The 15-year-old had a helluva run at Wimbledon, now let’s allow her to develop at her own pace.
If you said you knew who Cori “Coco” Gauff was before last week, I’d call you a liar. But here we are, just a little over a week later, and Gauff has become a household name.
She’s the definition of black girl magic.
Gauff’s run ended on Monday morning when she fell to Simona Halep in straight sets in the Round of 16 at Wimbledon. And as much as Gauff may have been the fan favorite, the 6-3, 6-3 loss for her wasn’t too surprising given that Halep started the year ranked No. 1 in the world, and came into the tournament as the seventh seed.
After receiving a wild card into the Wimbledon qualifying draw and becoming the youngest woman to qualify for the tournament in the modern era, Gauff wasted no time making a name for herself.
She knocked off Venus Williams in the first round in straight sets. Mind you, Venus won her first Wimbledon before the 15-year-old Gauff was even born. She would go on to defeat Magdalena Rybarikova in the second round before pulling off a huge comeback against Polona Hercog as she overcame two match points in the second set to advance to the Fourth Round.
“I learned how to play in front of a big crowd. I learned what it was like to be under pressure. I learned a lot, and I’m really thankful for this experience,” said Gauff when she was asked about her experience over the last week.
The 15-year-old’s week in London was a moment. But for now, let’s just leave it at that. Because while Gauff’s performance could be something that we look back on in the future as the start of something special, she could also wind up being just a really good answer on trivia night.
We have a tendency, especially in sports, to crown young and gifted prospects before they’ve had a chance to live their lives or fully develop. And most of the time, the pressure from the outside is usually the reason why they don’t reach certain heights.
We put our own unrealistic expectations on them before they even get started.
“What a great run, though, for this young lady,” said Mary Joe Fernandez on ESPN’s telecast. “Mom and dad are so proud. Coming through the qualifying, beating her idol Venus Williams in the First Round, making it to the Round of 16 in her very first Wimbledon.”
And then the very next thing you heard was a question about what’s next, while we were supposed to be celebrating what’s now.
“What about prospects for her future in general?” asked Cliff Drysdale.
“I think we saw the maturity, the poise in the matches. The competitiveness. I think we saw some similarities to a lot of great early champions that were very young,” Fernandez explained. “And I think the pressure, she doesn’t really feel it right now. I feel like she goes out there to play. She believes she can win every time she steps out there on the court. I think playing at this level has forced her to up her game.”
“Now it’s a matter of the people outside not putting too much pressure on her.”
According to FiveThirtyEight, in the women’s Open era only 26 previous players under the age of 16 had won at least one match in their first Grand Slams. Nine of those players would go on to win major titles, while six of them would wind up being ranked No. 1 in the world.
The pedigree is there for Gauff to become the next phenom in tennis. And while I want that to happen for her, I’m also aware of the unfair expectations that could be on the horizon.
Because like it or not, every time a young black woman does anything good in tennis we do this thing where we automatically want to crown her as the next Serena Williams.
That’s problematic for two reasons.
One, Williams isn’t dead, as she’s in a great position to possibly win Wimbledon for the eighth time.
Two, we’ve been here before. We put unrealistic expectations on Madison Keys when she made it the US Open Finals in 2017, on Sloane Stephens when she beat Keys in that very Finals matchup, and on Naomi Osaka when she beat Williams in the 2018 US Open Finals.
Fast forward to last week, and Osaka got bounced in the First Round at Wimbledon as overall the No. 2 seed. The mixture of expectations and pressure on young athletes can be quiet damaging.
I hope we’ve learned from our mistakes, and let Coco be Coco. And from the looks of it, it already sounds like she has a good grasp on what’s to come.
“I don’t know my schedule right now because I wasn’t expecting to be here,” she said when asked about what’s next. “But my next goal would be to win the next tournament I play, but I don’t know what the next tournament will be. But, we’ll see what happens.”