WASHINGTON — Coco Gauff’s breakthrough run to the fourth round of Wimbledon was hailed as the arrival of a singular talent. Through a wider lens, though, she is one of many.
Gauff, 15, is one of four players 17 or younger in the top 150 of the WTA rankings. All of them are American.
No. 23 Amanda Anisimova, 17, is the highest ranked of the four, by far, after her run to the French Open semifinals in June; she has also reached the quarterfinals of the WTA tournament in San Jose, Calif., this week. Next is the 110th-ranked Whitney Osuigwe, 17, a junior French Open champion in 2017. Following the 146th-ranked Gauff is Caty McNally, 17, who is ranked No. 150 but will move ahead of Gauff in next week’s rankings after reaching the semifinals of the WTA event in Washington.
“One person will do well and that helps push everyone else to do really well,” McNally said Tuesday after notching the first WTA main-draw win of her career. “Amanda is doing really well, Whitney is doing well, Coco is doing well. Everyone is just pushing each other.”
McNally and Gauff’s brief careers have been frequently linked: Gauff beat McNally in the final of last year’s junior French Open, and they won the United States Open girls’ doubles title a few months later. They faced each other at the Miami Open in March — the first main-draw match on the WTA tour for both — with Gauff winning. This week in Washington, they have teamed up in doubles once more, and have reached the final.
“I think it just shows me because I’ve played really close with her, and I’ve had chances to win, that I’m right there, too, and I can do the same thing,” McNally said.
McNally remains based in Cincinnati, her hometown, where her mother, Lynn Nabors McNally, is a tennis instructor.
“I was pretty much just born with a racket in my hand,” Caty McNally said. “My mom used to make my brother and I play balloon tennis when we were younger to start out. I grew up at the club; I stayed there all day. I would get there at about 8 a.m. in the morning and I was there until my mom was done at 10 p.m. I just loved being there.”
On Sunday nights, McNally and her mother would team up against her father and brother, both named John, for family doubles matches. Her mother played at Northwestern and her brother plays for Ohio State and is currently ranked 470th in the ATP, but McNally chose to turn professional this year.
“I obviously could have gotten a full ride to any school in the country, so it wasn’t easy, but I’m happy that I did it,” McNally said.
Like Gauff, McNally won three matches in qualifying at Wimbledon to reach the main draw, though she then lost in the first round. In Washington, where she has won her first tour-level matches, McNally has looked comfortable and confident from all parts of the court, showing a particular predilection for finishing points at the net — a tendency not often seen in young players.
“She’s an all-court player: We want her to try to get forward, see the court, take balls out of the air, use her volley skills, mix in serve-and-volley,” said Kevin O’Neill, McNally’s coach, who has known her since she was 4. “Not many players really are doing that. Roger is one of the few guys; she’s patterned her game a little bit after Roger’s.”
Like many young players, McNally has idolized Roger Federer; her Twitter handle used to be @CatyFederer.
“Once I turned pro, I thought maybe I should change that,” she said, smiling. She is simply @CatyMcNally now.
McNally was not the only 17-year-old to make a splash in Washington: Hailey Baptiste, ranked 283rd, reached the second round with a stunning win on Tuesday over 17th-ranked Madison Keys, a United States Open finalist two years ago. With her strong serve and heavy topspin, Baptiste pushed the 49th-ranked Kristina Mladenovic to three sets in a second-round defeat on Wednesday.
Baptiste spent part of her childhood living at her grandmother’s house on Kennedy Street, right across the street from the tournament site.
“I’ve been coming to this tournament I guess since I was 5 years old; I used to always sneak in — I never really bought tickets,” Baptiste said. “I’d sneak in behind the back fences. I knew some of the people that worked here; they let me in.”
Her father, Quasim Baptiste, first took his daughter to a court near his apartment when she was 4, pulling a couple old rackets out of his closet.
“I fed one ball to her, and ‘Pow!’ Forehand down the line,” he recalled. “From the pop of that ball, literally she fell in love with the sport at that moment. For two years, every day, ‘I want to play, I want to play!’ I screwed all her strokes up, so everyone had to fix what I did.”
After first playing with the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation on the Citi Open site, Baptiste trained for seven years at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in nearby College Park, Md., which also produced Frances Tiafoe and Denis Kudla. She has since relocated to the United States Tennis Association training center in Orlando, Fla.
McNally, who said she is close friends with Baptiste, said she was happy to have the company in a world that is still new to her.
“You know you can go talk to people,” McNally said. “You’re not just going to be by yourself the whole time.”