Venus Williams beaten by 15-year-old prodigy Cori Gauff

The youngest player in the Open Era to qualify moved into round two of Wimbledon

 Cori Gauff after her win against Venus Williams at Wimbledon. Photograph: Reuters

Cori Gauff after her win against Venus Williams at Wimbledon. Photograph: Reuters

 

Venus Williams declined to say if she had any awareness of looking across the net at the gangling 15-year-old Cori Gauff with her two handed backhand, a similar body shape and an expression that said ‘I will rip your lungs out,’ and seeing a younger version of herself.

A 39-year-old multiple Grand Slam winner, a 24-year-age difference and an African-American opponent they call Coco, if there was ever a glimpse of generational shift it was the final match on court one on Monday at Wimbledon.

The sport moved away from a decorated past 6-4, 6-4 and the youngest player in the Open Era to qualify moved into round two. The once discredited notion of the tennis teen phenom is back.

“She just told me congrats and to keep going and good luck,” said Gauff after the match. “I told her thank you I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. I met her before but I was never able to tell her that but now I had the guts too.

“I never thought this would happen. I’m living my dream right now. Not many people get to say that. I never thought I would get this far.”

Williams would have known the world number two Naomi Osaka had just departed the draw 7-6 (4), 6-2 after losing to Kazak Yulia Putintseva in the biggest shock of the first round. But Osaka’s loss seemed more a bad misstep in her first outing on the Wimbledon grass and less an emblem of seismic change in the sport.

Naomi Osaka of Japan during her defeat to Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan. Photograph: Getty Images
Naomi Osaka of Japan during her defeat to Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan. Photograph: Getty Images

The obvious similarities and epic differences between teenager and one of the grandees of tennis was the captivating ingredient for the crowd in the pair’s first ever meeting. One former teenage prodigy facing another, a meeting Gauff described before hand as “a dream.”

Before she was born Venus and sister Serena had won 10 Grand Slams, Venus having turned professional as a 14-year-old girl. But following high profile burnouts of young female players restrictions were introduced to limit the amount they could play.

At 15 years old, Gauff may play up to 14 professional events until her 16th birthday assuming she continues earning merited increases. She became eligible for increases at the professional level from her 15th birthday until the age of 18.

Up to Wimbledon she earned points in seven professional events and may play up to seven more professional events prior to her 16th birthday on March 13th 2020.

No doubt, there was an undercurrent of melancholy, as much in the obvious failure of a great player to hold back time, the end of the match coming when Venus hit a forehand into the net on the fourth match point.

Almost overcome Gauff, half apologetically walked to her idol at the net looking like the child caught in the act of stealing. She sat down, put her forehead on her racquet, cried a little and looking a little lost walked off the court much more the child Coco than the slayer of a former champion. Williams by then was deep into the corridors of the All England Club.

“That’s the plan,” said Williams when asked if she would be back playing Wimbledon next year as a 40-year-old. Martina Navratilova made a short lived comeback at 47-years-old. There was no talk of that.

“She did everything well today. Put the ball in the court better than I did, played well, served well. Yeah, she played so well. Even all the shank balls went in. I actually didn’t play well. It was a contrast of both sides.

“The sky’s the limit. It really is,” added an under whelmed, stoic, disappointed, why the hell am I talking to you guys Venus before advising the teenager to “just have fun. Enjoy life. That’s all you can do.”

It took Gauff 33 minutes to nail down the first set. While it was the ideal start the feeling was she had just played herself into a position of escalating nervous tension. All it would take for it to crumble around her frock was a little self awareness, a flash of comprehension of time and place.

But the younger player raced to 4-2 in the second set unsettling her experienced opponent. Williams broke back to 4-4 and the crowd fell silent. Unafraid to play aggressively Gauff made Williams hit her shots and when a volley went long, the contest opened for the teenager to break back for 5-4 and serve for the match.

It went to three deuces and finally in the fourth match point, as Williams held on by a thread, a forehand return failed to get over the net. The player that won her first Wimbledon title 19 years ago, the first African American in the Open Era to be ranked the world number one was out.

In Osaka the tournament lost a second seed, a bookable name and the bottom half of the draw opens up. Williams’ departure is not as big a shock as her ranking of 44 in the world signaled inevitable decline. That it came at the hands of a 15 year old will cause a stir. The woman, girl, child, who had to complete a school science test in the middle of the Qualifying tournament, is taking Williams advise, enjoying life.

“I’m super blessed,” said Gauff. “She was super nice. On my science test I got a B. On today’s play I’d give myself an A.”

Make it an A+.

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