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Venus Williams and Coco Gauff, once and future champions, are 23 years apart but share a common bond
The cross-generational doubles partners love to play tennis as much as any two people ever have.
Published Jun 02, 2021
WATCH—Venus Williams on handling press obligations: "I know every single person asking me a question can't play as well as I can and never will, so no matter what you say or write, you'll never light a candle to me."
As Venus Williams and Coco Gauff walked to the sideline for a changeover during the first set of their doubles match on Wednesday, a chant of “Born in the U-S-A!” briefly went up from the small contingent of American fans who had gathered to watch them on Court 9. When they got to their bench and sat down, Williams and Gauff couldn’t suppress a shared smile of surprise.
There was no denying the truth of the chant: These two were both born in the USA, one in Lynwood, Calif. in 1980, the other 24 years later in Atlanta. This was their first match as a team, and together they represented this century’s most fruitful U.S. tennis tradition: that of African-American women at the professional level.
As a 17-year-old in 1997, Venus reached the final of the US Open. She was followed there by her sister Serena and Sloane Stephens. Now she was playing alongside Gauff, another 17-year-old who seems destined to make and win Grand Slam finals of her own in the near future. When Gauff beat Venus in the first round at Wimbledon two years ago, it was billed by some as a passing of a torch from one champion to another in the long relay race of tennis history.
But Venus and Coco have something else in common: It’s hard to think of two people anywhere who love to play this sport as much as they do. Venus’s commitment to it hasn’t flagged even after 25 years on tour, and Gauff, a regular in singles and doubles draws every week, can’t get enough. When her regular partner, Caty McNally, injured herself during the qualifying in Paris, Gauff’s father, Corey, sent a long-shot message to Venus asking her if she wanted to team up with his daughter. Coco “wasn’t expecting a yes, to be honest,” but was “super happy” when Venus agreed.
“For me, I love playing tennis,” Gauff said after first-round singles win over Alexandra Krunic on Tuesday. “I try to play all the events that I can. If I could play mixed doubles too, I would, but that’s probably a bit much.
“I love playing doubles and hopefully I can pick up a few things from her.”
While Coco wanted to pick up some tips from her partner, Venus sounded like she was hoping Gauff would do a lot of the shot-making.
“She's so extremely talented that I'll definitely be expecting her to do all the work,” Venus said of Coco.
Both women did a lot of work in their first-rounder against Ellen Perez and Zheng Saisai, and for a set and a half, it looked like it was going to pay off. They won the first in a tiebreaker, and went up a break in the second. Venus brought big returns, an imposing figure at the net, and the experience of having won 14 major titles with her sister Serena. Coco brought her own strong returns and outstanding court coverage. Venus let out a celebratory scream after one of her forehand passes caught the sideline; Gauff let out a “Come on!” after deftly dropping a backhand volley a few inches from the net for a winner. They chatted and laughed together on the sidelines, and fist-bumped like old teammates—though it was usually Coco who ran farther to make those fist-bumps happen.
Still, new doubles teams are new doubles teams, even when they’re as talented as this one. The momentum shifted away from them in the middle of the second set. While Williams and Gauff always seemed to be on the verge of grabbing it back, they couldn’t catch up down the stretch and ended up losing, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3.
For me, I love playing tennis. I try to play all the events that I can. If I could play mixed doubles too, I would, but that’s probably a bit much.—Coco Gauff
Beforehand, Gauff said she hoped they could go on a run at Roland Garros, but it wasn’t meant to be. Still, watching them reminded me of cross-generational teams from the past. At the 1970 US Open, 42-year-old Pancho Gonzales and his protege and fellow rebel, 17-year-old Jimmy Connors, had a blast reaching the quarterfinals. At Wimbledon in 1978, Arthur Ashe and the young Cameroonian whose talent he had recognized seven years earlier, Yannick Noah, reached the second round together. The next year at Wimbledon, 22-year-old Martina Navratilova helped 35-year-old Billie Jean King win her record 20th title on Centre Court. Years later, in 2003, Navratilova, at 49, would team with 18-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova to reach the US Open final.
Doubles teams like these give us a chance to see the continuity of the game’s eras and generations and champions; contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, they really do play the same sport. What links these players of varied ages more than anything is their shared passion for tennis and for competition. In their afternoon together in Paris, Venus and Coco let us see different eras of American, and African-American, tennis history come together in real time. They hit, they ran, they laughed, they fist-bumped—they did what they both love to do most.