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Tennis phenoms Coco Gauff, Sofia Kenin balance expectations, pressure

Cori Coco Gauff hits a serve during her loss to Anastasija Sevastova at the Miami Open on Thursday in Miami Gardens, Fla. Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI
Cori "Coco" Gauff hits a serve during her loss to Anastasija Sevastova at the Miami Open on Thursday in Miami Gardens, Fla. Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI, March 26 (UPI) -- Cori "Coco" Gauff and Sofia Kenin, two of the latest tennis phenoms to emerge from Florida's talent-rich training grounds, have taken split paths to deal with pressure and expectations that came with rapid success.

They are among several elite women's players who came to the 2021 Miami Open in Miami Gardens, Fla., one of the largest non-Grand Slam tournaments on the WTA tour. The event runs through April 4.

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Coco gained the world's attention in 2019 when she scored a breakthrough win over Venus Williams at Wimbledon. The Delray Beach, Fla., native was just 15 when she upstaged the seven-time Grand Slam champion, and she continues to draw comparisons to the greatest players in history with each win.

"I tend to stay off of Twitter and stay off of Instagram or at least the tennis part" of social media, Coco told reporters Thursday in a Zoom video conference. "I really try not to think about it."

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Coco beat Williams again, as well as Naomi Osaka, at the 2020 Australian Open. She has totaled five victories over Top 10 players since her first win over Williams.

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But Coco, who lost in her first match Thursday at the Miami Open, shows unique composure for a 17-year-old player. She said she creates a balance in her life by leaning on her family, listening to music and coloring in books.

"I don't really think about [comparisons and expectations] when I'm on the court," Coco said. "It's important I focus on myself.

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"People compare me to really great, amazing people, and I think it's just important to live up to my own expectations and not other people's."

Coco used tennis' five-month COVID-19 hiatus to improve her serve. She gave herself credit for an improved second serve after Thursday's loss to Anastasija Sevastova.

Coco and Osaka are among the players who used the break to examine priorities off the court.

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"I just learned to enjoy the game a little bit more," Coco said. "Everything was going so fast, from Wimbledon to the U.S. Open and Australian Open. I never got a chance to sit down and digest everything that happened, and that COVID hiatus gave me that."

Fellow American phenom Sofia Kenin, 22, also trains in South Florida. But unlike Coco, she has won a Grand Slam, breaking through at the 2020 Australian Open. She beat Coco in the fourth round en route to that title in Melbourne.

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Kenin acknowledged she struggles with expectations that she and the media formulate, and she has been shaken by the turbulence of Grand Slam failures.

She followed her Aussie title with a second-round loss in the 2020 U.S. Open. She then lost to Iga Swiatek in straight sets at the 2020 French Open. Kenin lost in the second round of February's Australian Open

She said she has become better at handling pressure and setbacks.

"I've gotten used to expectations and the pressure from the outside," Kenin told reporters Tuesday during a Zoom video conference.

Crying relieves stress

Kenin has said she uses "crying" to relieve stress before matches. She also shed tears in post-match news conferences this year in Australia.

"Slams are obviously where everyone tries to do well," Kenin said. "Obviously, my eye is on it. I've just had to handle the pressure and the nerves."

Kenin said she was "really nervous" and felt the "outside pressure" going into the second-round match of her title defense in Melbourne. Kaia Kanepi beat the defending champion in straight sets.

Kenin then lost her first match in another tournament four days later.

"I haven't felt my game in I don't know how long. I haven't been feeling 100%, game-wise," Kenin told reporters.

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"Everyone is always asking me if i see myself getting there [winning a Grand Slam] again. I obviously say yes. But with the way I'm playing? No."

Kenin had surgery to remove her appendix in the same week as her latest loss. She returns for her first tournament since the surgery at 7 p.m. EDT Friday at the Miami Open. She faces Andrea Petkovic in the round of 64.

"I couldn't do great in Australia," Kenin said. "It kind of took a toll on me. It's like a month and a half ago, so it doesn't matter what was there. I'm just going to do everything I can now to handle my emotions."

Kenin was born in Moscow, but her family moved to United States when she was a baby. She grew up in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

Coco has trained with coach Nick Saviano in Plantation, Fla., and also works with Serena Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. Kenin trains at Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla.

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