Few people could understand what Coco Gauff was experiencing when she made a surprise run to the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2019 as a 15-year-old qualifier.
But Alexandra Stevenson could. She can relate to what it’s like to be a teenager thrust into the spotlight on the sport’s grandest stage and all that comes with it.
“After I did well at Wimbledon, I struggled to adjust,” Stevenson said. “But Coco’s had a great 2021 and she’s come in stronger than ever.”
Stevenson was 18 — just weeks removed from graduating high school — when she captivated the world with her gutsy play and unbelievable story en route to the semifinals at the All England Club in 1999.
Stevenson, who admittedly doesn’t see that many parallels between her story and Gauff’s, didn’t feel different after her Cinderella run. But everything around her had changed — the hype, the expectations, the stares from strangers and those in the locker room.
Gauff’s life changed too. She became a household name overnight and was almost instantaneously considered the sport’s next big thing.
Both are back at Wimbledon this year — Gauff appears to be finding magic for the second time in her young career at the tournament, and Stevenson is a commentator for ESPN.
Gauff next plays Kaja Juvan in the third round on Saturday. A possible fourth-round clash with Serena Williams had been circled by many as soon as the draw was revealed, but Williams had to retire from her opening match due to injury. Now Angelique Kerber is the only seeded player she could face in the Round of 16 if she were to advance.
With so many top-seeded players having already fallen — there are no top-10 seeds left in her quarter of the draw — and with the unpredictable nature of the women’s game, the potential is certainly there for Gauff to have her best showing yet. Hearing her answer a question about Jaden Smith or watching any number of her viral TikTok videos shows Gauff is very much a teenager, though that’s not quite as evident on the court.
“She doesn’t play like a 17-year-old,” Stevenson said. “She of course naturally has the talent but the way she’s been developed, both mentally and physically, as a player is extraordinary and beyond her years. She definitely could have a run here.”
She would know.
Gauff may have been largely under the radar to casual tennis fans at Wimbledon in 2019, but those in the know had already pegged her as a superstar-in-the-making. She had been training at Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy since she was 11 and became the youngest girls’ finalist in US Open history as a 13-year-old. She then won the French Open junior title at 14. She signed with Roger Federer’s agency soon after and inked lucrative deals with New Balance, Head and Barilla.
Stevenson had a relatively normal childhood. She played in some junior events but went to a traditional high school, and even skipped the 1999 French Open in order to attend prom and perform in “Grease.” She was so, well, green, when she arrived in Birmingham, England for a lead-in event prior to Wimbledon; she didn’t realize there were special sneakers for the grass surface and had to borrow her coach’s.
The following week, she won her three qualifying matches to make the Wimbledon main draw. She had been the No. 1 seed in qualifying, but Kardon and her mom Samantha didn’t tell her until after it was over. They didn’t want her to feel any pressure.
But when she went out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Wimbledon Village after securing her spot in the main draw, and Steffi Graf — who happened to be sitting at the next table over — congratulated her, she understood how special the opportunity was. Kardon took her around the grounds the next day, and they stopped at every court — even taking a small piece of grass from Centre Court — and he shared the history and his memories.
“I felt as if I belonged there as soon as I walked through the gates,” Stevenson said. “I had been watching [Wimbledon] since I was 5 and it just felt as if it was somewhere I was meant to be. I didn’t feel that anywhere else, just at Wimbledon.”
Stevenson had made a deal with her mom that she could turn professional and forgo her college eligibility if she were to make it to the semifinals.
While many expected Gauff to one day be going deep into Grand Slams, few thought it would happen in her very first major as a 15-year-old, but she received a wild card into qualifying and advanced into the main draw.
She defeated Venus Williams, one of her childhood heroes, in the opening round in front of a packed crowd on Court 1. Stevenson was impressed, but not surprised, by how polished Gauff was despite her young age.
“She has the best people around her in every aspect,” Stevenson said. “That includes trainers, physios and even getting things like media training. All of that wasn’t as prevalent when I started but it makes a difference. I can’t go back in time but I wish I had the support around me that she has.”
Dubbed “CocoMania,” Gauff became the toast of the tournament. Her matches became must-see events, and fans and reporters relished in her candor in interviews. She lost the opening set against Polona Hercog in the third round and faced match point at 5-2 in the second before rallying for an improbable comeback on Centre Court.
The tweets poured in from a notable array of A-listers, including Michelle Obama and Tina Knowles-Lawson. Her parents did their best to shield her, but her dad said at the time she was “acutely aware of the attention she’s getting.” Gauff said she screamed when she saw Beyonce’s mom recognize her.
She ended up losing in the next round to eventual champion Simona Halep, but her growing status had been secured. By the start of the US Open, less than two months later, she was wearing a custom outfit by New Balance and had a “Call me Coco” ad campaign with the brand. She made the third round in New York, a feat Stevenson said was particularly remarkable considering how much pressure was suddenly on her, and won her first WTA singles title in October 2019.
Two years after her Wimbledon debut, and back at the tournament for the first time due to the cancellation of the 2020 event, the No. 23-ranked Gauff looks poised for the next breakthrough in her burgeoning career and is even more adjusted to the spotlight. She made the quarterfinals at the French Open last month, and has recorded two convincing straight-set wins thus far at the All England Club, including one over Elena Vesnina on Centre Court on Thursday.
Stevenson didn’t play in a match on Centre Court until the semifinals, instead being relegated to the outer courts for most of her run before being put on the old Court No. 2, better known as the “Graveyard,” for the quarterfinals. She pointed out that women rarely were given the chance to play in the main stadium until late in the tournament at that time. That’s just one of the many differences Stevenson sees between her experience and Gauff’s, but she can relate to Gauff’s attitude and self-belief.
“[It’s] not every day you step on the court you’re going to play your best tennis so I don’t try to expect anything,” Gauff said after her win on Thursday. “What I do say, I would say I have more of a belief. I don’t really like the word ‘expectations’, I don’t like that word, I think I use more the other word ‘belief.’ I believe I can win.
“I think I believed that back in 2019, and I believe that now. I don’t think anything has changed. My goal is to always win the tournament regardless of my ranking or what people think of me. What I will say is that goal I guess is more clear right now than it was in 2019. I think just my belief is a lot stronger now, the feeling that I can go far.”
Stevenson added, “When I said I believed I could win, I got bashed by the media for it, but I’m happy that now you can say it. She should believe in her ability.”