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Cori “Coco” Gauff: The making of cocomania sensation

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Fifteen-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff’s dream of 2020 Australian Open glory was last Sunday extinguished when 14th seed, Sofia Kenin got the better of the phenomenon.

To halt the raging storm that Gauff constituted, Kenin had to come from behind to win the match and was able to race through the gears after being edged out in a first-set tiebreak by her fellow American, taking the contest 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0.

Down and out, for now, there is still plenty of positives for Gauff to reflect on, as she once again proved that she is one of the best players in the world, despite her tender years.

Gauff won her first Women Tennis Association (WTA) singles title at the 2019 Linz Open at the age of 15, making her the youngest singles title-holder on the WTA Tour since 2004.

Only months ago, Gauff boldly announced her presence on the tennis scene with exhilarating runs at the Wimbledon and the United States Open. Fittingly, she ended the 2019 season by winning the doubles title at the Luxembourg Open with Caty McNally. It was a triumphant finish to a year in which she grew both in status and confidence. Announcing herself to the world with two stirring Grand Slam runs, sparked the worldwide phenomenon known cheekily as Cocomania.

In October last year, Gauff won her first WTA Singles and reached No. 71 in the rankings after being No. 453 on her 15th birthday on March 13.

She did it all within the confines of the WTA’s age eligibility rule, which limits the number of tournaments girls under 18 can play.

Many American teenagers look forward to their 16th birthdays because of the resulting increase in driving privileges. Consequently, when Gauff turns 16 next month, she will gain a different sort of freedom – an increase in the number of tournaments she can play, to 16 from 14.

Last year, Gauff competed in 11 tournaments after her 15th birthday. Then ranked 456th, she received a wild card to play in the Miami Open, one of the top combined ATP-WTA tour events. On March 21, eight days after her 15th birthday, she made her main-draw debut on the women’s tour and defeated another American teenager, Caty McNally, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, in the first round.

She lost in the second round to 14th-seeded Daria Kasatkina, 6-3, 6-2. The loss disappointed Gauff, who would have faced one of her idols, Venus Williams, had she reached the third round. A meeting with Williams would come soon enough.

As most players outside the Top 200 must, Gauff next moved to the International Tennis Federation circuit of smaller tournaments below the WTA level in hopes of earning enough ranking points to gain entry to the elite tier.

At an $80, 000 green-clay tournament in Charlottesville, United States, Gauff then ranked No. 392 lost in the first round to Zoe Hives, 6-4, 7-6 (3), on April 23.

In Charleston, United States, the next week, Gauff, then ranked 387th, won two matches in qualifying and two more in the main draw to reach the quarterfinals of the $100, 000 I.T.F. tournament. She lost in the quarterfinals to Taylor Townsend, the eventual champion.

On May 6, in the first round of qualifying at a $100, 000 I.T.F. tournament in Bonita Springs, Fla., Gauff suffered her worst loss of the year, falling, 6-1, 6-1, to 334th-ranked Quinn Gleason.

Gauff ranked No. 354, then headed to France, where she occasionally trains at Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy. In St. Gaudens, France, Gauff reached the quarterfinals of a $60, 000 I.T.F. tournament before losing to 154th-ranked Tereza Martincova in three sets. It was the last match she played on the I.T.F. circuit.

Gauff, now 324th, received a wild card into the qualifying draw of the French Open because she won the junior title last year. She won a professional match at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time, beating Ankita Raina, 6-4, 6-4, before losing in the second round of qualifying to the Slovene teenager, Kaja Juvan, who would later take a set off Serena Williams at Wimbledon.

En route to bowing out of the Australian Open, Gauff last penultimate week looked like the only lioness to devour in that tournament.
As the last point ended in the process of her sending home the defending champion, Naomi Osaka, Gauff wheeled and looked at her family and coaches in their courtside seats, raised her arms, pumped them four times in brief celebration, then walked happily to the net to hug Osaka.

Was she more subdued because this is all seeming very normal now? Not a chance.

“I think I was more in disbelief,” she said, referring not just to the pressure of playing the reigning champion, but doing it for the first time on the show court, in front of 15, 000 fans at Rod Laver Arena.

“I didn’t really know what to do. I was just trying to enjoy the moment and savour the moment. I still wouldn’t say I’m used to this.”

Born on March 13, 2004, to athletic parents with NCAA Division 1 collegiate background in basketball and track and field, Gauff is the youngest player ranked in the top 100 by the WTA and has a career-high ranking of No.66 in the world.

