many other little girls out there. So I was just thanking her. And then she said thank you for saying that to her.”
However, being world number one as a junior doesn’t necessarily mean a successful professional career is on the horizon. As Collete Lewis of ZooTennis.com stated to ESPN, “For every Madison Keys, there’s a Maria Shishkina. For every Daria Gavrilova, there’s a Laura Robson…”
Maybe we all should be more cautious. The feverish urge to observe and opine, which is usually reserved for the Williams Sisters as they have manifested in family battles which have constantly carried the weight of tennis history, creates a lot of pressure for athletes to bear. We also know that an athlete’s peak can come at any time.
So it’s okay to beat our chests now and feel extremely nervous with excitement for this 15-year-old. She doesn’t want to be the next Serena or Venus or Keys or Sloane. Her old Instagram bio when she was just “tenniscoco13” was this: “I am going to be the first Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff.” She is doing a great job of being herself at this Wimbledon.
Safe to say we will remember the name. Let’s allow her to grow into it, though, without imposing too many expectations for the next 10 to 15 years.