As the names were being drawn for the Australian Open, everyone was asking the same question: What were the odds that Coco Gauff and Venus Williams would face each other in the first round of a major tournament again?
“I was a bit shocked,” Coco said, “I’m sure everyone was a bit shocked.”
Rising US star Coco first faced Williams, also from the US, six months ago at Wimbledon – another of the four annual Grand Slam tournaments. The 15-year-old made headlines when she beat seasoned athlete Williams, 39, in the first round.
And as the two met again on Monday in Melbourne, Coco once again got the better of Williams, beating her 7-6 (5), 6-3.
This time, it was a much more self-assured Coco who walked out onto the court than last year.
“I was definitely more confident this time. I think I’m now used to playing on big courts, so I guess the size of the crowd didn’t startle me as much as last time,” she said. “Definitely a bit more positive coming into this match.”
There was a lot of buzz surrounding the match, which kicked off day one of the first major tournament of the year. Luckily, it did not disappoint.
Each time Coco tried to get ahead, Williams – who had already won four of her seven Grand Slam trophies by the time her rival was born – managed to rebuff her.
Finally, Coco got the 3-0 lead she needed, and held onto that edge until the very end.
The teen has already demonstrated many qualities on a tennis court, from her big, gutsy serves to an ability to track down her opponent’s shots. Now you can add perseverance and determination to the list.
While Williams was long one of the most feared servers on the court, Coco gave her a run for her money on Monday. The teen was unafraid to hold back at crucial moments, pounding an ace at 185 kilometres per hour, or hitting a risky second serve at a high speed to just the right spot to draw a no-good return.
Nor was she shy about celebrating the biggest of points with a loud “Come on!” and a series of fist pumps.
Aside from that, though, she had her game face on, showing little emotion from the moment she walked out onto the court with earphones in place after getting a pre-match peck on the cheek from her father and coach, Corey Gauff.
The match was held in one of the few stadiums in Melbourne with a retractable roof, which turned out to be a good thing. The air quality was fine, but a heavy storm arrived in the afternoon, causing nine other matches taking place on outdoor courts to be suspended and 20 others to be postponed. This meant an earlier than usual start on Tuesday, to help things get back on schedule.
Among the players who did get the chance to play – and win – were Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, defending women’s champion Naomi Osaka, and 23-time major champion Serena Williams.
Serena Williams, 38, had better luck against her teenage opponent than her sister Venus.
The star player had little trouble beating 18-year-old Anastasia Potapova of Russia 6-0, 6-3. That leaves her in with a shot of earning her 24th Grand Slam singles championship title.
Reflecting on her win, Serena said with a laugh: “I started out well today. Ended well.”
Serena Williams also happens to be one of Coco’s biggest idols.
The teen beamed on Monday while discussing a dance routine she did with Williams that went viral on social media.
She also joked about her love of TikTok, and her tendency to procrastinate when it comes to school work – proving she’s still just like every other teen.
When it comes to her sport, though, Coco is no slacker.
“I mean, my mission is to be the greatest,” she said.” That’s my goal – to win as many Grand Slams as possible. But for today, my mission was to win.”
After winning her match against Romania’s Sorana Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, in the second round of the Australian Open yesterday, Coco will now face defending champion Osaka later in the tournament.
Her match against Venus Williams proved she has what it takes.
Coco is ranked 67th in the world while Venus Williams, a former No. 1, is 55th. This was William’s 85th Grand Slam tournament’s main draw, and only Coco’s third.
Still, Coco held her own in a way that is rare and impressive for her age.
“She clearly wants it and works very hard and is extremely mature for her age,” Venus Williams said of her opponent. “The sky’s the limit for her.”
Back when she was ranked 313th, Coco became the youngest qualifier in Wimbledon history last year. She then made it all the way to the fourth round before losing to eventual champion Simona Halep. Coco followed that success by making it to the third round of the US Open, then won her first WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) singles title later in the year.
The biggest question hanging over Coco at the start of this season was whether she could deal with being someone everyone knows about and gears up to watch, and all the pressure and high expectations that come with that.
So far, so good.
“I guess I came to the realisation that I need to play my game, not worry about what people think of me,” Coco said.
“I still have a lot more to do to become one of those ‘big names’,” she continued, making air quotes with her fingers. “I feel like I still have a lot to improve.”