Coco Gauff into her first WTA quarterfinal, and tennis is lucky for it

Coco Gauff into her first WTA quarterfinal, and tennis is lucky for it

The 15-year-old lucky loser in Linz is the youngest player to advance that far at a WTA tournament since January 2005.

Count me among the many ardent admirers of Coco Gauff. The 15-year-old Floridian prodigy had been working diligently over the last few years to find a prominent place for herself in the sport. She realized that goal—at least to a degree—with a pair of stellar showings at the majors this year, reaching the round of 16 in her debut at Wimbledon, and making it to the third round as an ingenue at the U.S. Open. Gauff’s poise in both London and New York with the world watching, and the media following her every move, were evidence of her champion’s spirit and her capacity to handle pressure with equanimity.

She has been one of the keynote performers in tennis this year, fully capturing the imagination of the public and earning the respect of her peers on tour (a tour she can’t compete in fully for years). Everywhere she has appeared, Gauff has delighted galleries with her striking maturity, remarkably sophisticated brand of tennis, and rare court sense for someon so young.

This week, Gauff is playing in her first WTA tournament since the US Open, and once more she is clearly making her presence known. Beaten in the last round of the qualifying at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz tournament by Tamara Korpatsch of Germany, good fortune came Gauff’s way as she found herself in the main draw as a lucky loser. True to character, she defeated Stefanie Voegele in straight sets to reach the second round. Gauff was typically level-headed about what had happened.

“Technically, I already lost so I’m going to keep playing my game and having fun,” she said. “Today was my lucky day so I hope to take that luck into the next round. It was very surprising because I was supposed to do a press thing today. I had practiced earlier and went back to the hotel. And then I got a phone call and was back on court 40 minutes later.”

The world No. 30 Maria Sakkari had suffered a wrist injury, forcing her out of the tournament 15 minutes before she was due to meet Voegele. Gauff was suddenly presented with an unlikely opportunity, and she took it.

Not content with that triumph, Gauff secured another victory when Kateryna Kozlova had to retire early in the third set. Gauff was victorious, 4-6, 6-4, 2-0, to reach her first WTA quarterfinal. She is the youngest player to advance that far at a WTA tournament since January 2005.

Somehow Gauff always seems to put herself in advantageous positions. She is that kind of an individual,  a player with lofty aspirations and large dreams, and  a staunch competitor who has the game to back it all up. Her run at Wimbledon was proof of that. She swept through three matches in the qualifying without the loss of a set, and then toppled five-time champion Venus Williams 6-4, 6-4 in the first round of the main draw. Late in both sets, the 39-year-old Williams raised her intensity and elevated her game, looking to impose herself and wanting her young opponent feel the size of her reputation. But Gauff was not intimidated. She closed out each of those sets as if she was the more experienced player.

After that generational triumph, Gauff handled Magdalena Rybarikova in straight sets, but then was stretched to her limits by Polona Hercog, coming through by the narrowest of margins, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5, saving two match points and moving on to the round of 16. The eventual champion Simona Halep was waiting for her on a memorable Monday afternoon, and the Romanian was too cagey and resourceful. The No. 7 seed picked Gauff apart methodically and was a 6-3, 6-3, fourth round victor. Five days later, of course, Halep played the match of her career to defeat Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-2, in 56 impeccable minutes on Centre Court, claiming the title convincingly.

But despite her comprehensive defeat against Halep, Gauff was well aware that advancing to the second week at the world’s most prestigious tournament was no mean feat. Afterwards, she was not the least bit discouraged by the decisiveness of her loss.

“I’m a fighter,” she said. “I’ll never give up. Anything is possible if you work hard and continue to dream big. I’m only 15 and I’m not nearly developed with my game. I started tennis when I was 6. I am so excited to see if I continue to work hard and see what other success I can do in the future.”

At the US Open later in the summer, Gauff showed the New York fans that she did not believe her spectacular play in England was an accident. On the hard courts, she was tested to the hilt in the first and second rounds, but once more she was unwavering in the crunch, surviving both tests with grit and gumption. Gauff ousted world No. 72 Anastasia Potapova, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, before halting Timea Babos, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. But facing the defending champion Naomi Osaka under the lights, Gauff was trounced 6-3, 6-0 by the top seed.

Osaka played top-of-the-line tennis, serving powerfully and precisely, beating Gauff to the punch off the ground, and setting the tempo from start to finish. Gauff was fighting back tears when it was over, and wanted to get to the locker room to find some privacy and to digest the defeat. But out on the court, Osaka consoled her opponent, convinced her to stay for an unusual post-match television interview, and displayed sportsmanship of the highest order. Gauff was deeply touched by her adversary’s decency and compassion, as was the crowd. It was one of the most poignant moments all year long in sports.

“She proved that she’s a true athlete,” Gauff said of Osaka. “For me the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like your worst enemy, but off the court can be your best friend. I think that’s what she did tonight.”

None other than Roger Federer was highly impressed by the conduct of both players: “Tennis won tonight—not just Osaka,” he said. “We saw that the players care for one another on this tour.”

Said Osaka of Gauff, “She seems like a sweetheart.”

Gauff has left many indelible impressions this season on the fans and among the players. They realize she is a teenager with an uncommonly strong head on her shoulders. They appreciate her sense of fair play and her quest to succeed at the highest levels of the game in the years ahead. They admire her entire approach to playing the game of tennis at the professional level.

It will take Gauff a few more years to start approaching her peak. She will need to get stronger physically and grow into her game. But she will undoubtedly make significant progress in the next year or two. She currently stands at No. 109 in the world, but is a far better player than that.

Coco Gauff is unmistakably emerging as a high profile player, but will rise to higher prominence on her own timetable. The game is lucky to have this captivating performer who will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the future of women’s tennis.