WASHINGTON, October 14, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
When Coco Gauff won the Upper Austria Ladies Linz, an indoor WTA International event during the second-to-the-last week of the tour’s regular season Sunday afternoon, she became the youngest WTA singles champion in 15 years.
As the 15-year-old Gauff, born and raised in Delray Beach, on the Atlantic coast of Florida in the United States, stood front and center on Centre Court inside tiny Tips Arena in Linz, during the trophy presentation with her parents – father and coach Corey and mother Candi – and her team watching court side nearby, she was thrust into an unlikely spotlight. When Gauff was bestowed with the winner’s trophy and prize-money check – plus some nice keepsake gifts that included a colorful, native Austrian costume and a bottle of vintage wine – like the teenager did throughout her unbelievable week, she made the most of her historic opportunity.
Though no stranger to winning, Gauff is still learning how to be as comfortable in speaking before large audiences as she is during her press conferences, in which she is poised and thoughtful beyond her years when answering the media’s questions.
“I’ll definitely remember this moment for the rest of my life,” Gauff said during a touching moment of her victory speech as she held the winner’s trophy, after defeating 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, 6-3, 1-6, 6-2, to win her first WTA singles title. Not since Nicole Vaidisova won two WTA titles (at Vancouver and Tashkent) in 2004, also at age 15, had there been a winner so young on the WTA Tour. Gauff also became the youngest American champion since 1991 when Jennifer Capriati won a title in Toronto.
Gauff, ranked 110th at the start of the tournament, began her thrilling journey in Linz by losing in the second round of qualifying to 130th-ranked Tamara Korpatsch of Germany, 6-4, 6-2. But when Greece’s Maria Sakkari withdrew suddenly because of an injury to her right wrist, Gauff was able to enter the 32-player main draw on short notice as a “lucky loser,” as the highest-ranked player who lost during qualifying. She seized the moment of Sakkari’s misfortune and never looked back.
Round by round, Gauff began to make the most of her opportunities. After beating qualifier Stefanie Vögele of Switzerland and Kateryna Kozlova from Ukraine, both in straight sets, the American triumphed over top-seed and World No. 8 Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, 7-6 (1), 6-4, in the quarterfinal round. It was the first Top-40 player Gauff had defeated in her young professional career. Then, she knocked out WTA Tour veteran Andrea Petkovic of Germany, 6-4, 6-4, to reach Sunday’s final against the 72nd-ranked Ostapenko.
After splitting the first two sets of their one hour and 39 minute title match, the momentum swung back toward Gauff – and she took advantage of Ostapenko’s erratic play by capitalizing on her own mental and physical strength. Soon, Gauff was ahead by a double break at 4-0. Then, at 5-0, she held two match points before Ostapenko regrouped and found some rhythm in her ground game. The Latvian held serve and broke Gauff, but still trailed 2-5 with time running out.
In the next game, Gauff garnered a third match point after Ostapenko netted a backhand return. And, as is often the case in life, the third time proved to be the charm for Gauff. But it took a challenge from the teenager, who shouted “Challenge!” after an Ostapenko forehand on the ninth shot of an extended back-and-forth rally landed deep near the baseline. When the Hawk-Eye review surprisingly favored Gauff, she jumped for joy and beamed a big smile for everyone inside the arena and watching from afar on TV to admire.
— WTA (@WTA) October 14, 2019
“What a fantastic job she did controlling her nerves at the end and refocusing at 5-2 to get her first pro title,” said Tennis Channel commentator Lindsay Davenport, who won the 2001 Linz title, in describing Gauff’s on-court demeanor during the final. “It’s a fantastic moment and a moment she won’t forget. We’ll always remember this moment. I’ve got a feeling this is the first of many, many, many titles to come for Coco Gauff.”
During the awards ceremony, Ostapenko, 22, praised Gauff. “You have a very bright future and I’m glad to share the court with you,” she said.
“I’m still overwhelmed and shocked,” Gauff, the newest WTA singles champion, said during her press conference after her milestone victory. “I guess it’s crazy to say it’s my first WTA title. This was definitely not on the calendar at the beginning of the year, because I didn’t think I’d have a chance to get in, and now I’m the champion, so it’s crazy.”
Gauff’s remarkable rookie season, in which she has climbed 800 places in the WTA world rankings since the end of 2018, follows a stellar junior career that included winning the French Open juniors title last year. In 2019, Gauff has enjoyed a couple of star-making runs despite limitations on the number of events she can play because of age eligibility rules. She reached the fourth round at Wimbledon after a stunning upset of five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams in the first round, then advanced to the third round of the US Open before losing to top seed and defending champion Naomi Osaka, who comforted and praised Gauff afterward in defeat.
By winning the title at Linz, it ensured Gauff’s entry as a Top 100 player – she’s now ranked 71st – which will enable her to enjoy direct entrance to a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in her young career, at next January’s Australian Open. In the meantime, Gauff will play her final tournament of 2019 this week in Luxembourg. She faces No. 8 seed Anna Blinkova of Russia, ranked 66th, in the first round of the BGL BNP Paribas Luxembourg Open on Wednesday.
“It’s just literally insane that I got in as a lucky loser and now I’m the champion,” said Gauff in looking back at her memorable run in Linz.
“My dad told me when I got in, before the first main-draw match, he said ‘You can’t lose twice in the same tournament!’
“I’m sure he never thought it would come this far, to being the champion, but I guess he was right!”
During her press conference, Gauff revealed how she plans to spend some of her prize money from winning at Linz. “I know Halloween is coming up, and it’s one of my favorite times of year, so I guess I’ll splurge a little bit on my costume and make sure it’s right,” she said.
Gauff said her Halloween costume will remain a secret for now. “I know last year they had a WTA contest for the best costumes, and I came in third (place). This year my goal is to come in first!”
Spoken like a confident champion, but one who is still enjoying life as a teenager.