Greg Cote

Coco Gauff’s Wimbledon run ends, but U.S. tennis just found its Next Big Thing | Opinion

United States’ Cori “Coco” Gauff serves to Romania’s Simona Halep in a women’s singles match during day seven of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Monday, July 8, 2019.
United States’ Cori “Coco” Gauff serves to Romania’s Simona Halep in a women’s singles match during day seven of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Monday, July 8, 2019. AP

The U.S. winning the Women’s World Cup was the biggest accomplishment in sports the past week, but it wasn’t the most amazing. The continuing reign of Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and the rest of those American stars was expected. What has happened the past week in London, at Wimbledon, was the surreal opposite of expected.

Surprise is one of the great joys of sports, the rise of the underdog one of the great delights. The rare moment when someone you had never heard of becomes a star, and you can only imagine the trajectory that lay ahead.

Her name is Cori (Coco) Gauff.

She just turned 15 in March. Can’t drive a car yet, but oh can she drive a tennis ball.

Her magical Wimbledon run ended Monday in a 6-3, 6-2 loss in the fourth round to pedigreed Simona Halep, a former world No. 1-ranked player, the 2018 French open champion currently ranked seventh. Gauff was playing in her first major and ranked 319th. She was so unknown the chair umpire asked her before Monday’s match how to pronounce her last name. (Rhymes with “goff.”)

The dream didn’t end Monday; you get the feeling it was a dream deferred. That big things are ahead for the teen from Delray Beach (an hour north of Miami) who had already made history as the youngest woman to qualify for Wimbledon in the Open era, and the youngest to win a match since Jennifer Capriati in 1991.

Credit good genes from her parents, who both accompanied their daughter to England. Father Corey Gauff played basketball at Georgia State. Mom Candi was a heptathlete at Florida State.

“If somebody had told me this is where we would be when we got here ahead of qualifying two weeks ago, I would have said, ‘Get out of here!’ ” Corey Gauff said. “I thought there was a small chance she would even get the wild card to play in qualifying, but we thought we would just put in the paperwork to see what happened. I thought we would be back home by now be celebrating the Fourth of July at our house.”

Instead the celebrating has been going on without them at Delray Beach’s Paradise Sports Lounge, which the Gauffs own, and where friends and relatives filled the place with Loco For Coco bedlam for all four of her matches.

Yvonne Odom, grandmother of tennis player Coco Gauff, speaks to members of the media after watching her granddaughter play at Wimbledon from the family-owned Paradise Sports Lounge, Monday, July 8, 2019, in Delray Beach, Fla. Former No. 1 Simona Halep defeated the 15-year-old American 6-3, 6-3. Wilfredo Lee AP

Her run began with a victory over five-time Wimbledon champ Venus Williams.

“It’s crazy because that’s her idol,” said a cousin, Paul Fulton II. “Venus and Serena paved the way for her, and now she’s paving the way for other kids her age.”

Along the way Coco dramatically fought back on Friday to reach Monday’s fourth round, losing the first set and trailing 5-2 in the second before staving off match point, somehow finding steel nerves on the sport’s biggest stage to beat Polona Hercog 3-6, 7-6 (9-7), 7-5.

Delightfully, Coco acts every bit the 15-year-old girl off the court. She wore one of Kawhi Leonard’s “Fun Guy” T-shirts to one post-match news conference, and began it by saying, “I know this is off topic, but I wanted to say please stream “Erys” by Jaden Smith” — a shoutout for the new album from her favorite rapper/singer (Will’s kid).

What will she do with the $220,000 she won at Wimbledon?

“I mean, I can’t buy a car because I can’t drive,” she said. “Maybe I’m going to buy some more MSFTSrep, which is Jaden’s [clothing] line, buy some hoodies from that. I love wearing hoodies. My mom, she banned me from wearing hoodies for two months.”

She was delighted over the past week to get Twitter congratulations from Michelle Obama and Tina Knowles-Lawson, Beyonce’s mother.

“I hope Beyonce saw that,” Coco said. “I hope she told her daughter about me because I would love to go to a concert.”

On the court, “I want to be the best ever,” she said flatly last year. “I want to be better than Serena, and I want to have that Grand Slam record one day.”

United States’ Cori “Coco” Gauff is dejected after losing to Romania’s Simona Halep in a women’s singles match against on day seven of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Monday, July 8, 2019. Kirsty Wigglesworth AP

Sports need personalities like hers. And American tennis — men’s and women’s — has been looking for its next big star for a long, long time.

On the men’s side, John Isner, aged 34, is, at No. 12 in the ATP rankings, the only American in the top 30. No U.S. male has won a major since Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick in 2003.

For the women, Serena is 37 now and Venus is 39. Someone must take the baton. Sloane Stephens currently is the highest American woman in the WTA rankings at No. 9, and by winning the 2017 U.S. Open became the first U.S. major winner not named Williams since 2002. But Stephens already is 26, an age by which Serena already had won eight majors. That is to say, Stephens’ career arc suggests a very good player, but one who must accelerate and find another gear to reach the next-big-star level.

When Coco Gauff said, at 14, “I want to be the best ever,” that did not sound like a girl afraid of the highest expectations. She is inviting the Next Serena stuff and indicated in this Wimbledon run that the notion might not be absurd.

It’s going to be fun to watch what will happen from here, because you get the feeling the way she introduced herself to the world at Wimbledon was only the beginning.