First came the tears and then came the gratitude, with Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff plucking up the courage at the net to thank Venus Williams for being an inspiration.
It had been a strange way of showing it, taking 79 minutes to overwhelm one of her role models, someone who showed her — and her parents — what could be achieved in tennis. This Williams 2.0 had always wanted to tell the original article what she meant to her.
Now I have had the guts to,’ said the 15-year-old, having composed herself after the emotional moment of victory, when a look of disbelief spread across her face. ‘I want to be the greatest. My dad told me that I could do this when I was eight,’ she reflected. ‘Obviously you never believe it. I’m still not 100 per cent confident. Now my goal is to win it.’ On this showing, pretty much anything looks possible for Gauff, who won her Wimbledon first round 6-4, 6-4 against a player who had claimed two singles titles at SW19 before Coco was born. It has not taken long for the new Court 1 with its retractable roof to host something special. A match featuring players 24 years apart in age, one a debutant, was always going to be about a beginning and an end. Amid the excitement of seeing a startling new talent, there was an element of pathos in the obvious decline of a once great champion, now 39.
The trajectory of Venus, who has not gone past the third round of a Grand Slam in nearly two years, is heading south. That of Gauff, who last week became the youngest player to make it through qualifying, is heading sharply in the opposite direction. ‘I was telling her thank you for everything she has done for the sport,’ said the articulate young American. ‘I am super shocked. I haven’t cried since Avengers: Endgame, when Iron Man died. I wasn’t surprised that I won, I was just overwhelmed.’ It is all there for a teenager who has barely played on grass, and she acknowledged parallels with Williams in her prime: ‘Our body shape is similar, both tall, and I play similar, but when I’m on the court I play just like me.’
Her natural balance and sure-footedness were particularly striking on the slick new surface, as was the potency of her serve and ability to adapt her groundstrokes. Twice at 5-4 she was asked to serve out the set and twice she responded, the first time with slightly more aplomb than the second. Experience tells you to temper any euphoria about the emergence of a remarkable young talent with a sense of restraint, because the path Gauff has chosen is not a straightforward one.
As for Williams, she can barely string two sentences together when interviewed. Asked for a gauge of her opponent’s potential, she said: ‘I think the sky’s the limit, it really is.’ Asked what advice she might give, she added: ‘Just have fun. Enjoy life. That’s all you can do.’
After a while, that may prove easier said than done, but for now, this felt like the first sweet flush of success.