From day one, Coco Gauff had the ‘X factor’

Charm, maturity, elite talent and backhands for days. Bastien Fachan shares his initial impressions of teen wunderkind Coco Gauff and how, right from the start, he knew she was destined for stardom

Coco Gauff, US Open, 2023 Coco Gauff, US Open, 2023 – © Zuma / Panoramic

On the first day of my first adult job as social media contributor at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Nice, France, I was tasked with filming a young player for Instagram Stories. 

Playing there on Court Serena Williams – the American icon had left her handprint at the entrance the day the academy was inaugurated – was a 13-year-old star in the making, I was told, who had become the youngest girls’ finalist in US Open history earlier that summer. She was tall – she’d grown four inches to 5’10” over the past year – and had inherited her parents’ athletic genes: her mom was a track-and-field standout, and her dad had played college basketball. Even more captivating, she had backhands for days.

Her name was Cori, but everybody called her Coco. Coco Gauff.

At the age of 10, her dad had told her to pack up for Paris, and she’d thought it was one of his usual dad jokes – except this time it wasn’t. Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, had just launched the Champ’seed Foundation to help young tennis talents financially; every two months or so, he would fly out a select few from all over the world to train and run a battery of physical tests at his then-Paris based academy. On the last day, he would talk to them one-on-one to assess whether they had that ‘X-Factor’ he deems an intangible component to future champions. Later, he’d tell me that Coco aced that interview, and that’s when he knew she was just as special off the court.

Coco would also ace online school – even when her frantic lifestyle as a teen athlete clashed with her exams. As she took the court for her first-round match in qualifying at Wimbledon in 2019, one of her teachers found out she was a tennis prodigy, and it was like that episode when Hannah Montana’s friends connect the dots. After the secret got out, she posted a story directed to another one of her teachers: ‘Mr. MacDonald, if you ever see this, I promise I’m gonna take that science test tomorrow’.

She did take the test the next day, and she did successfully qualify for Wimbledon the day after.

Wimbledon catapults her to fame

In the main draw first round, her 6-4, 6-4 win against five-time champion Venus Williams catapulted Gauff into overnight superstardom. Most 15-year-olds would have crumbled under such rapid fame and fallen at the next hurdle. But she notched another straight-sets win in the second round, and when reality seemed finally to have caught up with her, she turned up the volume and gave the 15,000 Centre Court spectators emotions to last a lifetime. Down 6-3, 5-2, 30-40 to Polona Hercog in the third round, she saved three match points and pulled off a Houdini act to become the youngest player since 1991 to reach the Wimbledon second week. 

As Hercog’s last lob landed long, the photographer Antoine Couvercelle captured Coco jumping euphorically in unison with her box, the crowd, Murray Mound (or Henman Hill) – and the whole of England. ‘Loco for Coco’ as the legions of fans who were now in Gauff’s corner, I changed my Twitter profile picture on the way back from the stadium (thanks again, Antoine), pledging to keep it until the day she won a Grand Slam.

The memories stayed, and so did the people I met along the way. Capping off a breakthrough year on the Tour, Coco took part in a star-studded pre-season camp in Boca Raton, Florida, just 20 minutes from her Delray Beach home. Between a rigid tennis and fitness schedule, she took a boxing class with Mike Tyson, sang karaoke with Victoria Azarenka and Bob Sinclar, learned choreography with Shaun T, Serena Williams and Chris Eubanks, and hung out with fellow teen sensation Holger Rune. 

While watching her have the time of her life, Jean-Christophe Faurel, the first coach of her professional career, confided in me that she was the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’, and that her potential was worth making any necessary sacrifice for her to fulfill it. 

At the forthcoming Australian Open, she knocked out then-world No 3 Naomi Osaka for the biggest win of her young career, which would then be temporarily halted by the pandemic.

Introduction of Brad Gilbert the final piece in the jigsaw

Two and a half years later, as she threw her high school graduation hat in the air in front of the Eiffel Tower, I was brutally reminded that she was still only 18, even though it felt like she’d been around for a decade. She reached her first Grand Slam final that Roland-Garros fortnight, falling to a virtually invincible Iga Swiatek. In a beautiful, teary-eyed runner-up speech, she once again showed herself to be mature beyond her years.

Generational talent does not equal automatic Grand Slam success, though, and after a disappointing first-round loss at Wimbledon 2023, the now 19-year-old Coco found herself at a crossroads. Her dad suggested the idea of bringing in Brad Gilbert, who’d once led a 21-year-old Andy Roddick to a US Open title almost on the fly. In Washington DC, as I joked about his bestseller ‘Winning Ugly’, Gilbert wittily countered that he’d prefer she ‘won pretty’. Right on cue, she ended up winning the tournament flamboyantly – the Summer of Coco had begun.

Gauff’s formerly vulnerable forehand still let her down at times, but she just kept on winning, pretty or ugly. In Cincinnati, she turned the tables on Swiatek after seven straight losses to the Pole and went on to claim her maiden WTA 1000 title.

Everything was on the line at the US Open, and ever the teenage-adult, she looked ready.

Her first week in Flushing Meadows definitely wasn’t pretty, but she survived; her second week shaped up to be prettier, such as in her 6-0, 6-2 quarter-final thrashing of Jelena Ostapenko, who had conveniently taken care of world No 1 Swiatek in the previous round; but then her semi-final became even more of a challenge when a protester forced a 50-minute delay. 

Calmness under pressure

Faced with adversity, Gauff stayed calm, ate her now iconic Tupperware fruit salad, scrolled TikTok in the locker room, casually came back on the court and won, just like she had done all summer.

Facing hard-hitting, soon-to-be world No 1 Aryna Sabalenka in the final, Coco was overpowered and overwhelmed as she dropped the first set 6-2. She then rose to the occasion, and from then on it became plain pretty – the way she retrieved every ball, solved every problem in real time, made every first serve and every right shot en route to her destiny.

As she was serving for the championship at 5-2, 40-0 in the third, I thought of all the people who had crossed her path for the past 10 years, and how it was immediately obvious to each and every one of them that this bright young woman was born for this very moment.

I thought about that first practice on Court Serena Williams, and how her 13-year-old Instagram bio read, ‘I am not going to be the next Serena Williams, I am going to be the first Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff’ – and how six years later, fittingly, she was about to become the first American teen to win the US Open since Serena Williams in 1999.

Sabalenka came to the net, prompting Coco to hit a backhand pass to clinch it.

Before she even made contact with the ball, I knew it was going to be a winner.

From day one, I knew she had backhands for days.

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