Coco Gauff is poised to take the tennis world by storm

It doesn’t matter now, but Coco Gauff had a terrible start to her U.S. Open first-round match on Tuesday. No, really; it could scarcely have gone worse.

She dumped her first return of serve in the net. Miscued her second. Wasted a challenge on the third point. Her first service game? Three double faults.

Before even a third of the seats at Louis Armstrong Stadium were filled, the brightest, boldest and most refreshing young star in American tennis was 3-0 down in the opening set against Russia’s Anastasia Potapova. Honestly, it was enough evidence for most tennis players to be convinced that this was going to be a bad day.

But most players aren’t Gauff, a 15-year-old from Delray Beach, Fla., who somehow failed to get the memo that being far less experienced than even an 18-year-old opponent is supposed to be a disadvantage.

Over the course of two hours at Louis Armstrong Stadium, Gauff showed all her natural ability and glorious ground strokes, but more than anything she weaponized her youth – and it was joyous to see.

Tennis is a mental game because of the incessant grind of its brutally competitive professional tour. Past disappointments lurk in the recesses of the mind, along with the evil clutches of self-doubt, ready to pounce upon any mishap.

Except that Gauff doesn’t have a litany of past disappointments. Her talent has lifted her to this elite level before time has had a chance to scar her with negative experience. The result is a teenager capable of meeting adversity with a shrug and a smile and something that is rare gold in professional sports – complete fearlessness.

Gauff showed that mettle at Wimbledon, where she was the youngest woman to qualify in the Open era (which began in 1968) and became the youngest to win a main-draw match since 1991. She is the youngest woman to play in the U.S. Open in five years – and has already knocked off a player ranked considerably higher than her in No. 72 Potapova.

So what now?

“Playing in front of an American crowd is going to lift her even higher,” 18-time Major champion Chris Evert told ESPN. “Hard courts are her best surface. There’s no reason to think she won’t do well. Her attitude is so great. She’s hungry for it.”

Gauff came into the tournament ranked 140th and will rise significantly in those rankings, even if she progresses no further. If any reminder was needed that this is still unfamiliar territory, it came when courtside interviewer Pam Shriver surprised Gauff by telling her she had an off day on Wednesday.

“I forgot about the rest day at (Grand) Slams,” Gauff smiled.

Next up is Timea Babos, a former top 30 player, and possibly, after that, defending champion Naomi Osaka. If such a showdown materializes, Gauff wouldn’t be fazed even by Osaka because, well, she isn’t fazed by anybody. She’s in a sweet spot, caught between awe and wonder but also confident in the knowledge she belongs here.

Her brief career has been a whirlwind and she’s still stunned by the fact that she can have chats about headphones with Osaka or hang out and play an exhibition with French Open champion Ashleigh Barty.

But she will also say things like this — and mean it: “My tennis dream,” she told Good Morning America, “is to be the greatest of all time.”

It is a cute story — she has “Call Me Coco” emblazoned on her shoes and on T-shirts to remind the tennis community she prefers that moniker to her birth name, Cori. But it is a story backed with steely resolve. Gauff’s parents, former Goergia State basketball player Corey and Florida State track athlete Candi, have told her she was destined for the top from early childhood.

Yet before she is anointed as Serena Williams’ heiress apparent, a reality check is needed. It is easy to envisage a trajectory that neatly culminates in Gauff continuing to improve and ending up as a dominant force in the women’s game for years to come.

But we’ve seen that potential narrative before. Most of the time it doesn’t pan out the way you think.

“I have to put her round of 16 at Wimbledon into perspective,” Hall of Famer Shriver said later. “The only reason we talk so much about it is because of her age. It was still just a round of 16. I could show you all the different players who have been to the round of 16 in majors in the past five years and you’d see names you’ve long forgotten.”

She’s right, of course, and slowing the hype machine surrounding Gauff would clearly be a desirable outcome. The problem is, that’s not going to happen when you get an engaging and eminently likable teenager doing great things on one of tennis’ grandest stages.

The attention can be overwhelming, but it is probably offset by the fact that Gauff has the ability for narrow focus and that right now, there are only two things she wants you to know: that she likes to be called Coco, and that she plans to carry on winning.