Jan. 26 (UPI) -- It took some time for American tennis fans to learn the names Cori "Coco" Gauff and Sofia Kenin, but their coaches knew how special they could be at an early age.
Now Coco -- a Delray Beach, Fla., native was a 15-year-old phenom playing for a quarterfinal spot at the 2020 Australian Open. She had to defeat Kenin to get there, but she came up short Sunday.
After winning the first set 7-6 (5), Gauff showed signs of nervousness and tiredness during the rest of the match, dropping the next two sets 3-6, 0-6.
But Gauff already had made her mark in Australia, beating Venus Williams in the first round and upsetting defending champion Naomi Osaka in the second round. Ironically, both players also are from south Florida.
"I was disappointed that I lost, obviously," Gauff said after Sunday's match. "I think, naturally, when I lose, I'm just a bit emotional."
Speaking about opponent Kenin, she said, "She definitely put a lot of balls in the court. She's quick. Also her drop shots -- I was getting to them, but I didn't necessarily play the drop shots. I think I made a lot of errors, as well."
Kenin, 21, who comes from Moscow, but now lives in Pembroke Pines, Fla., also was making her first fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.
"I always have the belief that I can win, regardless of my opponents," Coco said Friday after upsetting No. 3 Naomi Osaka.
Veteran coach Rick Macci knows how to spot greatness early on. He saw that in both players when they were under 10 years old.
Macci runs the Rick Macci Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla. He also coached Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Maria Sharapova before they were teenagers. He met Kenin when she was 5 years old and coached her until she was 12.
"I knew right away. I said, 'This is the scariest little creature I ever taught,'" Macci remarked about Kenin. "I said by age 20 she'll be top-10 in the world ... but what was inside [her head] was amazing. The way she could time the ball at a young age was like a little magician. She had a drop shot even at 7."
Macci also gave lessons to Coco, who now is coached primarily by father Corey and famed instructor Patrick Mouratoglou.
"Her athleticism then [7 years old] was off the charts," Macci said of Coco. "The speed -- you could tell should could have been an Olympic sprinter like I saw with Venus. ... The speed she had was elite."
Natural talent is easy to spot, even to an untrained eye, but what's inside the brain of an elite athlete often is more important when it comes to defining a champion. Macci said that's the main similarity between the Williams sisters, Coco, Kenin and other stars.
Inside their minds
"They go deep as competitors," Macci said. "It's like LeBron James, like Michael Jordan, it's another level of competing. Their thirst for competition and will to win is so deep. When things get tough, a lot of times that's the x-factor. Everyone is competitive, but they both stay with it longer.
"They are all different shapes, sizes, height, weight, strokes, grips, but at the end of the day, that's the common thread."
Nick Saviano last trained Coco in 2019 in Plantation, Fla., a day before she left for Wimbledon. Coco reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time in that tournament, knocking off Venus Williams in the first round and moving up the WTA rankings.
"She is playing really well," Kenin said of Coco. "She has started off the year well and had a great 2019. I'm just going to enjoy the moment and then prepare."
Saviano said "Team Gauff," consisting of Coco, her father and Mouratoglou, is doing a great job of getting Coco to play with a sense of joy and passion, while having fun at the same time.
"One of the secrets to greatness in any field is to have a positive, joyous passion for what you're doing," Saviano said. "The passion is that engine that pushes the person during the quiet hours of hard work. It helps them to do the things required to be great. And when they are playing, understanding it's a sport. It's not life and death.
"When people understand the subtleties of being a great competitor, it's always about pushing yourself from the inside out. You can always control if you are putting in everything you can from the inside. You can't always control the outcome."
Coco admitted she was feeling "on edge" during the 2019 U.S. Open while dealing with increased media attention, but is a different player now.
"Now I'm just having fun," Coco said. "Winning is a cherry on top, but I'm honestly having a lot of fun on the court even in tight situations."
Before Sunday's match, neither coach would predict who would win and reach the quarterfinals. Coco is now No. 67 in the world, while Kenin is No. 15. Coco's ranking is expected to improve, possibly into the low 50s.
Coco is known for her speed and ability to handle powerful shots, which she showcased in her third round upset of Osaka, the defending Australian Open champion.
Kenin has one of the best drop shots on the WTA Tour, meaning she can receive a shot and return the ball by hitting it slightly over the net, forcing her opponent to be quick on her feet to get to the ball and make a return.
"Sofia is rock solid," Saviano said before the match. "Coco is an exceptional athlete who absorbs power very well. I think it's going to be difficult for Sofia to hurt Coco very much. It's going to be up to how well Coco executes and plays."
Both coaches have seen Coco make significant improvements in recent years, and even since her last Melbourne showing. She worked on her serve and forehand during the off-season, and it has helped her inch closer to her first Grand Slam title.
Coco's speed allows her to recover from errors and play great defense. Kenin's experience means she's unlikely to get nervous as the competition heats up. Macci said Kenin is more versatile than Coco, in that she can hit angles and make drop shots and do things that could take advantage of Coco's inexperience.
"It's subtle, but it's different than [facing] someone just ripping the ball," Macci said. "Sofia understands the court, I think she is eventually going to be No. 1 in the world. Mentally, she is as strong as you get.
"It's going to be a great battle and nothing would surprise me, but because of Sofia's experience and ability to use the drop shot, I think that changes the landscape."
As predicted, the drop shot was a major factor in Kenin's victory Sunday. She will go on to play Ons Jabeu, 25, of Tunisia.