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Giddy, gravity-defying innocence: The prodigy phenomenon of Coco Gauff

Giddy, gravity-defying innocence: The prodigy phenomenon of Coco Gauff

Prodigies bring a pure, gravity-defying innocence to sports, one that tennis fans haven’t seen enough of in recent years. On Friday, Coco Gauff shook Centre Court to its century-old foundations with her thrilling, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5 win over Polona Hercog.

Coco Gauff shook Centre Court to its century-old foundations with her thrilling, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5 win over Polona Hercog on Friday. The 15-year-old came back from the dead—or 2-5 in the second set, anyway—and saved two match points, one with a backhand slice that skidded off the line. She won the second-set tiebreaker on a 32-shot rally. She survived her own mini-meltdown in the third, when she let a 4-1 lead slip away. When the match was over, the lanky Floridian jumped up and down and threw her arms in the air much the way another lanky teenage Floridian, Venus Williams, had on the same court two decades ago. By that point, Gauff was the No. 1 trending item, worldwide, on Twitter, and Henman Hill sounded like it as hosting the Rolling Stones. If Gauff had her star-is-born moment when she beat Venus on Monday, by Friday she had already learned to walk.

Match point:

One of the women commentating on the match for the BBC was Tracy Austin. Sometime during the third set, the network’s play-by-play announcer asked her if she could imagine what it would be like to be in this type of situation, in front of this crowd, as a 15-year-old. Austin certainly could: It was a little jarring to realize that, as amazing as Gauff’s week has been, Austin first played Wimbledon in 1977 when she was 14, and she won the US Open when she was 16.

It was a reminder that tennis, which is now the province of grizzled, superstar 30-somethings, was once identified with the child prodigy. Austin, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg, Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis, Venus and Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal: all of their careers were launched with major-title runs in their teens. More recently, though, the prodigy has been the exception rather than the rule. On the ATP side, the old guard continues to dominate, and the Next Gen continues to flounder. (Beckett had Waiting for Godot, we have Waiting for Zverev.) On the WTA side, while Serena has been her own one-woman old guard for the last decade, 21-year-old Naomi Osaka has at least given us hope that the sport will have a future.

At 15, Gauff is a different, giddier, more startling and Cinderella-esque story entirely. Before Monday, she had never played a main-draw match at a Grand Slam, and she was only able to play Wimbledon because the tournament gave her a wild card into the qualifying. While her win in the French Open girls’ event at 14 had put her on the radar, nothing is ever a sure thing at that age. As the sport has become more physically demanding, the road to its mountaintop has become progressively steeper, with more stops, starts, and speed bumps. Two years ago, Jelena Ostapenko won Roland Garros on her 20th birthday; with her first-round loss at Wimbledon this week, her ranking will drop into the 70s.

Gauff will surely face her own obstacles in the coming years; if she lasts as long as Venus, she’ll still be playing in the year 2043. For now, though, she’s bringing back all of the old sense of fun and discovery that prodigies have always injected into the sport.

With each match, we learn something new about what she can do on the court. Hit a 108-m.p.h. second serve to save break point against Venus? Check. Chase down any drop shot, and still have the poise and balance to drill a winner into the corner? Check. Modulate speeds, spins and strategies depending on the opponent and the score? Check. Go about her business like the most seasoned and stoical of professionals? Check. Play with a blind, passionate belief in herself—even when she’s down a set and 5-2 on Centre Court—that comes from never having lost as a pro? Yep, Gauff has brought that youthful, Seles-esque magic back to the court. She doesn’t seem to be playing so much as levitating right now.

Along the way, we’re also seeing her easy smile, which comes in quick bursts, and hearing about her teen life, from the B she got on a science test last week, to her excitement over seeing her press conferences online, to her precociously fatalistic personal philosophy: “My motto is ‘just wing it,’” Gauff says. “We’re all going to die one day, I just want to make the most of it.” Fans are getting our first look at a pair of tennis parents, Corey and Candi Gauff, who haven’t yet mastered the fine art of sitting stone-faced while their kid is performing in front of the world. (Hopefully, they’ll never learn it.)

Post-match press conference:

Prodigies bring a pure, gravity-defying innocence to sports, one that tennis fans haven’t seen enough of in recent years. Part of the reason for that on the women’s side may be due to the so-called Capriati Rule, which limits the number of tournaments teenagers can play, in an effort to shield them from the early burnout that sent Jennifer Capriati into her first, early retirement. 

There’s talk now about repealing or modifying that rule. Personally, I’m torn. On the one hand, young people, like any people, have a right to make money whenever and wherever they can, and letting Gauff play more tournaments would certainly be good for the WTA in the short run. On the other hand, since the rule was instituted, cases of blatant, career-ending burnout have been less frequent. For this fortnight, I’m happy just to see Gauff try to defy gravity again; it won’t be easy when she faces Simona Halep on Monday.

“I just went for my shots,” Gauff said, with her quick-bursting smile on Friday. It will be nice to imagine, for a few more days anyway, that it can all be that simple.