Sudden fame and high expectations have not slowed Gauff, who again defeated Venus Williams in the first round of a Grand Slam, six months after doing it as a little-known qualifier.
Coco Gauff was a qualifier and Grand Slam rookie when she played Venus Williams for the first time.
That was at Wimbledon in July, and Gauff's first-round, 6-4, 6-4 victory over the five-time Wimbledon champion sent shock waves through the All England Club and beyond, far beyond.
Much has changed in six months.
Gauff is still 15 years old, still a fighter on the court and still a charmer in the interview room.
But with a ranking of 67 and a tour singles title in her possession, Gauff no longer has to bother with the qualifying tournament at Grand Slam events. She no longer needs a wild card to get into a major, like the one she received into last year's US Open.
In a floodlit hurry, she has become part of the tennis landscape, and it was striking to watch her first-round rematch with Williams on Monday at the Australian Open and realise as the crowd chanted "Coco" that it might now be a bigger surprise if Gauff lost than if she won.
"We almost had the impression that it was Coco who was the favorite," said Jean-Christophe Faurel, one of her coaches.
Gauff, to her credit, found a way to shrug off her new status and navigate the shoals, winning this duel 7-6 (5), 6-3 by showing plenty of power and finesse when it mattered most against Williams, who, at 39, is closer to triple Gauff's age than double and had not played an official match since October.
"I definitely was more confident this time," Gauff said. "I think I was used to playing on big courts, so I guess the size of the crowd didn't startle me as much as last time."
The Wimbledon match was played on No. 1 Court, the second-biggest arena at the All England Club with a capacity of about 11,000. The rematch Monday was in Margaret Court Arena, the third-biggest show court at Melbourne Park, with a capacity of 7,500.
Nearly every seat was full as Gauff made her Australian Open debut. Her only previous match here was a first-round loss in the junior event in 2018. A year ago, she was ranked No. 684 and preparing for satellite events in the United States.
But she is now one of the main first-week attractions in Melbourne.
"My mission is to be the greatest," she said. "That's my goal, to win as many Grand Slams as possible. But for today, my mission was to win. I didn't want to let the nerves come to me."
Mission accomplished, even if the nerves were clearly there when she failed to convert her first three set points in the opening set and double faulted to lose her serve at 5-4.
But again, to her credit, she did not allow Williams to do what she has been doing for more than 20 years: Dictate the terms of a rally with her huge groundstrokes and aggressive mindset.
Instead, Gauff dug through her tennis toolbox, which is already precociously complete, and came up with bold strokes and abrupt changes of pace, including drop shots and forays to the net.
It was not always clean, not always effective, but the intent to pose an all-court threat was evident, which should pay dividends down the track.
"You have to learn to go forward to the net," said Corey Gauff, her father and head coach. "The game is changing. If you want to have a long career, you can't be out there playing 30 balls per point."
Part of what makes Gauff so promising is that she can play the game in all manner of ways. She has the foot speed to grind from the baseline and extend rallies when necessary, but she also has the power with her serve — and second serve — to end points in a hurry.
The buzz surrounding Gauff is a brand of mania to which Williams can certainly relate, considering the buzz she herself generated as a teenager in the 1990s.
"She clearly wants it, works very hard, is extremely mature for her age," Williams said of Gauff. "I think the sky's the limit for her."
Williams said the same about Gauff at Wimbledon, and it was quite a surprise that they got met again so soon in an opening round.
"When we saw the draw, we went, 'There's no way that's random,'" Corey Gauff said with a chuckle.
The Gauff family has seen a lot of the Williams sisters of late. Serena Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou has been one of Gauff's longtime benefactors, and he organised a preseason training camp in December in Boca Raton, Florida, that included Gauff and Serena Williams as well as Chris Eubanks and Marius Copil.
Gauff and her parents saw that as a special opportunity.
"She's a living legend right?" Corey Gauff said of Serena Williams. "She's paved the way for a lot of these girls, made it easier. Some stuff she and Venus had to deal with, Coco doesn't have to deal with. They moved all those obstacles."
The weather could have been better in Boca Raton, and Serena Williams and Gauff often practised separately with their teams. But there was plenty of bonding off court with dinners, karaoke sessions and a dance performance that was filmed and posted online.
"My highlight definitely," Coco Gauff said. "Serena and I, we didn't pick up the choreography as fast as everyone else. In the end, we did well. She pulled a split. That was really cool."
Gauff might not play like a 15-year-old, but she can sound like one. She is into TikTok, the app that has become a global addiction.
"I procrastinate a lot on that app; I have to do homework," she said. "I mean, everyone thinks I'm so serious because of my on-court. Really I'm not. I don't take life too seriously. I mean, I just like to have fun. Same with my dad. I know my dad seems like this big, intimidating guy, but he's really more the jokester."
But beating Venus Williams — even a rusty Venus Williams — continues to require serious talent and a serious sense of purpose.
Wiliams, ranked 55th, has lost a step but not her love of the battle, and although Gauff leads the head-to-head 2-0, that is also a virtue of Williams' staying power.
"She's showing my daughter you can play tennis as long as you want at a high level," Corey Gauff said. "I'm glad my daughter won, but I hate to see Venus out in the first round. I wish they didn't have to play each other."
Written by: Christopher Clarey
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