Why 12-year-old Cori Gauff hopes she'll be the greatest of all time

The ceiling is sky-high for Cori Gauff, who recently won the prestigious Orange Bowl title. Orange Bowl

Beyond Cori "Coco" Gauff's swift movement and muscular forehands lies her most disarming feature: those fierce, dark brown eyes that capture the blatant intensity in her enormous drive.

Recently, Gauff won her first three girls' 16-under singles matches at the Eddie Herr International Championships, dropping only four games. She has competed credibly in national 18-under events. On Dec. 20, Gauff collected her first Junior Orange Bowl title, winning all seven matches in straight sets.

This from a 12-year-old.

For some context, consider these former 12-under Junior Orange Bowl champions: Steffi Graf (1981), Monica Seles (1985) and Jennifer Capriati (1986). Between them, they went on to win 34 Grand Slam singles titles.

Even though the odds are heavily against Gauff, and despite the historic difficulty of predicting professional viability for juniors, this is the kind of soaring success that Gauff and her team aspire to. Certainly, some tantalizing opportunities have already presented themselves.

Coco has already met her idol, Serena Williams -- three times -- and trained with Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, in France. Twice. At the Orange Bowl, Gauff wore a striking salmon-colored ensemble bearing the familiar swoosh logo of a certain apparel company based in Oregon. She has already represented America in international age-group competition, in Montreal. The United States Tennis Association, not surprisingly, has taken a keen interest in her sharply angled trajectory.

"I think she can be as good as she wants to be," said Martin Blackman, the USTA's general manager of player development. "She dreams big."

How big?

"Um..." begins Gauff when the question is posed.

And, just when you're expecting the typical, best-I-can-be kind of answer juniors are ruthlessly coached to give, she drops the hammer.

"I want to be," Gauff says emphatically, "the greatest of all time."

A swift rise

Great tennis players are usually blessed with exceptional genes, and Gauff is no exception.

Her father, Corey, for whom she is named, was an elusive point guard at Georgia State University. Her mother, Candi, was a talented gymnast, a five-time Florida high school champion heptathlete, and later a track star at Florida State University.

Corey played tennis growing up in Florida, and when his daughter was 6, she attended her first camp in Delray Beach.

"She took to it," Corey said. "She liked the skirts."

Gauff, who has two younger brothers, Codey and Cameron, played the USTA's scaled-down version for youngsters, which features oversized rackets, foam balls and a smaller court. She also took lessons on the conventional court.

"One thing we noticed," her father said, "was she had a unique ability to actually concentrate for 15 to 20 minutes. As parents, we decided to make no-regrets moves: 'Let's get her good coaching and a lot of feedback.'"

In 2012, Gauff won the "Little Mo" 8-under Nationals. In the triumphant post-victory photo, she's dressed in all white, balancing the championship trophy on her head. In 2014, the No. 17 seed came away with the USTA Clay Court National 12-under title. She was 10 years, 3 months old, the youngest champion in history. Gauff has been a forceful presence at the elite junior level ever since.

She's already taller than some professional players, and her father says she has a few more inches to go, maybe up to 5-foot-9 or 5-10. Gauff also has long arms, a "weird wingspan," according to Corey, which makes her serve even more dangerous. When she grows into her body, he said, sounding like a dad, maybe she'll learn to stop overrunning so many balls.

The USTA's Blackman is less critical.

"In the back of the court, she's solid on both sides," he said. "She's already got a good slice, her volleys are sound, and she's got a nice overhead. That's really important, especially for girls because it means they're comfortable at net.

"She's got a very complete game, a really good foundation to develop an all-around game."

Walking that fine line

Blackman, who is nearly two years into his appointment as the man in charge of finding the next generation of American tennis professionals, knows this firsthand. For three years, between jobs with the USTA, the former pro ran a tennis academy in Florida.

One of his pupils was 8-year-old Coco Gauff.

"They wanted an evaluation of her skills, a different set of eyes," Blackman said. "The first thing I noticed was her attitude and character. She was an amazing athlete and already very hardworking, really wanted to learn.

"Just so you know, my time with her didn't have much to do with her success."

And Blackman laughed. Truth is, he sits at the top of a serious business.

Serena and Venus Williams are still wonderful players, but they are 35 and 36, respectively. Andy Roddick, the last U.S. man to win a Grand Slam singles title, scored that breakthrough more than 13 years ago and has been long retired.

The search for the next American No. 1 is a multimillion-dollar business. It begins with the USTA national campus in Orlando, which opened Monday. It has 100 tennis courts and, at any given time, hosts dozens of players from various levels. There is a gym and housing for youngsters in the player development program. Just as important, perhaps, is the Team USA initiative, which focuses on working with players and coaches in the private sector.

