[Editor's Note: On Saturday, Cori Gauff won the French Open girls' title with a 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 victory over fellow American Caty McNally.]
PARIS—On Thurday afternoon inside Court Philippe Chatrier, two young Americans, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, traded baseline missiles in a bid to become the first U.S. woman other than Serena Williams to reach a French Open final since 2001. Together, Keys and Stephens have made it clearer than ever that the long-awaited future of American women’s tennis has finally become the present.
But if you walked over to the other, quieter side of the Roland Garros grounds on Thursday, and took a seat in the small set of bleachers next to Court 16, you could see a potential new future taking shape. That’s where Florida’s Cori “Coco” Gauff, the 16th seed in the girls’ draw, was taking on No. 6 seed Eleonora Molinaro of Luxembourg. The missiles they were trading back and forth looked every bit as swift as those that were flying in Chatrier.
Everything about this future, frankly, had a familiar look to it. At the end of one row of bleachers sat Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach. Three years ago, Mouratoglou watched Gauff play and liked what he saw; since then, his foundation has contributed to Gauff’s development, and she has trained regularly at his academy, with a special focus on improving the clay-court game she was showing off today.
But while Serena’s coach was in the stands, Gauff herself put one in mind of another member of the Williams family. With her long body—Gauff, who turned 14 in March, is already 5’9”—and very long arms, splay-footed walk, and no-nonsense demeanor, she had the look of a young Venus Williams.
Judging by her results and her performance today, she may also have the game. Through the early going in this match, it looked as if Molinaro, who is three years older than Gauff—a virtual eternity in the juniors—had the edge in terms of pace and consistency; her serve had a startling crack to it. But Gauff, after a few early shanks, adjusted to Molinaro’s pace and then slowly, surely, with gathering confidence and power, grabbed ahold of the rallies and never let go. Her 6-2, 7-6 (1) win advanced her to the semifinals, on a surface that still must feel a little foreign.
“They definitely helped me throughout my game,” Gauff said of her visits to the Mouratoglou Academy, “helped me with spin and to be more consistent and learn how to play on red clay.”
Cori Gauff on playing on clay:
Gauff is impressively polished for a player of high-school age. She has a hitchless service motion that lets her smack flat first serves—she had six aces today—and then change over to a smooth, high-bouncing kick on the second ball. On her forehand side, she didn’t hesitate to drill any short ball she saw crosscourt for winners. But it’s her flat two-handed backhand that she really seems to love to hit—the more pace that’s thrown at her, the better.
And the skill shots that can indicate a player’s talent—the short-angle crosscourt forehand, the slice backhand, the leaping swing volley? She made them all today. The only thing Gauff struggled with was getting the plastic off her new racquet when she changed frames. With a grin, she asked for some extra help from a ball girl.
Gauff lives and trains, and is home-schooled, in Delray Beach, Fla., with her parents, Corey and Candi, and her main coach, Gerard Loglo. If we want to look for signs of future success in her genes, we can find plenty of them. Corey played basketball at Georgia State University, and Candi was a gymnast and a track star—put those backgrounds together and you have a Kim Clijsters-level, Gael Monfils-level pedigree. But when her parents introduced her to the sport at 6, it wasn’t what she did athletically that convinced them to get her involved in tennis. It was the mentality she showed.
“One thing we noticed was that she had a unique ability to concentrate for 15 to 20 minutes,” Corey Gauff told ESPN.com. “As parents, we decided to make no-regrets moves: ‘Let’s get her good coaching and a lot of feedback.’”
Over the last eight years, the feedback and the results have been uniformly good. In 2012, Gauff won the Little Mo 8-and-under nationals. In 2014, at 10, she won the USTA Clay Court 12s. In 2016, she won the Orange Bowl 12s. And last fall, at 13, she became the youngest finalist in the US Open girls’ event. While she lost 6-0, 6-2 to Amanda Anisimova, the 16-year-old needed 10 match points to close Gauff out. There’s that concentration.
Prodigies come, and many prodigies go away before they ever reach the pro level. Everyone around Gauff cautions that superstardom is a long way away, and that expecting another Serena anytime soon will only end in disappointment. For better or worse, Gauff’s evolution will come slowly; girls her age are subject to the WTA’s “Capriati Rule.”
Instituted after Jennifer Capriati’s notorious burnout episodes of the early 1990s, the rule limits the number of tour events a player can enter until she’s 18—at 14, Gauff can play just two. Many, including Corey Gauff, have wondered whether the rule is outdated, and could end up limiting not just Gauff’s schedule, but her development as a player. If she continues to have success against older juniors, we’re likely to hear more on this subject.
For now, Gauff is two matches away from her first junior Grand Slam title. Watching her, there’s no way not to be impressed by her serve, forehand, backhand and overhead, as well as her poise. But what I liked best was what she said. Whenever she lost a point, and then won one, Gauff let out a “Come on!” In her voice, there was a hint of frustration that she had ever let herself lose the previous point, and that she should be winning this match more easily. In that sense, she really did sound like Serena.
If Gauff can keep that attitude, and maintain her love for the sport, she really might end up following in Serena’s—and Madison’s, and Sloane’s—footsteps. She might be launching her missiles over in Chatrier sooner than we think.
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