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Jun 03, 2020 PRINT EDITION

WASHINGTON: Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old American who breezed into the Wimbledon last 16 this month in her Grand Slam debut, will return in qualifying Saturday at the WTA Washington Open.

"I'm super excited," Gauff said Friday. "I'm really happy to get back on the court. I wasn't sure I would get to play any matches before the US Open. I'm hoping the preparation will show."

Gauff electrified Wimbledon after her qualifying run by defeating idol Venus Williams in her opening match and rolled into the fourth round before losing to eventual champion Simona Halep.

"Definitely it feels like a dream," Gauff said. "It has been a big change. People recognize me in the airport, at the movie theater. It's great people have recognized who I am. It was definitely a big change."

Gauff, who made her WTA main draw debut in March at the Miami Open, ousted 44th-ranked Williams in round one at Wimbledon, then dispatched Slovakia's Magdalena Rybarikova and saved two match points in defeating Slovenia's 60th-ranked Polona Hercog before falling to Romania's Halep.

"I feel like I learned a lot from Wimbledon as a player and a person," Gauff said. "It meant a lot to me as Coco the person.

"I learned I'm capable of doing things I never thought of and that I have a fighting spirit. It taught me a lot about myself and showed I'll fight no matter what."

Gauff, who has jumped from 313th to 143rd in the WTA rankings after her Wimbledon effort, rested with family and friends after the breakthrough effort before asking about a chance to play in Washington.

She can't receive a sponsor's exemption until next March when she turns 16 and had to use her pre-Wimbledon ranking to try and reach qualifying due to the entry date but it proved enough to land a spot in weekend qualifying.

Mark Ein, the tournament chairman who stepped in to help keep the event in the US capital after a half-century run, is happy to have Gauff in Washington.

"She dazzled the world," Ein said. "It wasn't just how great, how amazing her play was but how composed she was and how strong she was."

Gauff, who has been handling schoolwork online since the third grade, turned to tennis as a child because of Serena and Venus Williams, working out at a youth academy of Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena's coach.

But Gauff doesn't feel any pressure as a potential role model herself for an even newer generation of fans.

"I don't really feel that much pressure," she said. "I just feel like myself. My parents raised me well. If I just be me, that will be fine.

"I've learned how to adapt my life. I've gotten a lot of attention since that first (Wimbledon) match and I've mearned how to handle it."

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Press), 2019