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 is one of the few. Just weeks removed from graduating high school, the then-18-year-old captivated the sports world with her gutsy play and unbelievable story en route to the semifinals at the All England Club in 1999.
“After I did well at Wimbledon, I struggled to adjust,” Stevenson said of being thrust into the spotlight on tennis’ grandest stage. “But Coco’s had a great 2021 and she’s come in stronger than ever.”
Both women are back at Wimbledon this year — Gauff appears to be finding grass-court magic for the second time in her young career, while Stevenson is a TV analyst for ESPN.
Gauff needed just 65 minutes to defeat Kaja Juvan, 6-3, 6-3, on Saturday to advance to the fourth round. A clash against Serena Williams had originally been circled by many as soon as the draw was revealed, but Williams had to retire from her opening match due to injury. Gauff will instead face No. 25 seed and 2018 Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber on Monday.
“That match is going to tell us a lot,” Stevenson said. “The winner really will have a good chance to go the final.”
Back in 1999, Stevenson’s run fell short of the final as she lost to eventual champion Lindsay Davenport. It was her ninth match of the tournament and she was mentally and physically exhausted. Her training hadn’t prepared her to play that many consecutive matches at such a high level. She still jumped to No. 36 in the rankings, but Stevenson said what came next was the most challenging, as she felt she suddenly had a target on her back among her peers. Everything around her had changed — the hype, the expectations, the stares from strangers and those in the locker room.
“All these girls were gunning 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 also didn’t want another girl of color. That was a big deal in ’99, 2000. Everybody likes to just gloss it over, but Venus and Serena and I did not 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 played in some junior events but went to a traditional high school and skipped the 1999 French Open in order to attend prom and perform in “Grease.” Stevenson also made a deal with her mother, Samantha, that she could turn professional and forgo her college eligibility if she reached the semifinals. When she arrived in Birmingham, England for a tune-up event prior to Wimbledon; she didn’t realize there were special sneakers for the grass surface and had to borrow a pair from her coach, Craig Kardon. 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 mother didn’t tell her until after it was over. They didn’t want her to feel any pressure.
But when Stevenson went out to dinner in Wimbledon Village after securing her spot, 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, including 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.”
Gauff may have been largely under the radar to casual tennis fans, 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 at age 13. 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.
At Wimbledon in 2019, she defeated Venus Williams, one of her childhood heroes, in the opening round in front of a packed Court 1 crowd. Stevenson was impressed, but not surprised, by how accomplished 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 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 reached the third round, a feat Stevenson said was particularly remarkable considering how much pressure was suddenly on her, and won her first WTA singles title that October.
Back at the tournament for the first time since her debut after last year’s event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the No. 23-ranked Gauff looks poised for the next breakthrough in her career. After reaching the French Open quarterfinals last month, Gauff has posted three convincing straight-set wins thus far at the All England Club, with her second and third-round matches being given top billing on Centre Court.
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 second- round win 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.”
Gauff isn’t the only teenager turning heads this time around. Weeks after making her WTA main draw debut and entering the tournament ranked No. 338, Emma Raducanu, an 18-year-old wild card, advanced to the fourth round with a 6-3, 7-5 victory against Sorana Cirstea on Saturday. Raducau is the youngest British woman to reach the second week at Wimbledon in Open Era history.
Like Stevenson did 22 years ago, Raducanu completed the equivalent of her high-school studies before the grass-court season. While Raducanu also appeared to come out of nowhere, Stevenson sees something with her that she didn’t see in herself.
“She came here ready to play and prepared,” Stevenson said. “[The preparation] is more of an enterprise. Yes, she’s just leaving school, but her team has been training her to be a professional tennis player. That wasn’t the case with me, I was just trying to go to college and came [to Wimbledon] just wanting to play. … She has the team behind her and she has the all-around game, the athleticism and was just mentally ready for the moment.”
Stevenson said she’s thrilled to see Gauff have such impressive results.
“It was a different 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’s got all the advice she needs, but one of the hardest things in tennis is that everyone is a pundit, and once you achieve success, they want you to win everything right away. I hope she continues to believe in herself and not have any expectations despite all that.”
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