‘I wouldn’t bet against her’: Coco Gauff’s first coach on her meteoric rise

July 08, 2019 - 14:32

At 15-years-old most of us only dream about scoring the winning goal at Wembley or smashing aces at Centre Court, but Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff is no ordinary teenager.

Cori Gauff was the talk of the town on July 1 after beating her idol and five-time champion Venus Williams. — AFP Photo


Peter Cowan

At 15-years-old most of us only dream about scoring the winning goal at Wembley or smashing aces at Centre Court, but Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff is no ordinary teenager.

The American tennis prodigy became the youngest player to ever qualify for Wimbledon last week and proceeded to dump out the legendary Venus Williams in straight sets in the first round.

Two victories later, including an epic comeback from two match points down against Polona Hercog, Gauff has set up a fourth-round meeting with seventh seed and former world number one Simona Halep today.

The teenager’s fairytale run has captured hearts and minds across the world and shaken up the women’s tennis landscape, but Sylvester Black, Gauff’s first coach, is far from surprised.

That’s because he’s known for years that Coco was destined for greatness.

Early potential

Known as Sly Black in the tennis world, the Jamaican coach has known Gauff since she was six, and even then, he saw hints of her potential.

Speaking to Việt Nam News via phone from Đà Nẵng, where he is combining a holiday with coaching a group of players from around the world, Black recalled the first time he met Gauff in 2010 when he was based in the US.

Black, who works as a development coach specialising in the formative years of a tennis player’s career, was asked by Gauff’s father to evaluate his daughter’s skills.

“She was very skinny, very tiny,” Black said, noting that he initially was more impressed by the shy girl’s athletic potential (both her parents were top-flight college athletes) than her skills with her “baby racket”.

Black, who has also coached 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, asked her father what his goals for Gauff in tennis were and he replied with the modest and achievable aim of winning the prestigious ‘Little Mo’ under eight tournament.

However, when he asked the six-year-old what she wanted, she told Black she wanted to the best player in the world.

“She didn’t look shy then,” he said with a laugh. “Usually the dad says that, but he had a small goal and she said something really big.”

Black decided to train Gauff and her determination to succeed and willingness to listen and learn quickly shone through.

He recalled one drill that left Gauff in tears after she struggled to reach balls he would hit for her to return.

Her father apologised for the outburst, but Black said it was a good sign.

“She wanted to get to the ball so bad,” he said, adding that “then I saw there was something special”.

Sly Black and Cori Gauff while he coached her during her formative years. — Photo courtesy of Sly Black.

Gauff’s development rocketed over the next two years and titles followed, including the ‘Little Mo’ tournament. From there she went from strength to strength and records tumbled, becoming an under-12 national champion at 10-years-old, the youngest US Open girls’ finalist in 2017 and the world’s top junior player.

None of this was a surprise to Black, who worked with her for about five years and predicted she would be the world’s best by the age of 17.

“She was always five years ahead of her age,” he said, noting that the same determination he saw in her as a child helped her rally from the brink of defeat against a seasoned pro like Polona Hercog.

“She wins matches she shouldn’t win,” he said, adding that “she finds a way.”

Sky’s the limit

Former Wimbledon champion and pundit John McEnroe has said he fears Gauff’s success is “too much too soon”, but Black has no such concerns.

He explained that attention and column inches are part of professional tennis, and Gauff’s support system will keep her grounded.

“If anyone can keep up with the pressure it is Cori,” he said.

As for her chances of lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish at Wimbledon, Black, who plans to open a training centre in the beach town of Hua Hin in Thailand in the near future, has a hard time seeing anyone stopping Coco.

“I wouldn’t bet against her.” — VNS