Tennis Star, 15, Stuns at Citi Open

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At the Citi Open, Cori "Coco" Gauff acknowledges fans after beating Maegan Manasse on July 27. Photo by Robert Devaney.

This past weekend — July 27 and 28 — the refurbished Rock Creek Park Tennis Center proved it was more than ready for its bump-up back into the world of ATP open tennis. Record crowds arrived on center court to watch stunning wins in two qualifying matches by the newest star of pro tennis: 15-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff.

The long-legged, 5-foot-9 teenager, who earned instant fame by beating champion and mentor Venus Williams in the first round of the Wimbledon tournament in June, lived up to the hype. On Saturday and Sunday afternoon, she brought the full, sun-drenched stands of fans continuously to their feet to cheer and whoop at the dramatic points played out by the amazingly mature and graceful youngster.

Gauff never seemed off-balance, even as she dived for drop shots, often returning them with searing and difficult down-the-line drives — and an occasional offensive lob that landed just in front of the opponent’s back line. With hard serves that alternated between perfectly placed direct-center and slice-y edge landings, she kept her opponents running from side to side with a perfect variety of drives, put-away volleys and drop shots. It took her only 64 minutes to defeat Hiroko Kuwata of Japan during the second qualifying match on Sunday.

With it upgraded stands, air-conditioned Market Square food court and upgraded logistics, this Citi Open tournament (now under new management by Mark Ein and once again sanctioned) promises to be first-class entertainment and top tennis. Nine of USTA’s top-20-ranked players are competing, including Stefanos Tsitsipas, Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Kevin Anderson and John Isner. For the first time, all the women’s doubles matches will be held on center court during the week.

Gauff was grateful for the early qualifying experience at Rock Creek, she told a gathering of reporters after Sunday’s match. It offered her a chance to figure out how the hard courts in Washington, D.C., compared to those she plays on in Florida, she said, adding that she felt the ones in D.C. were a touch slower. The weather — a muggy 92 degrees — felt “like similar to home,” said Gauff, who grew up in Delray Beach, Florida, “so I felt like I was practicing at home.”

Monday afternoon, Gauff could be found again on center court, this time playing doubles with her former partner Caty McNally, 17, who entered the Citi Open on a wild card. The two won the doubles title at the 2018 U.S. Open Junior tournament. Now they will be playing as pros.

Gauff has reportedly been dedicated to tennis since age 6, after being inspired by Serena and Venus Williams. At age 8, she won the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation’s “Little Mo” 8-and-under nationals. At 10, Gauff began to train at the Mouratoglou Academy, run by Serena Williams’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou. In July of 2014, she won the USTA National Clay Court 12-and-under title; at age 10 and 4 months, she was the youngest champion in the tournament’s history.

At age 13, Gauff became the youngest girls’ singles finalist in U.S. Open history, winning her first junior Grand Slam doubles title with McNally. Then, this June, she became the youngest player ever to reach the main draw at Wimbledon, beating Venus Williams (ranked 44) in straight sets and reaching an unprecedented fourth round of the tournament. The Wimbledon wins earned Gauff a global ranking of 141 and enabled her to qualify for the qualifying matches of the Citi Open this weekend.

Gauff was raised and home-schooled by athletic parents Candi (née Odom), a track-and-field athlete and an educator, and Corey, who played basketball at Georgia State University. Her father worked as a health care executive until he became his daughter’s full-time coach and manager when she was 8.

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