Cori broke tournament records after becoming the youngest qualifier in Open Era history last week, coming through three rounds unscathed after an unexpected wildcard. However, she easily surpassed that with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams in her Wimbledon debut on Monday evening.
In Friday’s draw, you knew the fresh-faced teenager was to face one of the big guns but who? None other than Venus Williams, one of her biggest role models and even at 39, still going strong. This was her 22nd appearance at SW19 and the experienced American performed admirably but came unstuck by a youngster with nothing to lose.
With parents Corey and Candi watching on from the players box, it really hit home just how young and inexperienced she is. If anything, it served to fuel her fire – responding well to everything Venus threw her way with poise and a determined mindset too.
She looked to set the pace from the first point but did so in fluttering bursts, allowing Gauff time to settle and gain rhythm with a Court One crowd firmly on the teenager’s side. Whether the subtlety of her drop shots or well-placed forehands, belief that a shock was imminent intensified with each passing minute.
Gauff takes venus by surprise, takes first set
After winning a crucial break point at 2-2, it gave her the momentum she needed to take control of the first set itself. Despite trailing 4-2, Venus continued to rally back and apply pressure – consciously aware of how pivotal that break of serve was.
She fought back and posed the serve it out question at 5-4 down, though Cori responded by dropping just one point in the following game to close out a 6-4 set. The job was half done after 35 minutes, but you knew Venus wasn’t going down without a fight. She powered ahead quickly and clearly in no mood to entertain a surprise first-round defeat.
But this is a player who celebrated her 39th birthday in mid-June and has only won 15 matches at seven tournaments so far this year. Ultimately, it was beginning to show. Neither served particularly well, with both recording a handful of double-faults at nervy intervals, making for a stop-start encounter at times.
Although Gauff could be excused for gifting easy points – and was half expected to – Venus regularly did the same. Far too often. 26 unforced errors in an hour and 14 minutes, to be exact.
That didn’t bode well for someone with a deficit to overturn, not least playing against an uncanny resemblance to herself at a young age. Gauff’s playing style is tricky to defend against even without charging forward as Venus often did, making for an awkward and frustrating match that experienced players are usually still expected to battle through in.
She had clearly done her homework too: playing shots to the body, forcing Venus into uncomfortable positions and challenging her to work hard for points, as the energetic teenager wasn’t going to give up either.
Feeding off the energy with quiet but confident celebratory fists raised between points, the points got longer but Gauff took it all in her stride. Not just going toe-to-toe with Venus, she was matching and outperforming one of her role models.
When describing black athletes, there’s always a tendency within the media to often reiterate the speed-power combination. Gauff is supremely athletic for her age and power is certainly no problem, but the most important strength here was displaying maturity beyond her years.
I know it’s cliché, but managing points well and responding positively when things weren’t going her way was key, as the match could and would have easily spiralled out of control if she dropped her levels at any stage. Instead, she forced Venus into one more mistake on her third match point to secure a well-deserved win in style, before showing her idol appreciation at the net and celebrating in disbelief after a whirlwind evening.
Gauff will face Magdalena Rybarikova on Wednesday in what is now an eagerly-anticipated second-round clash, that will undoubtedly have increased interest. How far she can go in this tournament remains to be seen, though the 30-year-old Russian was victorious in straight-sets against Aryna Sabalenka, world number 11 – so will hope to avoid suffering the same fate.
As for Venus, you can never be certain when predicting top players’ retirement years. It’d be nice to see her return again next year but the five-time Wimbledon champion didn’t look good here and it seems an opportune time as any to pas the torch after a defeat like this. Harsh perhaps, she’ll know within herself that she lost to a better, significantly younger player on the day. But how much more can she endure without denting her legacy?