Before settling down with tennis, Gauff experimented with a variety of sports as a child. But the inspiration to play by the William Sisters, as well as her preference to compete in an individual sport, helped her maintain focus. This was quickened by a string of successes as a junior, earning a sponsorship to train at Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy in France.

At 13, she began playing on the ITF Junior Circuit and finished runner-up at the junior 2017 US Open in just her fourth ITF event, making her the youngest finalist in the tournament’s history.

She became the No.1 junior in the world after winning the junior Grand Slam singles title over McNally at the 2018 French Open. She also won a junior Grand Slam doubles title at the 2018 US Open, this time partnering with McNally.

Coco’s parents, Candi and Corey Gauff, both of whom are from Delray Beach, Florida were into athletics in their heydays.

While her father played college basketball at Georgia State University and later worked as a healthcare executive, her mother was a track and field athlete at Florida State University and worked as an educator.

Gauff, who has two younger brothers, Codey, who is four years younger and Cameron, who is nine years younger, initially grew up in Atlanta, and first became interested in tennis at the age of four, after watching Serena Williams win the 2009 Australian Open on television with her family.

Her parents encouraged her to try a wide variety of sports, including basketball and track, but she began playing tennis at the age of six and decided she wanted to pursue it as a career because it was an individual sport and because of her early success in winning the “Little Mo” eight-and-under nationals at the age of eight.

Gauff recalled, “I wasn’t much of a team person. I loved tennis. I was so-so about it in the beginning because when I was younger I didn’t want to practice at all. I just wanted to play with my friends. When I turned eight, that was when I played ‘Little Mo’ and after that, I decided to do that for the rest of my life.”

However, at seven, Gauff’s family moved back to Delray Beach so that she would have better opportunities to train in tennis. They initially lived with her mother’s parents before getting their own house.

While in Florida, she worked with Gerard Loglo at the New Generation Tennis Academy for a few years starting from the age of eight. Eventually, both of Gauff’s parents gave up their careers to focus on training their daughter, with her father later taking over as her primary coach, and her mother overseeing her homeschooling.

With her father’s limited experience playing tennis growing up, the movement to Mouratoglou Academy in France was a necessity if she was to make any serious impact on the sport.

A short while after she arrived at the academy, Mouratoglou commented: “I’ll always remember the first time I saw Coco. She came over to the Mouratoglou Academy in 2014 to try out and she impressed me with her determination, athleticism, and fighting spirit… When she looks at you and tells you she will be number one, you can only believe it.

Through his Champ’Seed foundation, which he created to provide funding for talented junior tennis players, who did not have the financial resources to afford high-level training, Mouratoglou helped sponsor Gauff, who went on to achieve success winning the USTA Clay Court National 12-and-under title at the age of 10 years and 3 months old – to become the youngest champion in the tournament’s history.

The 2018/19 season made a big impact in Gauff’s career, especially with the Wimbledon breakthrough, and her maiden WTA titles, as well as making it into the top 100.

Her debut on the ITF Women’s Circuit in May 2018, as a qualifier in the $25K event at Osprey, where she won her first professional match.

She received a wild card into qualifying at the US Open but lost her opening match two months after turning 14 years old. In her first tournament of 2019, she finished runner-up in doubles at the $100K Midland Tennis Classics alongside Ann Li. Two weeks later, Gauff played her next event at the $25K level in Surprise and reached the finals in both singles and doubles. Although she finished runner-up in singles, she won her maiden WTA title in doubles alongside Paige Hourigan against compatriots Usue Arconada and Emina Bektas.

Gauff started 2020 playing at the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand. In singles, she defeated Victoria Kuzmova before losing to Laura Siegemund in the second round. Playing doubles with Caty McNally Gauff reached the semi-finals, losing to eventual champions Taylor Townsend and Asia Muhammad.

In the area of sponsorship, Gauff uses a Head Graphene 360 Speed MP that has 16 main and 19 cross strings. She wears New Balance clothing and tennis shoes.

In October 2018, she signed her first multi-year sponsorship contract, with New Balance, and in March 2019, she announced a multi-year sponsorship agreement with Italian food company Barilla, which also sponsors Roger Federer.

Speaking of her tennis idols are Serena and Venus Williams not long ago, she said: “Serena Williams has always been my idol…and Venus … They are the reason why I wanted to pick up a tennis racket.”

Gauff first met Serena when she won the Little Mo national tournament at the age of eight, and later met her again to film a commercial for Delta Airways and at the Mouratoglou Academy.

After defeating Venus at Wimbledon in 2019, Coco commended Venus when they shook hands at the net. “I was just telling her thank you for everything she’s done for the sport.”

Coco added afterward: “She’s been an inspiration for many people. I was just really telling her thank you.”


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