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Meet Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old who has everyone at Wimbledon talking

4:09 PM ET
  • D'Arcy MaineESPN

LONDON -- Corey Gauff still remembers watching the 2009 Australian Open final between Serena Williams[1] and Dinara Safina[2].

It was early morning at their family home in Atlanta, but his young daughter was captivated by the match on the screen. Williams ultimately won in convincing fashion, 6-0, 6-3, to claim her 10th Grand Slam title. "She's the GOAT," Corey remembers saying in awe.

His daughter, then 4, didn't know what "GOAT" meant, but once he explained it stood for "Greatest of All Time," her eyes got wide, and she said defiantly: "I want to be the GOAT."

Corey told her she could be one day if she worked hard enough -- not knowing if she would ever love tennis or anything enough to actually achieve that dream, but wanting to make sure she knew she could do anything she set her mind to. He kept telling her that as she got older.

Fast forward 10 years and that same young girl is already leading some to wonder whether her bold declaration might actually come true.

On Monday, Cori "Coco" Gauff[3], now 15, crouched to her knees, put her hands to her head and then stood up triumphantly, choking back tears. She had just defeated her longtime hero, Venus Williams[4], in straight sets -- at Wimbledon, of all places -- in her first main draw appearance at a Grand Slam, and it seemed she had just realized the weight of the moment.

A moment she had been working toward since she first picked up a tennis racket.

After shaking Venus' hand -- and thanking Venus for everything she has done for the sport -- the young phenom couldn't help it. She cried with happiness. Coco Gauff had officially arrived on the world stage.

"I think the sky's the limit, it really is," Venus said after the match. "She did everything well today. She put the ball in the court, which was much better than I did. She served well, moved well. It was a great match for her."

And it wasn't just Venus who took notice. Others on the WTA and ATP tours watched in amazement as well.

"I thought it was super special for Coco," Roger Federer[5] said after his first-round win Tuesday. "I thought she handled it great. She wanted to be on the big court. She wanted to play against her idol. That's what good players -- that's where they shine, I'd say."

"I've known [Coco] since she was 7, so a long time," Sloane Stephens[6] said on Tuesday after her first-round win. "[Coco] is a great young lady. I really like her. I think she is a really amazing player. Obviously, to beat Venus on a stage like that yesterday is incredible.

"Just for her to qualify, I think that was a very huge step just for her in general. Obviously, to beat someone you looked up to your whole life, even more amazing. ... I think she's on the right path. I think she has two great parents that are looking out for her, protecting her, making sure she has everything she needs. From that sense, I think there's nothing but positives coming out of that corner. We'll just have to see. By the time she really peaks, I'll probably be retired."


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1:11

Coco Gauff says she wasn't surprised to draw Venus Williams in the first round, and is excited to have played one of the greats at Wimbledon.

Corey Gauff played college basketball at Georgia State, and his wife, Candi, was a track star at Florida State. They encouraged Coco to try every activity they could think of -- basketball, track, dance, gymnastics, cheerleading, soccer, you name it. She was a natural at everything she tried -- even winning the first 5K race she ever ran -- but tennis was her favorite.

Corey had played casually while growing up but hadn't seen many players of color. He was inspired by the Williams sisters and their father-turned-coach, Richard Williams. He used their strategy as a model, eventually moving his family to Delray Beach, Florida, to ensure Coco was able to get the best training possible.

It didn't take long for her to show a rare talent. At 11, she worked with Serena's coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, at his facility in France. She won the Junior Orange Bowl title the following year, in 2016, joining the likes of Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati. She then won the 2018 French Open junior singles title and the 2018 US Open junior doubles title with Caty McNally. The comparisons to the Williams sisters began, and tennis insiders began to take notice.

"She really started to impress me, and make me think she could play at the next level, when she would be down at these really big events, with so many people there and with so much pressure, and she would find a way to win," Corey said. "She would have to come back from behind and she would just come up with these amazing shots and show such gumption.

"I remember one match where she lost the first set 6-0, and then was down 5-0 in the second, and she somehow turned it around and won it. I asked her after what happened, or what clicked, and she just said she really didn't want to lose. It's those nerves and ability that make her so special."

Coco turned pro in 2018 and made her WTA debut at the Miami Open in March of this year, winning her first match before losing in the second round. She signed endorsement deals with New Balance and Barilla. She lost in the second round of qualifying at Roland Garros but was dominant during Wimbledon qualifying. She won three matches to line up her opening-round main draw clash with Venus.

