Though Cori Gauff is only 15, tennis people in the know have been speaking in hushed tones about her talent for years.
With her precocious blend of power, athleticism, court savvy and competitive drive, Gauff was the youngest United States Open junior girls finalist in history at age 13 and the second youngest French Open junior girls champion at age 14.
But even if potential is abundantly clear, it is never clear how a teenager will handle the moment when she takes the court at the highest level against an established champion.
On Monday, tennis got an emphatic answer as Gauff, displaying remarkable poise, upset Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-4, in the first round of Wimbledon.
It was the first Grand Slam singles match of Gauff’s career, and it made quite an impression on those who watched from near and far, including Williams, a five-time Wimbledon singles champion. Two of those titles came before Gauff was born on March 13, 2004, in Delray Beach, Fla.
“I think the sky’s the limit, it really is,” said Williams, who was unseeded at age 39.
In a sense, it was her own family’s fault that an exceptional young American talent like Gauff was in position to defeat Williams on Monday.
Gauff’s father, Corey, was a point guard at Georgia State, and her mother, Candi, was a heptathlete and hurdler at Florida State. Cori might well have gravitated to a different sport, a more widely popular sport in the United States, if Serena and Venus Williams had not been winning big titles when she was a little girl setting her priorities.
Gauff chose tennis (she also liked the skirts, her father said), and it was hard not to agree with the decision on Monday as she slammed bold first and second serves under pressure, leaned into groundstrokes and covered the court with the same sort of gap-closing speed displayed by Venus Williams in her youth.
Until Monday, Gauff’s most extended contact with Williams was as a hitting partner with the United States Fed Cup team in February 2018. While Williams played, Gauff attended team dinners and cheered. Much has changed in a little more than 16 months.
“On the court, I was not thinking about Venus,” Gauff said. “I was just playing my game. No matter who I play against, I want to win. So that’s what I was just thinking about the whole time. I wasn’t really thinking about who I was facing on the other side of the net.”
But once victory was secured, she was definitely thinking about whom she was facing across the net. As they shook hands, Gauff maintained her grip a bit longer than is customary as she sought Williams’s gaze and told her what she has meant to her.
“I was just telling her thank you for everything she’s done for the sport,” Gauff said. “She’s been an inspiration for many people. I was just really telling her thank you. I met her before, but I didn’t really have the guts to say anything.
“I mean, now or never.”
It is a fine mantra, and Gauff then waved to the crowd in No. 1 Court that had offered her plenty of support, went to her chair, squatted down, put her head against the butt of her racket and cried as she said a prayer.
“Before every match since I was 8, my dad and I say a prayer together,” Gauff said. “We don’t really pray about victory, just that me and my opponent stay safe. After the match, I was just thanking God for this opportunity.”
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SOURCE: The New York Times, Christopher Clarey