The Williams sisters, who famously circumvented the conventional junior system, were trained initially by their parents, Richard and Oracene. Going forward, the tennis education of Gauff will include a deferential, nuanced approach by Blackman and the USTA.

Gauff is coached by Gerard Loglo at the New Generation Tennis Academy in Delray Beach. She is home-schooled by her mother, who like both of Coco's grandmothers is a former teacher. Coco played basketball last year, but will start focusing solely on tennis. The USTA, said her father, has been "very helpful."

While most seventh-graders are buckling down to a new year of reading, writing and arithmetic, Gauff has an ambitious month ahead on the court, representing the United States in tournaments in Bolton, England, and Tarbes, France.

"The first message to younger players, parents and coaches is development over outcome," Blackman said. "One of the things we've learned is that when something works with a player, especially with a primary coach, we need to support and facilitate what's going well rather than interjecting ourselves and changing the equation.

"In Cori's case, her performance and outcomes speak for themselves. We're saying, 'Hey, listen, USTA player development is there for you. What you're doing is working real well. We don't want to disrupt what you're doing developmentally, but we're here as a resource for you.'"

Developing a deeper pool

Ask Coco Gauff who her favorite players are and she quickly obliges, in order: "Serena, Venus, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens."

Coco met Serena for the first time as an 8-year-old at the "Little Mo" tournament in New York, managing to get an autograph on the yellow tennis ball she thrust at the champion. They met again two years ago during the shooting of a Delta commercial in West Palm Beach.

"It was fun, a great experience," Cori said. "She has always been my favorite player. I got to hit some serves to her. I also met her in Nice, France [at the Patrick Mouratoglou training facility]."

Serena asked Coco where she was from and added, "Keep on doing what you're doing." Gauff's trip to Nice as a rising star was underwritten by the Champ'Seed Foundation; Mouratoglou is the foundation's president.

Blackman said Serena and Venus have inspired an entire generation of young girls.

"We've got a lot of good African-American girls coming through the pipeline," he noted. "Hispanic players, too. I see this as a direct result of the success of Serena and Venus Williams. There is no substitute for a young girl to see that kind of example, get some time with them. Especially for a young African-American player, to be in the same environment as a great champion.

"The deeper the pool, the better chance we have of developing champions."

Predicting the future?

In 2005, a pair of precocious 15-year-olds won the Australian Open junior titles.

Donald Young of the United States became the youngest junior boys' champion ever and Belarus' Victoria Azarenka was the girls' winner.

Young, also the youngest No. 1-ranked junior in history, would capture the 2007 Wimbledon junior title.

Azarenka, who recently gave birth to her first child, followed through on that dazzling promise. She has won 20 WTA titles (including two at the Australian Open), has held the No. 1 ranking, and has won more than $28 million in prize money. She is contemplating a return this year.

Young, now 27, has become something of a cautionary tale. He has never won an ATP World Tour-level tournament and his highest ranking, No. 38, came four years ago.

"For every Madison Keys, there's a Maria Shishkina. For every Daria Gavrilova, there's a Laura Robson. For every CiCi Bellis, there's a Hanna Orlik." Colette Lewis

Colette Lewis, editor of ZooTennis.com, a definitive source for junior tennis, has long since given up projecting professional careers for the young athletes she covers.

"For every Madison Keys," she wrote in an email, "there's a Maria Shishkina. For every Daria Gavrilova, there's a Laura Robson. For every CiCi Bellis, there's a Hanna Orlik.

"I have no idea which place in that vast spectrum Gauff will land. She has size and appears to have the technique and temperament, but so many things have to go right."

Keys won the 12-and-under title at the 2007 Junior Orange Bowl. At 21, she is already ranked No. 8 among WTA players and is expected to compete for Grand Slam titles for years. This is the kind of career path Team Gauff envisions, but father Corey said he understands the daunting degree of difficulty.

"My goal is to help her achieve her dreams of being No. 1 and winning Grand Slams," Corey said. "I've told her, 'It's a lot of hard work. You're going to have to say no to things other kids say yes to. And yes to things other kids say no to.'

"Maybe half of the Orange Bowl champions make it to some degree. The other half don't. I think we all realize that it takes a lot. There's a physical piece, a mental piece, and there's the financial, the spiritual -- and luck, too -- for it to happen."

Coco turns 13 in March and will focus on training for the summer nationals in San Diego, where she'd like to qualify again for the 18-under event. In two or three years, she'd like to win that tournament and collect the wild card into the US Open main draw that comes with it.

"What's it going to take?" said Coco, reframing a reporter's question. "Hard work, and a lot of practice. A lot of motivation and discipline.

"And, yeah, listening to my parents."

This brought on a few giggles, something typical of a 12-year-old.

Her Instagram profile (tenniscoco13) sounds far wiser:

"I am not going to be the next Serena Williams," it reads, "I am going to be the first Cori 'Coco' Gauff."