Coco Gauff is 15, and she’s in the third round at Wimbledon. On Monday, the American, ranked 313th in the world and playing in her first major, knocked Venus Williams out in straight sets, and then cruised through her second-round matchup on Wednesday, against 139th-ranked former Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova. Gauff is the youngest player to win a match at a major since Anna Kournikova made the fourth round at the 1996 U.S. Open, and the youngest to win a match at Wimbledon since Jennifer Capriati reached the semifinals in 1991.
Gauff, who had to take a science test before heading across the ocean for Wimbledon qualifying, grew up in Atlanta looking at the Williams sisters as heroes. Her dad, who played college basketball at Georgia State, and her mom, who ran track at Florida State, had showed a young Coco their matches in the late aughts, and ever since then, she’s been hooked. After beating Venus, she put her hands on her head in disbelief and blinked back tears. She’d just conquered the poster on her bedroom wall. How must it feel to get Superman to tap out?
“I was just telling her thank you for everything she’s done for the sport,” Gauff said after the match. “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.”
Watch the first round of a major, and chances are you’ll hear one particular phrase: They’re playing their idol. This is due particularly to the longevity of the Williams sisters and Roger Federer. The trio have been fixtures in the tennis world so long that now, as they all approach 40, their stardoms have become college-aged.
On Tuesday, Lloyd Harris, a 22-year-old from South Africa ranked 86th in the world, took Centre Court to play a man he’d longed just to watch in person growing up. At his first Wimbledon, he drew Federer. The 6-foot-5 Harris served his way to take the opening set before wilting and dropping the next three. Shaking hands at the net, he looked starstruck, because why wouldn’t he be? In 2007, when he was 10 years old, he’d gone to Wimbledon to watch Federer play for a fifth title. When he was trying to figure out how to win, his thoughts were: “I’ve seen him 1,000 times in my life. And he’s never seen me play. That’s a good start, I guess.”
That kind of story, combined with her age and the sense of wonder that surrounded her first-round win, made Gauff a sensation overnight: Her Instagram follower count multiplied by five, top players were asked about her in their press conferences, and Federer stopped by her practice to say hi. So Gauff’s commanding performance in the second round was even more impressive than her breakthrough.
Before Gauff took the court, ESPN broadcast a match between Novak Djokovic and Denis Kudla, an American ranked 111th and mostly known for getting his ass kicked by the top players. It was a typical early-round Djokovic performance: get to every ball, make the right shots, and let the opponent torpedo himself. Don’t waste any time on the court. That’s exactly how Gauff looked against Rybarikova.
Yes, she hits hard off the ground, and yes, her serve is a dynamic weapon; against Rybarikova her touch shots were particularly impressive. It’s typical when there is an upset, or an aberrant run by a young player, that some glittering weapon of theirs is firing unusually well. Harris had his serve; other players shoot their forehands at the lines and find success for a match or two. But that’s not what happened here. Gauff played steadily, like she was the favorite. The confidence it must have taken to deal with instant celebrity, a victory over a childhood idol, the adrenaline of jumping from the junior tour to Court 1, and having to play the odds better than a woman twice her age says volumes about the type of player that Gauff could be.
It is uncommon in this era for players this young to make waves on the tour. The last teenager on the men’s or women’s tour to win a major is Rafa Nadal, who won his first French Open in 2005 soon after his 19th birthday. The days of Boris Becker, or even Maria Sharapova, winning Wimbledon at 17 are behind us. Gauff isn’t likely to be contending for slams in the near future. Early breakthroughs, though, can be merciless. Athletes often emerge onto the scene and feel the weight of expectation before they’re ready to be at their best. The good news is that nobody expects Gauff to be fully realized yet.
In the third round on Friday, she’ll play the 60th-ranked Polona Hercog, who is coming off a win over Madison Keys. Many believe Gauff is the favorite in that match, but then Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki loom further in the draw. But, in one way or another, it seems a sure thing that Gauff’s best is yet to come.