Cori “Coco” Gauff’s run to the fourth round at Wimbledon last week captured the attention of tennis and non-tennis fans alike as she became the youngest player in the Open era to qualify for the tradition-rich tournament’s main draw.
The 15-year-old’s charge was remarkably similar to that of Pam Shriver, the Baltimore native who, as a 16-year-old amateur, advanced to the 1978 U.S. Open championship, becoming the youngest women’s finalist in U.S. Open history.
But Shriver, 57, said that the women’s game of today is much different from the one that she was a part of.
“I think because so much time has passed, sometimes I’ll look at the way the game is played now and I’ll think, ‘Did I play the same game?’ ” she said Friday during a break between the men’s semifinals at Wimbledon in her role as a tennis analyst for ESPN.
Gauff became the toast of the tournament after bouncing 39-year-old Venus Williams from the first round — a matchup pitting the youngest and oldest players of the draw. Despite falling to eventual champion Simona Halep in straight sets in the fourth round, each of Gauff’s four matches were the most-watched of the day, according to ESPN.
The hoopla surrounding Gauff overshadowed Shriver’s march, which turned heads when she upset then-No. 1 Martina Navratilova in the semifinals before falling to No. 2 Chris Evert in the final.
“So my sensation came more in the second week after beating Navratilova in the semis when she was the reigning Wimbledon champion and No. 1 in the world,” Shriver recalled. “I had more of a gradual, stair-step [process] throughout the tournament whereas hers went zoom, right away, with the win over Venus.
"She played four matches, and she played three Court 1 matches and one match on Centre [Court]. So that was also pretty different. I mean, I was playing Court 16, Court 3, outside courts until things got to the quarters, semis and final.”
Gauff’s success on the court was matched by her charm off it. She consistently praised her elders, who returned the compliments.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Williams, who was applauded by Gauff as she walked off the court after her first-round loss. “It really is.”
“She has potential to be a very good player soon,” Halep said after her win. “It’s a huge thing that she’s able to play in the fourth round of Wimbledon. It’s a great performance. I think if she keeps going, she will be top-10 soon.”
Shriver marveled at how Gauff behaved with so many eyes watching her every move.
“She’s pretty mature,” she said. “I have a 15-year-old who turned 15 today, a boy, and I feel like she was pretty savvy. She didn’t fall into any media traps. … I felt like her reactions and the way she carried herself were terrific. Terrific and refreshing and brought a really fun element to the first eight days of the championship.”
Gauff endeared herself even more on social media, where celebrities and A-listers such as former First Lady Michelle Obama, NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and artist Jaden Smith showered her with bouquets.
While acknowledging that she is unsure how she would have performed in this era of social media, Shriver pointed out that the late 1970s and early 1980s were considered the boom times for tennis as a sport in America.
“Tennis was sort of the sport to play,” she said. “It just had a great run in the late 70s and early 80s. I didn’t have social media, but when I went back to McDonogh School, the National Enquirer sent a reporter to campus. And People Magazine knocked on my parents’ door. These were unusual things for a 16-year-old to be going through. I’m not saying that compares to social media, but it’s sort of like how a high-profile performance at a major tennis event, you would feel the effects. But you’re right that social media has changed everything from parenting to one’s own attention span. It’s just a huge game-changer.”
Shriver’s record at the U.S. Open has been relatively safe thanks to the Women’s Tennis Association’s age-restriction rule that prohibits players 13 years and younger from playing professionally and limits 14- to 17-year-old players to a certain number of professional events annually.
Shriver said she thought the introduction of peers like Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and Mary Jo Fernandez signaled the advent of a young player who would eventually overtake her mark.
“When I set the record in ’78, it was kind of on the heels of a lot of records,” Shriver said. “Chrissy set some young records. Tracy, Andrea Jaeger and Mary Jo Fernandez set a lot of records as youngest players. But getting to the final — or in the case of Tracy, winning it at 16 and nine months [in 1979] — it seemed to be kind of a regular thing in the 70s and 80s. And then once Jaeger’s career flamed out and Austin got sciatica and back injuries and she couldn’t play past 22, [Jennifer] Capriati’s situation, a lot of less high-profile players really struggled with the pressures of the tour. So that’s when they brought in the age rule, and that’s kind of taken the young phenom and put her more in I think a proper timing pathway.”
Gauff, who grew up in Atlanta before moving to Delray Beach, Fla., said she is eager to play in the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 26 in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. If Gauff can advance to the title match, she would break Shriver’s record as the youngest finalist in tournament history.
Shriver said she would welcome that scenario.
“It felt like at times in the last 15 or 20 years that it wouldn’t [last],” she said of her record. “But now when I look at someone like Coco … and see the way Coco played her matches and the era that women’s tennis is in right now where so many different players have breakthroughs, I think it’s more possible now than I thought it was 10, 15, 20 years ago.”