A new moon hovered menacingly over Venus last night, imperilling the status of one of the oldest names in tennis’ solar system.
And by the end of her match with a 15-year-old whizzkid nicknamed “Coco”, Venus Williams must have felt like the planet Pluto when it was “reclassified”, to use the official euphemism of outer space ostracisation.
Cori Gauff, who was sitting a science exam the night before a qualifying match for the championships, won 6-4, 6-4 with a sensational performance which had every single member of the departing Court No 1 crowd congratulating themselves with the thought: “I was there when a great champion took her first bow.”
Whether this actually will come to pass is still in the realm of fantasy and dreams. What we can say for sure is that it was Gauff’s dream to play Williams who in her short career thus far has been an inspiration to the girl from Atlanta.
What we can also confirm is that, thrilling as she is out on court, Coco is a riot during the post-match chat. In the course of a single answer she declared herself not only “super-shocked” but “super-blessed” and “super-happy”, adding that Williams had been “super-nice” in congratulating her at the net.
This reminded us that she’s only 15. The play – the shots, the power, the nerve, the refusal to be cowed by the old warrior’s threat of a comeback before the fourth match point was clinched – seemed to belong to someone much older who doesn’t yabber excitedly about Instagram and Rihanna and how the last time she cried before last night was the last Avengers game when Iron Man died. In the aftermath of victory she declared that her phone had been “banging” with congrats.
It was Oldest vs Youngest, the most senior woman in the draw against the most youthful entrant of the Open era and more than once in the encounter, Gauff must have reminded Williams of her sleek-moving self from way back when. “I definitely get compared to Venus a lot, our body shape and the way we play,” said Gauff.
Not so much last night. Williams likes to take things slowly now and her mournful shuffle along the baseline was in sharp contrast to the jerky, perky moves of her opponent. By the time Gauff was born Williams had already won four of her seven Grand Slam singles titles but the youngster displayed no jitters and seemed to feed off the gasps from the crowd as it sensed a big story unfolding.
Not that the match didn’t have plenty of “wow” moments for her. She’d glimpsed Court No 1 empty the day before; it looked “much, much bigger” with people inside. She could hear the noise they made during the walk-out, even though she was listening to Jaden Smith and Kendrick Lamar on her headphones. “I was just really shocked,” she said.
Gauff broke the Williams serve in the fifth game, fashioning winners with both lob and drop-shot. There was a moment shortly after when Williams slipped on the turf and as she lay prostrate Gauff could have picked her spot to claim the point. But she elected to play the ball close to where Williams had fallen, allowing her to return. A sympathetic gesture? Well, her very next shot thundered down the line. “Definitely aggressive” was how Gauff described her game for the benefit of the uninitiated (ie, all of us). “I take what I want.”
Gauff broke Williams again in the second set, only to commit two double faults. Unperturbed, she quickly regained the advantage after covering the distance between baseline and net in a blur. “I wasn’t really nervous,” she added. “I knew this one was going to be mine, no matter what.”
Before what would be the deciding game she said a prayer. “I was just really thanking God for all this. Before every match, since I was eight, my dad and I have said a prayer together. We don’t really pray about victory, just that me and my opponent stay safe.”
This opponent? Williams admitted Gauff deserved her victory. “She played so well. Even all the hank balls went in.” Could the newbie reach the top. “I think the sky’s the limit, it really is.”
The top is where Coco is aiming. “I’ve said this before: I want to be the greatest,” she said. “My dad told me I could do this when I was eight.” And what of the here and now and Wimbledon? “My goal is to win it.”