MELBOURNE, Australia -- School starts for Shaniqua Marukutira, Christabel Masvosva, Shani Chitambo and Thando Gazi on Wednesday, but they might not be able to make it. The foursome have a case of "Coco-mania," and it may not be over in time for the first day.
Ranging in age from 13 to 16, the group has become a vocal and passionate mainstay in the crowd at Coco Gauff's matches during her run at the Australian Open, and they're not planning on going anywhere while she is still playing.
"She's such an inspiration to us and to everyone," Marukutira said. "She's 15, and look what she's doing to grown people out there on the court. She's just amazing. Even if she's down a set, she just stays calm and fights back. She just shows us we can do anything and makes us want to work harder."
They first watched the young American play during the 2018 junior doubles tournament. Then paired with Hurricane Tyra Black, the duo lost in the first round (as Gauff also did in the singles event), but not before she left an indelible mark on the group. They couldn't believe she was the same age as they were.
They have been cheering her on from afar ever since. When they saw she was in the main draw at this year's tournament, they started reaching out on social media to everyone in Gauff's camp to get tickets. While they didn't make it to her first-round victory over Venus Williams, they've been to every match since, along with Gazi's father, Anele. Known for their coordinated chants, anyone who has watched her matches has likely heard their enthusiastic cheers. They have even become minor celebrities in their own right around the grounds at Melbourne Park, getting the occasional selfie request.
Gauff's father Corey met up with the group after her first-round doubles win and made sure they had good seats for Friday's victory over Naomi Osaka, as well as "Call me Coco" shirts. The group is excited to have tickets for Sunday's match against Sofia Kenin. They live about an hour and a half away and have been staying with friends who live nearby.
"We watched her when she lost to Osaka at the US Open, and we were like, 'Damn, this girl has some fight in her,' and we knew we had to keep supporting her," said Thando Gazi.
They were there on Saturday afternoon, as well as hundreds who crammed onto the sun-soaked Court 8, to watch Gauff and her friend Caty McNally -- known collectively as #McCoco -- defeat No. 8 doubles seeds Demi Schuurs and Kveta Peschke -- who is 11 years older than the combined age of Gauff and McNally -- in straight sets.
While they may be the biggest fans Down Under, it appears everyone wants to see the 15-year-old Gauff these days.
Over the past eight months, Gauff has burst onto the global scene, charming fans everywhere with her impressive play, gutsy comebacks, joyful interviews and maturity beyond her years. On Friday, she notched the biggest victory of her career over the 2019 Australian Open winner and fourth-ranked Osaka. She became the youngest person since Jennifer Capriati in 1991 to beat a top-five player or a defending major champion. Last summer, she became the youngest player in history to qualify for the main draw at Wimbledon and has been on a steady rise ever since: making it to the fourth round at the All England Club, earning a third-round appearance at the US Open, and winning her first singles titles at Linz as well as two doubles trophies with McNally at Washington and Luxembourg.
Having had her US Open run dashed by Osaka in August, Gauff showed she was prepared and ready for the much-hyped rematch at Rod Laver Arena on Friday. She came out focused and never seemed to waver. While her 22-year-old opponent struggled with 30 unforced errors, Gauff remained composed. She won in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, and captivated some of the sport's most respected names.
"Coco has this innate quality where she always believes she can win," said 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert, who commentated on the match for ESPN. "I think it stems from her parents telling her at a young age, 'You can do anything you want and you can come from any position and still win a match.' She has that inner confidence, and is hungry. She is so focused, and brings that intensity to every match.
"I was impressed by her serve and how much speed she's getting off the first and the second. Naomi didn't have much fight last night, which surprised me, but Coco was so good at just letting Naomi continue to make errors and not forcing anything. She played the patient game, and never let Naomi really into the match. It was clear how much she learned from their meeting in New York, and just played freely."
Stubbs: We've seen a changing of the guard in women's tennis
Following defeats for Williams and Wozniacki, Rennae Stubbs believes Coco Gauff is changing women's tennis.
Currently ranked No. 67 -- more than 600 spots ahead of where she was in January of last year -- she is expected to rise to at least 16 places with a fourth-round appearance.
With each win, Gauff brings more and more fans, and it seems certain she will bring a capacity crowd to the 10,500-seat Melbourne Arena for Sunday's round of 16 clash.
"The fans have been amazing," said mother Candi earlier in the week after Gauff's win over Sorana Cirstea. "It reminded me of a college football game or something. It really helps her out because she likes the cheers. She looks at our box a lot throughout her matches, and we're rowdy and passionate, so she loves when the fans are like that too."
It was a similar type of match and crowd (albeit not as rowdy) at Wimbledon that made Evert a believer in just how special Gauff is. She officially arrived on the world stage at the famed grass tournament with an improbable win over five-time champion Williams in the opening round, but it was what she did a few days later in the third round against Polona Hercog that convinced Evert.
Having lost the first set 6-3 and trailing 5-2 in the second, Gauff clawed her way back into the match, one hard-fought point at a time, as a capacity crowd on Centre Court looked on in disbelief. She staved off two match points to force a decider. In the final set, she displayed grit and resolve well beyond her years and found an answer for everything Hercog hit her way. She ultimately emerged victorious: 6-3, 7-6, 7-5.
"That was the match where I realized she was capable of finding that next level when she's down and needs to respond," said Evert. "It showed me she can play magical tennis, the type that Serena [Williams] has done throughout her career, and that [Simona] Halep and the very top players can play. So many can't do that, and she is just able to raise her game when she needs to do most."
While it remains to be seen if she will need to do that again on Sunday, Evert believes Gauff is the slight favorite against Kenin and even has an outside chance to win the entire tournament. When the draw was announced, Gauff appeared to be playing in the most difficult quarter. With the elimination of Osaka, as well as 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams and 2018 Australian Open titlist Caroline Wozniacki, it has opened up considerably.
But perhaps more notably, Evert believes that contender status will not go away anytime soon. She believes Gauff is already the real deal and will only continue to get better.
"I think she's playing top-10 tennis right now," said Evert. "I think that's as blunt as I can be. She says she wants to be the greatest of all time, and considering her age now, it's possible. She's going to have a huge serve, she's going to grow and get stronger, she already has a world-class backhand, and the mental part seems to be already there. There's no reason why not."