Monday 21 October 2019

Teen sensation Coco bows out after capturing hearts on the biggest stage

Halep class and stomach upset ends fairytale run for emerging superstar

Cori Gauff looks dejected following her defeat to Simona Halep on day seven of the Wimbledon Championships. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Cori Gauff looks dejected following her defeat to Simona Halep on day seven of the Wimbledon Championships. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Paul Hayward

She left the court with a single sad raise of a hand and shook her head as she went, as if her defeat had been a shock, an affront. It was the final proof of the competitive spirit underpinning Cori 'Coco' Gauff's precocious talent.

When a 15-year-old with an upset stomach loses a Wimbledon fourth-round tie against a former world No 1 and French Open champion, there is no cause for self-reproach. Age has prevailed. Experience has intervened.

Yet Gauff left No 1 Court after her loss to Simona Halep as if her rise had been inexplicably halted. The evidence of our eyes in Gauff's earlier wins was confirmed. This is a rising star with a need, not just a desire, to win.

Neatly, symbolically, Gauff followed her idol Serena Williams into the grass arena. Williams went through, Gauff went out, but the two stories have shown the first signs of converging, even if it would be reckless to assume "Coco" is the new Serena. Williams, though, observed that she herself was "nothing" at the age Gauff charmed the Wimbledon crowd with her youth, ability and tenacity.

"I didn't know she said that," Gauff said of Williams's praise for her. "But that's pretty cool. Obviously, I still look up to her, even though we're playing the same tournament. I feel like I'll always kind of look up to her until we one day face each other on the other side. And win or lose, I'll still look up to her."

One of the stories of these Championships, Gauff can now escape the pressures of being an overnight sensation and return to being a tennis player with work to do to develop her gifts, which include grace and speed over the ground, athleticism and a fierce corner-finding forehand.

The excitement around her from week one turned swiftly to expectation, with her supporters shouting "come on, Coco" with keener anticipation. "It's crazy how big this has gotten," she said, but not in a rueful way.

Briefly disconsolate after every error, after each lost point, she soon reconnects with the thrill of the chase, the supportive energy of the crowd. She exudes the air of being made for the big occasion, the marquee clash.

The arrival of a doctor and physio early in the second set explained her disappearance after Halep had won the first despite gifting double-faults to her teenage opponent. She was unable to describe the ailment, but it required medicine, and hindered her.

Gauff is credited by the experts with sound tactical acumen but was overeager in places against Halep and tried too hard to win the power game, sometimes at the expense of accuracy. But you watched her knowing a huge new talent has announced itself in the women's game and it left the crowd wanting more.

"I hope they learned about me that I'm a fighter," Gauff said. "I'll never give up, I hope they learned from me that anything is possible if you work hard, just continue to dream big. If somebody told me this maybe three weeks ago, I probably wouldn't believe it. But I think just putting in the work definitely raised my confidence because I knew how hard I worked and I knew what shots I could make and what was possible.

"I'm only 15. I've not nearly gotten or developed my game. I started tennis at six. I'm so excited to see, if I continue to work hard, what other success I can do in the future."

All the best young talents come not to sniff the air but show they belong, write their names in the sky. Gauff's reaction to going out before the quarter-finals was not that of a teenager merely familiarising herself with the big time.


She said: "I would say I'm a bad loser, not in a bad way, but I take it hard. I think that's a good thing because I kind of use that to motivate myself to work harder. I would say I'm a good loser, a mix of bad. But I think the bad is kind of what makes me better."

On a "family vacation," she will process the life-changing novelty of being acknowledged by Michelle Obama. And here we discover how she sees herself, as the heir to Serena Williams in other, broader ways.

"Beyonce, Rihanna, Michelle Obama. It's many people. The list goes on," she said. "I mostly look up to the females, because I have a lot of on-court and off-court role models. I would say the off-court role models shape my personality a lot, then the on-court role models kind of shape my game."

All precedents point to a non-linear ascent for someone so good, so young.

But the glow she leaves in the hearts of people who saw her here can be enjoyed on its own merits, without excessive projection. Maybe it was obvious the crowd would take to her but it was nevertheless pleasing to hear her say: "You don't really expect this kind of support when you're in another country. I really did feel like I was probably playing in New York somewhere. I'm just really happy and happy that people believe in me."

On the scale of young sportspeople to "believe in", Coco Gauff is top-end. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Wimbledon, live, BBC2, 12.30 / BBC1, 1.45 / eir Sport 1, 11.30

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