Coco Gauff’s wild Wimbledon began four miles away from the All England Club and a week earlier than the main event on a sports field in the London district of Roehampton. After upsetting the top seed in the first round of the unglamorous qualifying event, the 15-year-old was ushered into a large, white tent, where she spoke to four journalists on an old table in a corner. Over the years, players have come to detest the lesser facilities of Wimbledon qualifying, but Gauff, who played the junior tournament at the same venue in 2018, spoke fondly of her surroundings. “Thankfully, from juniors, I’m familiar with these grounds,” she said. As a junior player, she was excited to be at a Grand Slam—or at least, in its general vicinity.
The surroundings six days later were noticeably different when Gauff stepped onto Court 1 and defeated Venus Williams, her idol, in her first-ever slam match. It felt like tennis history was being marked in real time as Gauff overwhelmed her hero with weapons reminiscent of Venus’s—a huge serve, seamless movement, and a crushing backhand. The symbolic significance of the win was clear: “I told her thanks for everything she did,” Gauff said afterward to the BBC. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”
After a confident second-round defeat of Slovakian Magdalena Rybarikova, Gauff’s third-round match against Polona Hercog was picked for the prime final slot on Centre Court—even though it pitted the 313th-ranked American against a player ranked 60th. It was an acknowledgement of the media frenzy that had begun to follow Gauff, but also, it turned out, a prediction of a transcendent tennis moment: Gauff dropped her first set and fell 5-2 in the second, but then she saved two match points, edging out a mentally exhausting tiebreak and surviving the third set to win 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5.
“Everyone’s talking about it,” says Joe, a fan attending Wimbledon. “I was on Court 18 for [Nick] Kyrgios’s mixed doubles and all you could hear from there was the Hill” —where fans congregate in front of a large viewing screen—”going crazy over her.” In a sport that has come to be defined by a few big names and a handful of random upsets, the Gauff narrative is a welcome change. “It’s just refreshing, it’s something interesting.”
The Hercog match was an exhibition of Gauff’s exceptional mental fortitude. It was fascinating, for casual fans and tennis experts alike, to see how she problem-solved and worked her way through such an alien environment. The Centre Court crowd roared her to the finishing line as if she were a home player, while the BBC TV audience peaked at 5.2 million, by far the most-watched match of the week. Gauff’s three matches account for three of the top eight of the entire first week on the BBC, and were the most watched in the U.S. on each day that she played. As the back page of one newspaper (Daily Mail) accurately declared: “We’ve gone loco over Coco.”
It is particularly striking how Gauff’s success seems to have resonated beyond the usual sporting circles. Philipp Joubert, a German journalist for Der Spiegel, points out that the story has transcended borders. “The story has really gone mainstream. I haven’t seen a German audience captivated with a tennis story like this in a while. … The first three, four days of a slam are always reserved for these kinds of stories. But I think you could notice from the very first moment that this was different.” Nick McCarvel, a reporter for the Wimbledon Channel, concurred. “I don’t think you can discount the fact that she beat Venus in the first round. If she would have beaten an Ekaterina Alexandrova in the first round, sure, fine. But [Venus] is what the American media grabbed onto first and then the storm has only grown since then.”
In the U.S., Gauff was the no. 1 trending topic on Twitter throughout her third-round match; a clip of her greeting Roger Federer, and then checking to make sure that cameras caught the exchange, went viral. Every player at Wimbledon has been asked about Gauff’s performance. “It’s the perfect storm,” McCarvel says. “We all see ourselves in athletes and when a young athlete breaks through, you only want them to succeed because you see the innocence and the human side. Tennis has been missing the young guns for the last couple of decades. She’s this young, charismatic, athletic, black woman from the States with this inviting personality and this massive tennis talent.”
After losing her mixed doubles match alongside Great Britain’s Jay Clarke on Saturday, Clarke and Gauff were drafted into the interview room for a joint press conference. Tennis journalism is nationalistic in its nature, and tennis journalists primarily follow their national players. During his doubles comeback, Andy Murray’s partners have largely sat mute in their joint press conferences as the British media got to work. It was surreal, then, to see the home player largely ignored as his American partner was peppered with questions like: “What about [Michelle Obama] is a good role model for you?” and “How would you describe yourself?”
To her credit, Gauff is something of a natural with the press. After her draining third-round match against Hercog, Gauff walked into her press conference with only one thought on her mind: “I know this is off topic, but I wanted to say please stream ERYS by Jaden Smith. His album dropped yesterday.” She smiled. When asked about the most unexpected celebrity message she’d seen, she was ready: “Ms. Tina Knowles, Beyoncé’s mom, posted me on Instagram. I was, like, screaming!” she said. “I don’t know, like I hope Beyoncé saw that. I hope she told her daughter about me because I would love to go to a concert.” On a roll, she then told a story about the time her parents left her to babysit her two brothers, only for her to find out on Facebook that they had gone to a Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert. She is still seething about it.
Later that day, after her three hours of press interviews, she flicked on her Instagram Live and was shocked to see 2,000 people watching compared to, according to her, the 20 viewers she was drawing until a week ago. She dramatically collapsed onto her bed, saying “Jaden just tweeted me! Bro, this is crazy.” Then, she began to list all the celebrities who had posted about her, even falling off her bed at one point. After a week of impressively poised and mature interviews, it was refreshing to see her acting as herself.
The last time a young superstar tore up the sport was 15 years ago when Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon, back when the internet was (relatively) scarce and the headlines of newspapers were far easier to avoid. After Sharapova won Wimbledon, she famously tried to call her mother from Centre Court but couldn’t get through. Now, the first thing young players do after a big win is check their phones.
After her second-round match, Gauff underlined the difficulties of dealing with the pressure. “I could lie and say I felt normal,” she said, sighing. “It was honestly so hard just with social media and everything trying to focus on my next match because people are still posting about Venus.”
On Monday, Gauff will face former world no. 1 and 2018 Roland Garros champion Simona Halep. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Serena Williams will all be in action as well, but the anticipation for Gauff-Halep will upstage them. Speculation about Gauff’s schedule for the rest of 2019 has begun—Gauff is subject to the age eligibility rule, drafted to avoid the burnout suffered by former teenage stars like Jennifer Capriati, which restricts her to only 10 tournaments between ages 15 and 16. She has also reached her wild-card limit, which means she will have to enter the U.S. Open through qualifying unless she beats Halep and her ranking is high enough to directly enter the main draw by merit.
Gauff, who periodically trains with Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy and is represented by Federer’s Team8 management, already has a large and formidable team around her. She’s in a good position to continue on this prodigious path. For the remainder of this tournament and the foreseeable future, the world will continue to react to the story of Coco Gauff. Her success will depend on how she reacts to the world.