Coco Gauff is the youngest at Wimbledon, but she plays a grown-up game

Coco Gauff is the youngest at Wimbledon, but she plays a grown-up game

The 15-year-old's canny game and all-business demeanor are straight from the old-school.

There’s a word, it seems, for how 15-year-old Coco Gauff is feeling this week.

She says she’s “super shocked” to still be at Wimbledon. And she’s “super blessed” that the tournament gave her a wild card into the qualifying draw. She was “super happy’ to beat her idol, Venus Williams, who was “super nice” to her. 

Really, what other term can we use to describe this super teen right now? With her 6-3, 6-3 win over 2017 semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova on Wedndesday, Gauff, the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon in the Open era, has now won five matches (counting qualies), all of them in straight sets.

Away from the court, Gauff can’t suppress a giggle at what’s happening to her, and around her.

“The pros who have been here for a long time, they’re serious,” she said after her early encounters with the London paparazzi. “But I can’t [help but] laugh, because it’s weird for people to take pictures of me and not smile.”

On the court, though, Gauff’s smile—much like Venus’—has vanished completely as she has gone about the adult business of mowing down the ladies’ competition. Which makes sense, because Gauff already plays a very grown-up game. Yes, she’s physically imposing and athletically gifted; she’s a long-limbed 5’10’’ who hits with easy power and can track down virtually any drop shot. But what’s truly jaw-dropping is the heady, cagey, ultra-practical way that Gauff uses those gifts. She’s just 15, but she already has a lot to teach any tennis player.

Start with her serve. She can hit it upwards of 115 M.P.H., and she belted one nearly that fast on a key second serve against Venus. But mostly she’s content to use a hard, safe slice that bends away from her opponent. Against Rybarikova, Gauff hit just two aces—both on big points—but she won 85 percent of points on her first serve.

Then go to her return. Gauff may never be famous for this shot, but she makes a lot of returns and doesn’t give away a lot of free points. She has long arms, good anticipation and she knows how to move forward and cut off the angle, rather than letting the ball come to her. As with so much else in her game, Gauff also knows how to play the percentages; she hits her returns with force, but rarely goes for all-out winners on the first ball. Rybarikova won just 36 percent of points on her second serve.

Finally, there are Gauff’s ground strokes. As with her serve and return, she strikes the right balance between margin and aggression, safety and creativity from the baseline.

In the past, Gauff has struggled with her forehand technique and consistency, and she does have a long swing. But she can already do a lot of things with the shot. She can roll it crosscourt with heavy topspin on one ball, and crack a flat inside-out winner on the next. She can come under it when she wants to throw a different spin at her opponent, and she can increase her racquet-speed for more topspin when she’s putting the ball away. On match point, Gauff seemed to get a little tight, so she did what any smart would do; she put more air under forehand and gave herself more margin for error. It worked, as Rybarikova finally missed:

Gauff’s highlight-reel shot, at least so far, is her backhand. She leans into it beautifully, and she can curl it past her opponents at the net, or knock it past them at the baseline. On a couple of occasions against Rybarikova, Gauff followed a crosscourt backhand winner with one that went down the line. Rybarikova could only stare as another of Gauff’s shots found the edge of the sideline.

Gauff’s precociousness extends to matters of pro-tour etiquette and emotional self-control as well. She knows that if you win a point in which one of your shots clips the tape, you hold your arm up to your opponent in semi-sincere apology while looking the other way (only when you win the point outright on a net cord do you make eye contact with the other player). She knows that when you slip and fall, and your opponent asks if you’re OK, you flash her a quick thumbs up. She knows that if you lose two points in a row, you ask for the towel from the ball kid and take a few extra seconds before starting the next point. So far Gauff isn’t a big grunter or celebrator, and she doesn’t look up to her parents all that often.

“I think I can beat anyone who’s across the court,” she said, without a smile, afterward. “If I don’t think I could win the match, I won’t step on the court.”

Gauff may be the youngest player around, but it doesn’t get any more old-school than that. We may be watching her win for a super-long time.