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Column Copyright 2018 by Paul Fein

The Next Serena Williams

The Next Serena Williams

Where have all the teen queens gone?

You may remember how Chrissie Evert, Tracy Austin, and Jennifer Capriati enchanted us with their precocity in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. These adorable assassins too young to vote knocked off their elders to win Grand Slam and Olympic titles.

But not since 17-year-old Maria Sharapova shocked Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final, and 19-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova won the US Open two months later, has a teenager grabbed a major title. This decade, tennis pundits said it couldn’t be done—not anymore. Supposedly, women’s tennis had become too powerful for callow teenagers to upset today’s sluggers. Jelena Ostapenko almost proved the conventional wisdom wrong last year when she captured the French Open just two days after turning 20.

Now an exciting new kid on the block looks a lot like an accelerating train destined to run over everyone in the 2020s. If you haven’t heard of her already, I’d like to introduce you to Cori Gauff. At just 14 years and three months old, this wunderkind won the French Open girls’ (18-and-under) title in June. “Coco” displayed a flair for the dramatic on championship point against Caty McNally, another talented American. In a net showdown, she leaped and struck a forehand volley winner for a 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 comeback victory.

On July 17, the International Tennis Federation announced Coco became the youngest junior world No.1 at 14 years and 4 months since the combined rollover ranking was introduced in 2004.

Coco has idolized Serena and Venus Williams ever since she started playing at age 6 in Delray Beach, Florida. “I grew up watching them,” says Coco. “I started playing tennis because of them.”

Though she doesn’t know either superstar well, she’s crossed paths with Serena a few times. Four years ago, Coco first met Serena on a set where Serena was filming a commercial. She portrayed Serena as a young girl. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if Coco happens to play her idol, now 36, in a pro tournament before she retires?

The kid and the legend also have a French connection. Patrick Mouratoglou, who has coached Serena to 10 of her 23 Grand Slam titles, created the Champ Seed Foundation three years ago at his tennis academy outside Paris. Mouratoglou’s highly regarded program not only develops gifted teenagers but helps them financially because playing tournaments around the world is extremely expensive.

Coco, the youngest player training at the academy, clearly caught the eye of Mouratoglou. “We weren’t sure if Patrick would be interested because the idea of the Champ Seed is to help girls turn pro,” recalls Corey Gauff, Coco’s father and coach. “Coco was only 11 so she was quite a few years away from that. But Patrick seemed to be pleased with her effort and determination. So the relationship grew from there. He makes sure we have all the things we need to be successful. He’s really helped her develop her game, especially her clay-court game. She certainly has the hard-court skills.”

Coco showcased her hard-court prowess at the 2017 US Open junior event. Being the youngest competitor in the draw at 13 didn’t faze her in the least. Coco pulled upset after upset to become the youngest girls’ singles finalist ever at the US Open. There the more experienced Amanda Animisova, a smooth-stroking, 16-year-old American, prevailed 6-1, 7-6.

Chalk up much of the marked improvement in Coco’s game from the 2017 US Open to the 2018 French Open to experience. “The biggest difference is that she’s been through it [a major final] one time,” explains her father. “At 13, she really couldn’t start playing at the ITF level until after March [2017]. By the time she got to the French Open, she had a full year at that level. And she got to play a pro tournament before that. So the added maturity and the experience of playing tougher players helped. Also, she got bigger, and she had something to draw from the US Open and the Australian Open, where she lost in the first round and she was upset and mad. So she went back to work, worked hard, and tried to be better the next time out.”

Athletic Genes

Like Serena and Venus, Coco possesses athletic genes and a powerful, 5'9½", 160-pound physique, and she’s still growing. The athletic pedigree comes from her 6' 2" father who played basketball at Georgia State University, and her mother Candi, a gymnast and a track star. Coco’s still-developing serve peaked at an astounding 120 miles per hour at the Wimbledon girls’ event, making it the third-fastest female serve at the entire tournament behind only Serena’s 125 mph and Venus’s 123 mph.

Coco played a lot of basketball and ran track, including 5 Ks, when she was 11 and 12. Her heavy tennis schedule ended her involvement in other sports, but she learned valuable lessons from them. “The years of basketball and track really helped her,” says Corey. “She loved tennis more, but she also knows the training and discipline it takes to become a champion.” Coco also transferred some athletic skills, such as hand-eye coordination, speed and agility, from those sports to tennis.

