Few could understand what Coco Gauff was going through when she had a surprise fourth round run at Wimbledon in 2019 as a 15-year-old qualifier.
But Alexandra Stevenson is one of the few. Within weeks of graduating from high school, the 18-year-old captivated the sports world with her courageous play and incredible story on her way to the semi-finals at the All England Club in 1999.
“After doing well at Wimbledon I had a hard time adjusting,” Stevenson said of being put in the spotlight on tennis’s biggest stage. “But Coco has had a great 2021 and she came in stronger than ever.”
Both women are back at Wimbledon this year – Gauff appears to be finding turf magic for the second time in his young career, while Stevenson is a television analyst for ESPN.
Gauff only needed 65 minutes to defeat Kaja Juvan, 6-3, 6-3, on Saturday to advance to the fourth round. A clash against Serena Williams had initially been surrounded by many as soon as the draw was revealed, but Williams had to withdraw from her opener due to injury. Gauff will face No.25 seed and 2018 Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber instead on Monday.
“This game is going to tell us a lot,” Stevenson said. “The winner will have a really good chance to make it to the final.”
In 1999, Stevenson’s race did not reach the final as she lost to eventual champion Lindsay Davenport. It was her ninth game of the tournament and she was mentally and physically exhausted. Her training had not prepared her to play so many consecutive games at such a high level. She still moved up to 36th overall, but Stevenson said what happened next was the most difficult as she felt she suddenly had a target on her back among her peers. Everything around her had changed – the hype, the expectations, the looks of strangers and those in the locker room.
“All these girls were looking for me,” said Stevenson, who identifies as mixed race. “It was like when all the players really tried to beat Coco at the US Open in 2019 because they didn’t want to lose to a 15-year-old but, and I hate to say it, [there were] racial tendencies. They didn’t want another colored girl either. It was a big deal in ’99, 2000. Everyone likes to gloss over it, but Venus, Serena, and I didn’t have it easy. I didn’t have a team behind me and I really had to find my way. “
Stevenson had a relatively normal childhood. She performed in some junior events, but attended a traditional high school and skipped the 1999 French Open in order to attend the ball and star in “Grease”. Stevenson also made a deal with her mother, Samantha, that she could turn pro and forfeit her college eligibility if she reached the semi-finals. When she arrived in Birmingham, England for a tune-up event before Wimbledon; she didn’t know there were special turf sneakers and had to borrow a pair from her trainer, Craig Kardon. The following week, she won all three of her qualifiers to make the main draw at Wimbledon. She had been the No. 1 seed in qualifying, but Kardon and her mom didn’t say anything to her until the end. They didn’t want her to feel the pressure.
But when Stevenson went out to dinner at Wimbledon Village after securing her seat and Steffi Graf, who was sitting at the table next door, congratulated her, she realized how special the opportunity was. Kardon took her around the pitch the next day, and they stopped at every pitch, including taking a small piece of grass from center court, and he shared the story and his memories.
“I felt like I belonged as soon as I walked through the doors,” Stevenson said. ” I had looked [Wimbledon] since I was 5 and felt like this was a place I was meant to be. I haven’t felt that anywhere else, just at Wimbledon. “
Gauff may have been largely under the radar of casual tennis fans, but connoisseurs had already called her a rising superstar. She had been training at Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy since the age of 11 and became the youngest female finalist in US Open history at 13. She then won the Roland-Garros junior title at age 14. She signed soon after with Roger Federer’s agency and signed lucrative deals. with New Balance, Head and Barilla.
At Wimbledon in 2019, she beat Venus Williams, one of her childhood heroes, in the first round in front of a crowded crowd at Court 1. Stevenson was impressed, but not surprised, by Gauff’s accomplishment despite being young. age.
“She has the best people around her in every aspect,” Stevenson said. “It includes coaches, physiotherapists and even things like media training. It wasn’t as prevalent when I started, but it does make a difference. I can’t go back in time, but I do. would like to have the support around me who she has. “
Nicknamed “CocoMania”, Gauff became the toast of the tournament. His matches became must-see events, and fans and journalists alike relished his frankness in interviews. She lost the first set to Polona Hercog in the third round and faced a match point 5-2 in the second before rallying for an unlikely return to center court.
The tweets poured in from a notable array of stars, including Michelle Obama and Tina Knowles-Lawson. Her parents did their best to protect her, but her father said at the time that she was “extremely aware of the attention she was receiving”. Gauff said she screamed when she saw Beyoncé’s mother recognize her. She ended up losing in the next round to eventual champion Simona Halep, but her growing status had been guaranteed. At the start of the US Open less than two months later, she wore a custom New Balance outfit and had a “Call me Coco” ad campaign with the brand. She reached the third round, a feat Stevenson said was particularly noteworthy given the sudden pressure on her, and won her first WTA singles title in October.
Returning to the tournament for the first time since its debut after last year’s event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, 23rd-ranked Gauff looks set for the next career breakthrough. After reaching the Roland Garros quarter-finals last month, Gauff has so far achieved three convincing straight-set wins at the All England Club, with his second and third round matches headlining on center court. .
Stevenson didn’t play in a center court match before the semi-finals, instead being relegated to the outside courts for most of her run before being placed on the former No.2 court, better known as “Graveyard”, for the quarter-finals. She pointed out that women rarely had the chance to play in the main stadium until the tournament was over at that point. This is just one of the many differences Stevenson sees between her experience and Gauff’s, but she can relate to Gauff’s attitude and self-confidence.
“[It’s] not every day you step on the court you’re going to play your best tennis so I’m not trying to wait for anything, ”Gauff said after his second round victory on Thursday. “What I say, I would say I have more than one belief. I don’t really like the word ‘expectations’, I don’t like that word, I think I use the other word ‘belief’ more. I believe I can win.
“I think I believed it in 2019, and I believe it now. I don’t think anything has changed. My goal is to always win the tournament no matter what my ranking or what people think of me. What I will say is, I guess my goal is clearer right now than it was in 2019. I think my conviction is much stronger now, the feeling that I can go far. “
Stevenson added: “When I said I believed I could win, I was criticized by the media for it, but I’m glad now you can say it. should believe in his abilities. “
Gauff isn’t the only teenager to turn heads this time around. Weeks after making her WTA Main Draw debut and entering the tournament in 338th place, 18-year-old wild card Emma Raducanu advanced to the fourth round with a 6-3, 7 victory. -5 against Sorana Cirstea on Saturday. Raducau is the youngest British woman to reach week two at Wimbledon in Open Era history.
Like Stevenson 22 years ago, Raducanu completed the equivalent of high school before the grass season. While Raducanu also seemed to come out of nowhere, Stevenson sees something with her that she didn’t see in herself.
“She came here ready to play and prepped,” Stevenson said. “[The preparation] is more of a business. Yes, she just left school, but her team trained her to become a professional tennis player. It wasn’t the case with me, I was just trying to go to college and I came [to Wimbledon] just want to play. … She’s got the team behind her and she’s got the full game, the athleticism and was just mentally ready for now. “
Stevenson said she was delighted to see Gauff achieve such impressive results.
“It was another time [in 1999]”Stevenson said.” It’s exciting to see what her team has helped her do, but also what she’s done for herself and how she believes in herself. Coco doesn’t need my advice, she has all the advice she needs, but one of the hardest things in tennis is that everyone is an expert, and once you get it right they want that you win right away. I hope that she will continue to believe in herself and that she will have no expectations despite everything. “