By Giri Nathan
There are plenty of reasons to give up on tennis. Each of them is a crater, with a would-be prodigy curled up inside. Whether it’s the physical toll of a never-ending tour, some of the most diseased parental relationships in sporting history, or the pressures of an international hype complex, there are so many ways to burn out. And if the standard is “becoming one of the best ever to play,” as it so insistently seems to be, I’d bet on any given teenager to fail. Just count it as a victory if they’ve managed to hold on to any sense of self. I know, as a complicit party, that that hype machine is always stupid and often sad—which doesn’t mean that I’m too good to resist its rewards. Let’s go, Coco! How refreshing is it to see one teen begin to deliver on all these impossible expectations, just a couple weeks removed from her high school graduation, with an eerily evenhanded perspective on her career? Let her many successors bear the crushing weight of the comparisons; enjoy the show for now.
Coco Gauff set a potential trap for herself by being so good so early in her tennis life. Become the No. 1 junior, win a junior Slam, make the fourth round of a real Slam at age 15—beating Venus Williams to do it—and you’ve hurtled well past the last exit to a (relatively) normal childhood. From there it’s Roger Federer’s pasta sponsorship, and an Arthur Ashe for your Naomi Osaka matchup, and potentially years and years of wondering if things will ever break the way everyone around you seems to expect them to. Barely three years after that breakout Wimbledon, Gauff has already secured a spot in the final at Roland-Garros. Her growth has been incremental. Last year she made the quarterfinal here, as clay seemed to really click as the right surface for her unbelievable mobility. She followed that up with a strong fourth-round repeat at Wimbledon. Late in the season she cracked the top 20. She has been winning steadily, if not as explosively and eye-catchingly as her initial debut seemed to augur. Her game will always rest on the floor of an elite defense, and if her technical and tactical improvements continue apace, this should be just the first of many major finals.
It’s been a remarkable tournament for Gauff on many levels. For one: She has a chance at two Roland-Garros titles this weekend. Partnering with Jessica Pegula—who made a deep singles run of her own—Gauff made it to the semifinals, where they beat compatriots Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend in straight sets. (“I feel like she’s been 18 for, like, five years. I’m like, ‘Coco, you’re like a veteran,’” said Pegula of her partner.) For another: Gauff still hasn’t even dropped a set in singles. She’s kept her matches clean and uncomplicated, baking two bagels and two breadsticks. There’s a caveat here, which is that she was able to dodge the four highest-seeded players in her half, all of whom crashed in rounds 1 and 2. Sloane Stephens, briefly slipping into world-beating mode as she occasionally deigns to do, was Gauff’s greatest test so far; she too was swept aside in the quarterfinal. If you think that this was an easy road and her results this week have outpaced Coco’s underlying skill level—this may well be true—there’s no better measuring stick than a matchup against Iga Swiatek. Awaiting Gauff is the world No. 1, riding a ridiculous 34-match win streak, looking to close out a tournament she’s won before. Taking even a set off Swiatek would be a heartening sign of progress. Taking two might call for a total reevaluation of the player she is right now, and still could be.
Above: Coco ascendant. (Getty)