“I’ve never played on a court so big. But I had to remind myself that the lines on the court are the same, the court’s the same size—everything around it might be bigger, but the lines are the same.”
Cori Gauff’s description of Wimbledon’s No. 1 Court on Monday was a way to distill a grand stage to its essence: just another place to play tennis. By extension, her opponent, Venus Williams—a five-time Wimbledon champion and, perhaps more imposing, one of Gauff’s idols growing up—was just another person across the net.
Of course, Gauff is still growing up—she’s just 15—which is a scary thought after her incredibly composed, 6-4, 6-4 win over her legendary idol. It was a transcendent moment that didn’t appear to impact the teen until Williams’ final shot found the net.
“This was the first time I ever cried after a match,” Gauff told the BBC after it was over. “Winning, obviously.”
In the same way Gauff tried to remove history from one of the sport’s most hallowed courts, and eliminate the occasion from the day, an analyst could try to discount the chasm of experience that separated Gauff and Williams while dissecting this match. Venus came into Monday 268-74 at majors; Gauff had never played in a major tournament before. Venus, now 39, had already won four majors by 2004—the year Gauff was born. You could fill pages with statistics like these when a junior prospect faces an all-time great 24 years her senior.
Although the talk coming into this match was about the relationship between Gauff and Venus—an extremely friendly one, along with Cori’s connection to Serena Williams (who believes ‘Coco’ resembles her big sister as a player)—and the gap in their ages, these were, at their essences, two tennis players. And on this day in southwest London, one of them was four aggregate games better than the other, over the course of two sets.
But it’s absolutely impossible to talk about this match, in my mind and surely Gauff’s, without the necessary context.
Like the Williamses, Gauff has been unequivocally supported by her family from the onset of her tennis journey; it's a group effort, and it always will be. Both of her parents were athletes in their college year: her dad, Corey, was a basketball player at Georgia State; her mom, Candi, ran track at Florida State. And like Serena, Gauff is now part of another tennis family, the Mouratoglou Academy. The attention she's receiving from this support system will help her in attempt to, as she put it to me two years ago at a junior tournament in Boca Raton, "be the greatest of all time."
"When you see someone who's exceptional, you see it straight away, because it's not something you see very often, said Patrick Mouratoglou on ESPN. "She had this goal that was so strong."
It’s too simplistic to a draw a line between where Gauff is now and where she could end up—so much can happen, and we’ve seen many impressive performances by youngsters at Wimbledon before, only to see those bolts of lightning fizzle. But watching Gauff’s groundstrokes, comportment and movement, her career is unquestionably going to be a fun one to follow.
One of the most impressive numbers bandied about in this fantastic first-round pairing was two—the number of unforced errors Gauff hit in the first set. Her forehand and two-handed backhand have an almost perfect blend of power and spin; you not only see it on television, but you can hear it (amplified by the unique acoustics of Wimbledon’s intimate show courts). She has measured approaches to points, but is willing to be aggressive when opportunities arise. Gauff dominated the competition when I watched her in Boca, but she was always respectful of her opponents, even though she had much bigger goals.
You can see a less refined version of Gauff’s strokes in this video, shot during a match on clay:
Those strokes were certainly effective then—and with two more years' of practice, and on a low-bouncing surface that plays to her strengths, they were even more effective today. Gauff at least matched Venus’ baseline barrage, and often dictated play in rallies.
Then there's Gauff's serve, which was a game-changer with its own blend of power, spin and precision. Venus didn’t earn a break point in the first set. When Gauff was passed at net when serving at 5-4, she didn’t waver. She calmly hit an unreturned serve for 15-all; commanded the next point for a 30-15 lead; fired an ace for double set point; and won the set with a Williams misfire.
“I definitely had to tell myself to stay calm,” Gauff would later say. Maybe she only needed to say it once, because the second set bore a striking resemblance to the first. Again, Gauff’s groundies, which helped her win three qualifying matches in straight sets, found their targets and kept her veteran opponent on the move. Gauff’s own court coverage—can we call it Coco, her nickname?—was sublime at her age and with relative inexperience on the grass surface. Her serve remained another element of stability necessary in a match with that would have taken overwhelmed most young players.
Gauff met her moment, one fans watching around the world surely expected would come, when serving at 4-3 in the second set. Two holds away from a win, Gauff fell behind 0-30, and Venus’ decades—forget years—of experience were about to earn her a ticket back into the match. In this instance, Gauff’s fearlessness worked against her: an aggressive double fault leveled the set at 4-all.
“That was the first game that she looked nervous,” Chris Evert said in ESPN’s commentary booth. “The big test is if she can pull herself back into the lead.”
As if on cue, Gauff did just that. It started with the foundation she’s established ever since she developed her natural-yet-God-given strokes. She hit forehands and backhands with equal comfort and facility, and while some of Gauff’s shots may have appeared as mishits, I struck them up to the heavy does of spin she imparts on the ball.
At deuce, Venus cracked a forehand down the line, which Gauff did well to defend and get back. A short Venus reply then demanded a diagonal dash to get the ball. Again, Gauff’s court coverage was up to the task. Skilled beyond her years, Gauff broke right back, then found herself up 40-15, double match point.
Gauff serves quickly, which may have contributed to the match points being erased so rapidly. That, and a forehand Venus struck that caught the sideline, then a backhand that caught Gauff off guard. When Gauff slipped on the turf on her third match point, it was reasonable to think that this match’s true turning point may be upon us.
Enter the Gauff serve, which above all else may be the shot that helps catapult her into the stratosphere many believe she’ll reach. After an unreturned serve gave Gauff her fourth match point, she watched as Williams hit her last shot into the net.
Then, she looked around No. 1 Court, realizing what had happened for the first time.
“After the match I told her, just thank you for everything she did. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn't for her,” said Gauff. I was telling her that she’s so inspiring.
“I always wanted to tell her that, even though I've met her before. I guess, now I had the guts to.”