Monday's match was hyped as a battle between one of the sport's legends and one if its brightest future hopes. Perhaps no one was more excited for it than Serena, who even said beforehand she might watch it -- a rarity, as she usually gets too nervous to watch her sister play.

"She's such a fantastic young lady," Serena said at Saturday's media day. "She works very hard. Every time I have work, I see her out there working, training, her and her dad. It reminds me of the time where I was out there with my dad. I can't help but look inside of myself and be proud and be happy for her. Yeah, so it's really nice to see."

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Serena Williams shares her thoughts on Coco Gauff after it was revealed the teenager had a poster of the 23-time Grand Slam champion on her wall.

Serena doubled down on her praise of Coco on Tuesday following her own first-round win.

"I don't know. I just love Coco and her family," Serena said. "They're just really sweet. Her dad is just a good guy. She's pretty awesome and pretty cool. Honestly, I feel honored that I was on her wall [as a poster] at some point in her life. Soon she'll be on other girls' walls. It's nice, because it will keep it going from the next generation to next generation."

With Monday's victory, Coco became the youngest player to win a match in the main draw at a Grand Slam since Anna Kournikova at the 1996 US Open, and the youngest at Wimbledon since Capriati in 1991. (By the time Coco was born, Venus had already won four of her seven Grand Slam titles.) The expectations for the young American have skyrocketed overnight -- literally -- and she went from being part of the sport's future to very much being part of the game's present.

She next faces 30-year-old Magdalena Rybarikova[7], who knocked off No. 10 seed Aryna Sabalenka[8], in the second round Wednesday as the last match of the day on Court No. 2. Corey, who used to be an assistant basketball coach, says he has been studying film from Coco's win over Venus, as well as film of Rybarikova.

"I was up until 3 a.m. watching Coco's returns and serves," he said Tuesday. "I used to do the scouting reports and work with the statistical data during my basketball coaching days, so it's just natural for me to watch the videos. I look at percentages, and what each opponent likes to do and doesn't like to do. I run each practice specifically based on who she plays next, and we focus completely on that match. Rybarikova is going to be tough, but I think if Coco plays her best, she's got a really good chance to be successful here."


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1:49

Tom Rinaldi gets Corey and Candi Gauff to reminisce about watching their daughter, Cori, stun Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon.

While she showed poise and talent well beyond her years on Monday, and during a practice session that drew much attention (and was just two courts away from Serena), Coco is still very much a teenager. She loves music (Beyonce and Rihanna are two of her favorites), meme culture ("And I Oop" is her current go-to) and watching sports. She wore a "Fun Guy" shirt to her postmatch news conference on Monday, in reference to NBA star Kawhi Leonard[9], who she admires for his quiet leadership and incredible skill. She's home-schooled, and even had a science test this week. She got a B.

And she may not typically cry after tennis matches, but she does during movies. (Spoiler alert: Don't read the following quote if you haven't seen "Avengers: Endgame.")

"Actually [during] the movie 'Endgame' when Iron Man died, I was crying," she said when trying to remember the last time she cried before Monday. "Every time I think of it, I get teary-eyed because I really liked Iron Man."

During the closing credits of "Endgame," a teenage Spider-Man is anointed to pick up where his hero and mentor, Iron Man, left off. It doesn't require a movie geek to see the parallels between the film and Coco's win over Venus. While Venus has said nothing about her career being anywhere near over, it's tempting to think Coco could eventually emerge from the Williams sisters' success and carry on their storied legacy.

Coco herself certainly seems to believe she could do just that.

"I've said this before: I want to be the greatest," Coco said. "I'm still not 100 percent confident. But you have to just say things. You never know what happens. If I went into this match saying, 'Let's see how many games I can get against her,' then I most definitely would not have won.

"My goal was to play my best. My dream was to win. That's what happened. I think people just kind of limit themselves too much. Once you actually get your goal, then it's like, 'What do you do now?' I like to shoot really high so that way I always have many goals along the road, but that way you have the ultimate goal."

References

  1. ^ Serena Williams (www.espn.com)
  2. ^ Dinara Safina (www.espn.com)
  3. ^ Cori "Coco" Gauff (www.espn.com)
  4. ^ Venus Williams (www.espn.com)
  5. ^ Roger Federer (www.espn.com)
  6. ^ Sloane Stephens (www.espn.com)
  7. ^ Magdalena Rybarikova (www.espn.com)
  8. ^ Aryna Sabalenka (www.espn.com)
  9. ^ Kawhi Leonard (www.espn.com)
  10. ^ Watch All the Action on ESPN Networks (www.espn.com)

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