Orange Bowl Spotlight:
Arthur Kapetanakis | December 8, 2018
One year ago at the Orange Bowl, Coco Gauff fell to then-world No. 1 junior and eventual champion Whitney Osuigwe. This year, it was the 14-year-old Gauff who entered the Grade A event as both the top seed and the top attraction.
Osuigwe is absent from this year’s field, as she prepares to make her Australian Open main-draw debut in January. While Gauff has her sights set on joining her friend on the grand stages of professional tennis, her immediate goal is to follow in Osuigwe’s footsteps by lifting the 18s girls’ singles title in South Florida.
The Orange Bowl carries an added significance for Gauff, with its location in Plantation, Fla., just a short drive from her home in Delray Beach. In front of her grandmother and other family members and friends, she has handled the spotlight well, not dropping a set in five matches on her way to Sunday's final.ADVERTISEMENT
The trophy would be her third singles title of 2018. She won the junior French Open crown in June, defeating American Caty McNally in a third-set tiebreak in the final, and in July became the youngest-ever No. 1 girl under the current ITF ranking system. She also became a junior Grand Slam doubles champion, teaming with McNally to win the US Open girls’ trophy. At the Orange Bowl, she also reached the doubles semifinalis with Hurricane Tyra Black, with whom she won a Grade A junior title in Mexico in November.
Gauff made her first major breakthrough as a 13-year-old at the 2017 junior US Open, where she won 10 straight sets to become its youngest-ever girls’ singles finalist. In that New York final, she fell to Amanda Anisimova, who is now a fast-rising WTA Top-100 player, with an Indian Wells last-16 appearance and two Top-25 wins already on her professional resume.
“The US Open was a really surprise run for me. I thought I was going to lose in the first round,” she said. “And then at the French Open, again, I was just trying to get out of the first round.”
After battling Anisimova and Osuigwe at the junior level, Gauff takes confidence in seeing her countrywomen’s recent success.
“It means a lot to know I’m on that level,” she said. “I’m younger than both of them, so I still have time.” Turning 15 in March, she hopes to join them soon in following the path of her tennis idols, Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens.
Gauff has played three $25,000 ITF events in 2018, making her professional debut in May with a main-draw win in Osprey, Fla., as a qualifier. She also competed in the US Open women’s singles qualifying tournament and in mixed doubles play, advancing to the last 16 in the mixed competition with Christopher Eubanks. Now, back on the junior circuit, her professional experience makes her an even tougher out.
“Obviously, in the juniors, there’s more pressure, just because of my ranking,” she said. “Whereas in the pros, I’m usually the youngest and not really expected to win, so I can play more free. But I try to approach the matches the same way.”
She plans to play more pro and less junior tournaments in 2019, starting with a slate of $25,000 ITF events to start the year. “Right now, the path is to go pro. If something changes, then we’ll address. But right now, next year I’m going to start playing more pro tournaments, and hopefully I do well.” Though she is only in ninth grade, Gauff’s decision to forgo the college route was an easy one, especially given her recent success.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “My dad said he always saw me doing well early.”
It would be no surprise if Gauff does not make the short trip to compete in the Orange Bowl next year, and instead trades the 20-minute drive to the Frank Veltri Tennis Center for a 20-hour flight to Melbourne for the Australian Open. A victory over No. 2 Qinwen Zheng in Sunday's final could make that decision easier.
Photo Credit: Andrew Ong