As former No. 1 Simona Halep came out onto court on Monday afternoon, those in attendance let up a big cheer. Halep turned each way, waving her thanks.
Except they weren’t cheering for her. They were saluting the kid walking in front of her, ranked 313th in the world.
A week ago, only tennis obsessives knew 15-year-old Cori (Coco) Gauff. By Monday, she was the Big Deal at this year’s Wimbledon. Based on the panting coverage and crowds thronging her matches, bigger than anyone here.
Owing to WTA age restrictions, Gauff cannot yet play a full schedule. She’s said in the past that she would like to get a degree. Is that still the plan?
“I still want to go to college. It’s kind of like a requirement with my parents,” Gauff said. “I mean, I’m still fairly new to high school, so I haven’t figured that all out.”
Do you feel old? Because I feel so old.
There are a bunch of reasons people glommed on to Gauff – her charm, her ability, her precociousness. But the main one may be that she is giving them something they didn’t realize they wanted so badly until she supplied it: she’s interesting.
Just at the moment, women’s tennis could use a little of that. Or a lot.
As Serena Williams ages out of the game, it is getting hard not to notice there is no one to replace her in that regard.
People are going to continue winning tennis tournaments. But there is no outsize personality to occupy the enormous imaginative space Williams has taken up in the women’s game for the past 15 years.
There’s no one for the neutral to pay attention to. No one for the fair-weather fan to root for. No one to love or hate (sport needs both commodities, and Williams was an enthusiastic supplier).
The men’s side has a similar problem, but with the Big Two apparently ageless, it isn’t quite as pressing.
The top 10 on the women’s side is a long list of admirable athletes who are dishwater dull off the court. The prototype might be current world No. 1, Ashleigh Barty.
Barty is a lovely young person I’m sure, but all of her public utterances feel like they’re being delivered under oath. Up and down the top of the pops in women’s tennis, the word you might use most often in describing people is “robotic.”
It’s not fair to expect athletes to be interesting – they’re trying to be good at running around, not starting a literary salon – but the world’s unfair.
If the actors have no charisma, it doesn’t matter how well the play is staged. It’s not going to move you.
Gauff has it all in this regard. She is shy, but not scared. She commands a stage. Though her game is still rough, the talent is clearly there.
Most important, she seems to enjoy attention, although not too much.
That’s the secret sauce of celebrity – being able to handle the spotlight without putting up an enormous shield or developing a fatheaded alter ego. That ability can’t be taught.
Williams and Roger Federer have it. For very different reasons, a Novak Djokovic or an Angelique Kerber do not.
On the evidence of one week, Gauff has it, too. You know because of the way people have responded to her.
London, for instance, is cuckoo for Coco. She’s front-page news, leading the broadcasts.
Even the sport’s grande dame is already a believer.
“She’s a complete star,” Williams said. “I was nothing like her at 15. First of all, I didn’t play like that. I didn’t look like that. She’s just so poised. I was somewhere watching cartoons.” Well, not quite, but if one can’t be hyperbolic at Wimbledon, then what’s the point?
Tennis, and women’s tennis in particular, is famous for producing this sort of ingénue. It often ends poorly for them. Think Jennifer Capriati.
Gauff is another of those top players bred for greatness. Her parents were elite athletes. They now run her career. A Federer-adjacent company does her marketing. Long before this week, Gauff was in the pipeline.
This isn’t an up-by-your-bootstraps story. It’s more like The Six Million Dollar Man. Someone decided to make Gauff better than she was – better, stronger, faster – and then they did that. We’ve just seen the first successful results of the experiment.
What sets Gauff apart from other teen sensations is that she comes with her superstar polish preapplied. It took Williams and Federer years to develop it.
It is hard now to remember Federer in his goofy, bad-hair phase, but it was terrible even by early Aughties standards and it went on a long time. Williams alluded on Monday to her own gawky teen phase.
Gauff looks as though she was born at the William Morris Endeavor head office and has spent the intervening years being buffed to a high gloss. She looks ready to assume control. Now it’s just a matter of doing so.
She lost on Monday to Halep. That’s good news. You don’t want to overdeliver up front. Part of keeping them interested is coming on bit by bit, rather than all at once.
Gauff was ill, apparently. In the news conference afterward, she wiped away sniffles. She swivelled from side to side in her chair like a child in the principal’s office. But she was not down. She was ready to provide a closing performance to a packed room of journos.
Once again, there was the odd combination of innocence (“I’m super proud of myself!”) and experience (Q: Are you a good or bad loser?; A: “I would say I’m a mix of both.”). Gauff – a Grade 10 kid – had the room genuinely rapt.
She has that thing. I don’t know what that thing is, but she has it. Whatever it is, women’s tennis needs it. Badly.
After Gauff had finished her 10 minutes, there was a bizarre moment where it seemed possible the jackals of the press might applaud. But it passed.
The day’s winner, Halep, was due in the room next. Almost everyone got up to leave.