By John Delong
The Winston-Salem Open is excited to have Ashleigh Barty and Coco Gauff play an exhibition match on Wednesday night.
Barty and Gauff are making it clear that the feeling is mutual.
The two WTA stars held a press conference on Tuesday afternoon and both said they were excited to play before a sold-out Stadium Court crowd.
“I think it’s exciting,” Barty, currently ranked No. 2 in the WTA rankings, said. “It’s a week we knew was going to be a challenging one to know what to do before the US Open, do we play or do we not? So having this opportunity come up was incredible and for it to sell out so quickly is remarkable. It shows how much the fans are invested for men’s and women’s tennis. Hopefully the weather is good and Coco and I can play some good tennis and put on a good show.”
Gauff said: “I’m super excited. I don’t get a lot of opportunities to play in such an atmosphere and play such a great player, so I’m excited just to see how I do. I think it’s good preparation for the US Open.”
Tournament director Bill Oakes thanked the pair for coming to Winston-Salem and said that the WSO was excited to have them play what will be the first exhibition here of its kind. The WSO continues to study whether to attempt to bring a WTA tournament to join the current ATP World Tour 250 tournament.
“We are so lucky and so happy for the opportunity to do something that’s very unique for our tournament,” Oakes said. “This is our ninth year and we’ve never had the women play at our tournament, and we’re so happy to have Ashleigh and Coco. We started working on this the first day at Wimbledon, and the first day at Wimbledon was pretty good, right? It was really good for Coco, but it was really great for us. Being able to bring two amazing women to this exhibition I wouild like to say is a harbinger for the future. We’re still working on what we can do with the women in the future, but for now we’re happy to have Coco and Ashleigh here.”
Gauff, of course, is the 15-year-old who burst onto the scene at Wimbledon by upsetting Venus Williams in the first round and advancing all the way to the fourth round. In the time since, “Cocomania” has ruled the tennis world. WSO fans are clearly buying into “Cocomania” and have swarmed to watch her practice the past two days. Gauff has embraced her sudden stardom and says she wants to be a role model not only on the court but off the court.
“It’s kinda overwhelming, but honestly I feel so grateful that people support me and believe in me,” Gauff said. “Hopefully I can inspire many more people. The platform I am given is amazing and I just hope that I can do things off the court as well as on the court to help change the world, I guess. … I’m getting to meet a lot of cool people. I never really dreamed about all this with the cameras and everything, so I’m still getting used to it. But honestly, I couldn’t ask for anything any better.”
Barty, who was the World No. 1 until two weeks ago, has had a phenomenal year highlighted by her title at Roland Garros. She has also won two other tournaments this year, including Miami. She said the stars have aligned for her well throughout the year.
“It’s been the most incredible year of my life from a tennis career point of view,” Barty said. “We’ve had ebbs and flows throughout the year but it’s been a consistent year of tennis. I’ve been able to do well particularly the last three of four months and we’ve had the rewards for the effort we’ve put in. I just want to keep working hard and hopefully the stars will stay aligned for us.”
Ironically, Barty and Gauff had never formally met before they got to Winston-Salem this week. But they see this as the start of a great friendship and it was clear they had mutual respect for each other.
Could this be the first match of many in the years to come, perhaps the preview of a Grand Slam final some day?
“Hopefully this is the start of a friendship and the start of a rivalry,” Barty said. “I’m sure we’ll come across each other if we can play in a lot of big matches. If we could play in the finals of a Grand Slam, that would be pretty good.”