Wimbledon 2019: Venus Williams Blazed a Trail for Coco Gauff, Who Looks Like the Future of Tennis
Inflection points in the history of a sport, as in the history of anything, are seen clearly only in retrospect. Still, sometimes, you can feel in the moment that something is happening—a sense of import in the lead-up to the event, and then a sense of consequence in its outcome, beyond the scoreline. You think, There was a before, and now there will be an after. Something has shifted. If you were watching the women’s singles tournament at Wimbledon nineteen years ago, you saw Venus Williams defeat the defending champion, Lindsay Davenport, in straight sets, 6–4, 7–5, and you might well have sensed that the Williams sisters, after years of anticipation and scrutiny, had arrived. You would have been right. Over the next sixteen years, they would win eleven more Wimbledon trophies between them, and the kind of tennis that they played—imposing serves, unmatched athleticism, fiery determination, attacking offense from anywhere on the court—would reconfigure the women’s game.
Early Monday evening in London, as a chill breeze drove thickening clouds over Wimbledon’s No. 1 Court, Venus Williams, now thirty-nine, lost her first-round match in straight sets to the fifteen-year-old American Cori (Coco) Gauff, 6–4, 6–4. It felt like another inflection point. After the match ended, Williams said that she planned to be back at Wimbledon next year, but her voice was choked and whispery. She’d lost in the first round at the French Open, too; she is drifting out of the top fifty.
Gauff would also meet the press, but, really, she’d said all she had to say on the court, in the moments just after the match ended with Williams’s twenty-sixth unforced error. When Williams came forward to shake Gauff’s hand, Gauff seemed unwilling to let it go. “Venus told me ‘congratulations’ and ‘keep going.’ She said ‘good luck,’ and I told her thanks for everything she did,” Gauff told the BBC, in a post-match interview. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her—I told her she was so inspiring, and I’ve always wanted to tell her that but I’ve never had the guts to before.” Then Gauff sat in her chair and cried into a towel. She knelt, and, bracing herself on her racquet, she prayed. Then she left the court wiping tears from her eyes with her forearm—a reminder that, for all the maturity she had displayed on the court, a fifteen-year-old is still a child.
As I wrote in March, after her first W.T.A. tour-level match, in Miami, Gauff is a sort of Williams sister 2.0. Her father, Corey, a one-time basketball player at Georgia Tech, drew on Richard Williams’s example in developing the tennis talents of his daughter. Gauff, for her part, has Venus’s long-limbed body and Serena’s hitting style and fervid on-court attitude. There have been other young talented American women of color who picked up tennis racquets—or had them placed in their hands by eager dads—because of the Williams sisters. (That’s another way they changed the game.) But none of those other players has been watched from so young an age, and with such expectations, by coaches, journalists, sponsors—the entirety of tennis—as Coco Gauff has been. In this way, too, she is remarkably similar to Venus and Serena.
On Monday, from the moment the match started, Gauff seemed to be searching for Williams’s backhand—a shot that Williams more or less brought to women’s tennis, in the nineteen-nineties. She hits it with a fully open stance, the racquet brought straight back and low, the power coming not from stepping into the ball but from torquing her broad shoulders and strong core. Gauff’s pace, particularly off her forehand, had Williams swinging late. In the fifth game, with Williams serving at 30–all, she missed two backhands and was broken. Ten minutes later, she drove a backhand into the net, and the first set went to Gauff.
The two exchanged breaks in the middle of the second set, with Gauff giving her break back with two double faults to even things at 4–4. Nerves? No. The crowd, by this point, was with her, and when she worked the following game to deuce, and then sent a searing, diving forehand directly at Williams—who’d approached the net, but could do nothing but barely keep the ball from hitting her—the roar could not have been louder or clearer. Gauff broke Williams on the point that followed, and then held serve to close out the match, largely on the strength of two fearless second serves, both of which topped a hundred miles per hour. Second serves at that speed. From a fifteen-year-old.
Those serves, their speed and their daring, were pure Williams. But there were aspects of Gauff’s game that hinted not only at where women’s tennis has been in the Williams era but where it looks to be headed now. Early in the first set, she dashed in to catch a short ball at the very top of her racquet early and gently coax it aloft: a perfect lob winner, just beyond Williams’s reach. Gauff can hit her forehand flat or loopy with topspin; she can mix in a drop shot; she can swing all-or-nothing or patiently construct a point; increasingly, she can slice her backhand, if she wants, rather than coming over the ball with two hands. Which is to say that she, like Australia’s Ash Barty, the current world No. 1, and also like the Canadian phenom Bianca Andreescu, is not only a Williams-style baseliner. Women’s tennis could be entering an era of amalgamation—that of the power all-courter.
That’s speculation, of course. Less than a year ago, women’s tennis was entering the era of Naomi Osaka; like Venus, Osaka crashed out of Wimbledon on Monday, in the first-round, one in a string of early exits. If nothing else, Osaka’s struggles show just how remarkable it is that the Williams sisters prevailed as they did for twenty years. And, if Gauff keeps developing, as she is expected to do, and she stays injury-free, which is always an issue in tennis, she is likely to be, among many other things, a thriving reminder of just how great and consequential Venus and Serena have been.