The French Open red-clay court was shrouded in mist, and a drizzle fell from the sky. The temperature hovered in the mid-50s, but the blustering winds made it feel even cooler. There was a smattering of spectators in the stands at Court Suzanne Lenglen, but the 10,000-seat stadium sat largely empty.
Playing in her first main-draw match at Roland Garros, Coco Gauff, typically a crowd favorite, was out of her element in every way Sunday against ninth-seeded and 2019 semifinalist Johanna Konta, but one never would have known it by watching the 16-year-old play.
Despite the conditions, her lack of experience and a seasoned, proven opponent, the No. 51-ranked Gauff remained calm and composed, notching the biggest upset of the tournament’s opening day with a 6-3, 6-3 win as her parents, blanketed in head-to-toe rain gear and masks, cheered from the stands. Gauff, the youngest player in the draw, made a statement as she rattled off six of the match’s final seven games. When it was done, following a Konta backhand into the net, Gauff yelled, “Come on!” and clinched her fist but didn’t smile.
“I wasn’t really thinking about [the weight of the victory or opponent] on the court,” she said. “I mean, every match is a great win.”
So although others might have been surprised by the outcome, she was not. Nor was Konta.
“I think credit to Coco, she got the job done against the level that I brought,” Konta said after the match. “So she played the tennis that she needed to get through that match today. So that is a credit to her.
“She’s obviously a very talented athlete. She moves very well, and she’s very mature physically and mentally out there. She can definitely compete very well.”
Gauff, who won the 2018 French Open juniors title as a 14-year-old, jumped out to a 3-0 lead to start the match and never gave Konta a chance to get back in it. Gauff struggled at times with her serve, tallying up 12 double faults, but Konta had 41 unforced errors on the day and lost all five break points in the first set.
“There’s nothing that makes you think this young lady could be playing in the juniors — no whining, no complaining; even with [the] double faults, a lot players, of any age, would be looking up or complaining to their camp,” Tennis Channel analyst and three-time major champion Lindsay Davenport said during the broadcast. “It’s been a constant heavy mist during this match, wind, cold temperatures, and she’s playing like it’s no big deal. There’s nothing wrong out here. She’s just battling her shots, her balls, [and] not worried about anything else.”
It was Gauff’s fourth top-20 victory of her young career, and the result moved her into a tie with Amanda Anisimova for the most wins in her first five majors by an American woman in the past 30 years, with nine. A victory in the second round — she takes on qualifier Martina Trevisan on Wednesday — would tie her with Serena Williams. Despite the comparisons to Williams she draws due to her accomplishments, she is not quite accustomed to it yet.
“When I’m on the court, I can act like I’m used to it,” she said. “When I’m off the court, I’m just happy to be here.”
Just weeks after falling in qualifying during the 2019 French Open, Gauff became a global star with a fourth-round run at Wimbledon. She followed that up with a third-round result at the US Open. She won her first WTA title at the Linz Open in October of last year, becoming the youngest player to win a singles trophy since 2004. Gauff and her doubles partner, Caty McNally — known collectively as McCoco — nabbed two titles together in Washington, D.C., in August 2019 and Luxembourg in October. She followed up her 2019 success with fourth-round appearance at the 2020 Australian Open.
During tennis’ break due to the coronavirus pandemic this spring, Gauff used her platform due to her success, giving a speech calling for change that quickly went viral during a Black Lives Matter rally in her hometown of Delray Beach, Florida.
Despite her rising fame, she struggled in her first events back when the season resumed in August. She lost in her opening-round matches at both the Western & Southern Open and the US Open. With a second-round loss at the Italian Open earlier this month in her lone clay-court match, and the assignment of Konta in the first round in Paris, the expectations weren’t high for the American teenager heading into the French Open.
Although several of her peers complained about the blustery conditions throughout the day, Gauff didn’t let up. She later called the environment “difficult” and unlike anything she had ever experienced on the tennis court. She said she needed extra time to warm up. It was a heartfelt conversation with her dad during warm-ups that calmed her nerves and improved her outlook before she took the court.
“He was just telling me, like, ‘You’re living your dream, so just enjoy and have fun,'” she said. “His goal was to become an NBA player, and he didn’t make it. He told me, ‘You’re living your dream, not everybody gets to do that, just have fun on the court.’ That really changed my perspective.
“I was really nervous going into the match. That just calmed me down. I realized it’s just a tennis match. I’m doing some things that people wish they could do. Just go out there and enjoy it.”