As her dazzling volley on championship point demonstrated, her athleticism already compares favorably with leading WTA pros. “I’ve always said Coco has world-class athleticism,” says Corey. “Now she’s trying to turn that athleticism into becoming a solid tennis player. I truly believe if she had chosen track, she could have run college track and made a push for the Olympics. I’ve played basketball, and there’s no doubt in my mind she could become a WNBA basketball player had she focused on that. She’s blessed with fast-twitch muscles, length, speed, and quickness.”

No matter how athletic you are, topnotch strokes and footwork are what separates the best from the rest on the pro tours. Here Coco is a work in progress, though she has no glaring weaknesses.

“She’s pretty solid all around,” Corey says. “I’d describe her game as an aggressive baseliner who looks to finish at the net. She tried to get easy points with her serve, and her serve plus one [the next shot]. All of her strokes have to be improved. She has to continue to improve her net game. She has to improve her hand skills. The one thing that carries her as she continues to improve is her desire to win, her willingness to fight. Whether she is down or up in the set, she fights for every point. That helps her get through the holes in her game right now.”

To correct those holes, Coco periodically attends the Mouratoglou academy. While a team of coaches instruct Coco, Mouratoglou mentors Corey, her full-time coach at home. The Gauffs have stayed two or three weeks at a time at the academy and will start training there for longer periods of time after Wimbledon.

In a sport occasionally besmirched by “bad dads”—such as the abusive Jim Pierce, the violent Marinko Lucic, the obtuse Stefano Capriati, and the self-destructive Peter Graf—Corey has successfully navigated the fraught role of father-coach with some help from his wife.

“I’m the mediator between the two,” says Candi. “You have to be when you’re coaching a girl. A man can forget he’s coaching a female. So I have to make sure he understands that females are different from males. I have teaching experience with children, so I have to help him with learning styles.”

Mother Knows Best

What advice does Candi give? “Your delivery has to be different with a female than with a male,” Candi explains. “Females internalize what their dad is saying, not what their coach is saying. I've advised my husband that when you're saying something, you have to explain why you're saying it. And you do it in a more relaxed way.”

Like former prodigies Evert, Austin, Capriati, Sharapova, and Monica Seles, the all-business Gauff already handles big-match pressure with the poise of a veteran. “I’ve learned to stay calm during the pressure moments and always stick to my game plan,” Coco says.

“Coco has to compartmentalize her personality,” Candi explains. “On the court, her mind-set is different because she’s always dealt with older people when she’s performing, so she has had to make decisions on that level. Off the court, she’s developing like someone her age. She wants to play and enjoy life and have a good time. On the court, she’s serious and has business to take care of. She has to be very disciplined. So she has personalities that fit the occasion.”

Another key to Coco’s success is her structured family life that has given her a normal adolescence. Home-schooled and an honor roll student, she takes advanced courses in language arts and is on the fast track in math. Coco says, “Science is my favorite subject because I like doing experiments.”

Candi says, “Home-schooling gives her the best opportunity to succeed both academically and athletically. That gives her more time on the courts.” Even so, Coco does far more than hitting tennis balls for hours and hours.

“As parents, we’re very vigilant to make sure that she has the most normal childhood given her abnormal circumstances,” Candi says. “That means making sure she’s involved in activities outside of tennis like her dance ministry at church, being part of the choir at church, going to social outings with her siblings, announcing at baseball games, and just being involved in the community. We have a large family, so we’ve made sure she’d had avenues outside of tennis.”

Her parents also monitor her physical well-being. They’re well aware that too much tennis prematurely ended the careers of injury-plagued teen stars Andrea Jaeger and Austin in the early 1980s. “We don’t do any weightlifting or [special] training. We’re trying to let her body grow naturally,” notes Corey. “We want her to get a lot of rest. She’s done cross-training and other activities that help you learn, not necessarily tennis, but to compete better. At Delray Beach, we called it ‘having that dog inside.’ That’s what we try to focus on. That she’s ready to fight, no matter what. The one who wants to win it the most trumps the one with all the strokes.”

Coco’s never-say-die competitiveness will draw comparisons with Serena, especially her shouts of “Come on!” after winning big points. “She just loves competing,” says Candi.

On her tennis goals, confident Coco harbors a Serena-like ambition. “My goal in tennis is to win Grand Slams and be No. 1,” she says. “I want to be the greatest.”

The last word on the American prodigy who could become the next Serena comes from Mouratoglou. “She is fantastic,” he said in an Omnisport interview. “She can become a top, top player. I believe in her a lot.”

THE END

Paul Fein has received more than 40 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England. His websites are www.tennisconfidential.com and www.tennisquotes.com. His email address is: lincjeff1@comcast.net.


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