Wimbledon run is over, but Coco Gauff is just getting started

Coco Gauff first arrived at Wimbledon in 2019 largely unknown by mainstream sports fans. She left it a global superstar, known simply by one name, thanks to her improbable run to the fourth round as well as her exuberance and endearing interviews.

Having since skyrocketed up the rankings to No. 23 in the world and coming off of her first major quarterfinal appearance at last month’s French Open, the now-17-year-old faced high expectations in her first return trip to the All England Club.

After losing a heartbreaker against eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova at Roland Garros last month, Gauff said she believed the sting of the defeat would one day make her a Grand Slam champion. After three straight-sets victories to open Wimbledon and with the absence and early exits of many top players, many wondered if Gauff’s words would come to fruition in London, and she was a favorite among some oddsmakers to win the title.

Angelique Kerber, the 2018 Wimbledon champion, dashed those dreams Monday with a 6-4, 6-4 victory, but Gauff remains one of the most promising and recognizable young talents in tennis and will now bring her surging momentum and increasing self-assurance to the hard-court season, starting with the Tokyo Olympics later this month.

“I’m capable of competing with high-level players and players who have won Grand Slams in the past,” Gauff said Monday. “[Going] into [the] Olympics, I’m super confident. I feel like I’m [right] there.”

Gauff clinched the fourth and final berth on the U.S. Olympic roster after her strong showing in Paris, but with Serena Williams and Sofia Kenin having relinquished their spots, Gauff now is the team’s second-ranked player and will be playing singles and doubles. While she will be the youngest Olympian in the sport from any country since 2000, she is far from the only one lacking experience at the event. All four of the singles players for Team USA (and one of the two doubles specialists) will be first-time Olympians. With several of the top players skipping the event, including Romania’s Simona Halep in addition to Williams and Kenin, the uncertain status of others and the daunting coronavirus-related protocols in place, the draw seems wide open. Gauff might have as good a chance as anyone to win an Olympic medal.

Gauff said her family has always watched the Games, but favorite past moments don’t include tennis. She said track stars Allyson Felix and Usain Bolt, as well as the gymnastics competitions, are what she remembers most about the 2016 Games in Rio, but now she has a chance to make some memories of her own.

The US Open hardcourt series will be in full swing once she returns from Japan, and Gauff likely will play in Montreal and Cincinnati before the year’s final major. Gauff reached the third round at the US Open in 2019 and lost in her opener in 2020, but she will undoubtedly be one of the fan favorites as crowds will open back to 100% capacity this year. A substantial performance in Tokyo would only add to the growing hype and expectations.

Teenagers winning Grand Slam titles and dominating the rankings were once common on the WTA Tour. Martina Hingis, Monica Seles and Tracy Austin were all 16 when they hoisted their first major trophy. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova were 17. But the depth in women’s tennis has never been better, making it that much more difficult for anyone of any age to win. But even with such strong, unprecedented competition, Gauff is seemingly approaching the sport’s biggest milestones.

“[Coco is] doing exactly the right thing. She’s playing hard, she’s also improving her serve and her forehand,” 12-time major champion Billie Jean King said an interview with ESPN last week. “And I’ve seen a huge difference in the last two years of that, so she’s doing the right thing there. Long-term, I think she’ll be No. 1 in the world.

“She’s got speed, she’s got a huge long wingspan, she loves it. She’s got the ‘it’ factor when she steps on a showcase court, because that’s [a] very important quality kids have to have. Some kids don’t like playing on showcase courts, and when they don’t, they usually don’t make it. And Coco thrives on being on a showcase court. She wants to be No. 1, and she’s got the goods.”

On Monday, Gauff simply had no answers against the seasoned Kerber. Gauff won just 14% of points on her second serve in the first set and Kerber, a three-time major champion, took control. Kerber won 100% of her points at the net and converted four of her five break points. But Kerber said she was still impressed with what she saw from her opponent.

“She has such a great future in front of her,” Kerber said during her on-court post-match interview. “I’m really sure that she will [be] having a great career and, yeah, and for sure she will play here so many times again. And maybe one time she will get the title because I like how she’s playing, how she is professional.”

Gauff isn’t done at the tournament just yet. She and partner Caty McNally are still alive in doubles and are expected to be back for their third-round match against Veronika Kudermetova and Elena Vesnina on Tuesday after being pushed back a day due to rain. The duo have twice made the quarterfinals at a major and have won three WTA titles together. Gauff said she was hopeful they would be able to go far this week.

Dressed to play doubles and appearing just moments after that match had been postponed, Gauff remained mostly upbeat when speaking to the media Monday, but didn’t hide her feelings about Monday’s loss.

“I know I can do better,” Gauff said. “But it’s just going to give me more motivation to go back and practice and come back stronger.”

Spoken like a true champion.

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