It is not unusual for a young athlete to have an idol. The aspiration to mimic the success of a hero is what drives some to dream big and work hard. And when Coco Gauff was first learning to handle a tennis racket, it was the Williams sisters who fascinated her.
What is uncommon is to stand one day at center court at Wimbledon, just 15 years old, and look across the net and see a person you admire standing there as an adversary. And that was Gauff’s situation Monday when she faced off against Venus Williams in a first-round match.
“Obviously, I literally got my dream draw,” said Gauff.
The youngest player to qualify at the All England Club in the professional era fought off the impulse to be star-struck. She did it so well that she defeated the great champion, 6-4, 6-4.
Gauff was overwhelmed by her victory. After shaking hands with Williams at the net, she dropped to her knee on the sideline and began to cry while her father, her coach, exulted.
“Honestly, I don’t really know how to feel. This is the first time I ever cried after a match. Or winning, obviously. I’ve cried after a loss before,” said Gauff. “I don’t even know how to explain how I feel.”
There is no other way to describe this other than as a major upset. Gauff was playing in just her third match of the women’s tour and her first at Wimbledon. She gained entry in the tournament through a wild card. Williams had won the event five times. And by the time Gauff was born, Williams have already won four Grand Slam events.
“I’ve said this before: I want to be the greatest. My dad told me that I could do this when I was 8. Obviously, you never believe it. I’m still, like, not 100 percent confident. But, like, you have to just say things. You never know what happens,” Gauff said. “If I went into this match saying, ‘Let’s see how many games I can get against her,’ then I most definitely would not have won. My goal was to play my best. My dream was to win. That’s what happened.
“My goal,” she said, her face expressionless, “is to win it.”
Gauff is not unknown in the sport. Fans have been watching her progress through the ranks. Currently ranked No. 313 in the world, she had reached the US Open junior final at 13 (the youngest ever to do so) and won the French Open junior title at 14.
“The sky’s the limit,” Williams said. “It really is.”
After the match, Gauff took a second to thank Williams for motivating her.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” said Gauff. “And I was just telling her that she’s so inspiring. Like, I always wanted to tell her that. And even though I met her before, I guess now I have the guts to.
“People just kind of limit themselves too much. Once you actually get your goal, then it’s like: What do you do now? I like to shoot really high.”
Gauff comes from an athletic family. Her father was a point guard at Georgia State, her mother a heptathlete and hurdler at Florida State. But her fascination with Venus and Serena encouraged her to play tennis.
Imagine this: Just a little over a year ago, Gauff was Venus’ hitting partner in conjunction with the United States Fed Cup. Imagine this: Gauff and her dad were on their way to France to train at an academy operated by Serena’s coach when they received the invitation to play at Wimbledon.
Now look at her.
“On the court, I was not thinking about Venus,” Gauff said. “I was just playing my game. No matter who I play against, I want to win. So that’s what I was just thinking about the whole time. I wasn’t really thinking about who I was facing on the other side of the net.
“Before every match since I was 8, my dad and I say a prayer together,” Gauff said. “We don’t really pray about victory, just that me and my opponent stay safe. After the match, I was just thanking God for this opportunity.”
Williams broke Gauff’s serve just once to make it 4-4 in the second set. Gauff answered by breaking Williams.
“I told her you are going to have to go for it,” her father said. “I said, ‘Go after your serve.’ You’ve got to win the match. She’s not going to give it you. She’s a champion. She’s been there too many times. It’s better to double fault and make sure she knows you are going to hit the ball, then to dink it in and let her hit winner
Now Gauff will face Magdalena Rybarikova, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2017. You can imagine the eyes of the world will now be on her.