Can Coco Gauff the Tennis Prodigy Become a Tennis Legend?
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When Coco Gauff arrived in Paris in May for the French Open, she did not expect the tournament to be a milestone in her tennis career. It had already been a tough season: At its start, she flew across the globe to Australia, training and competing for four weeks, only to lose in the first round of the Australian Open. Not long before the French Open, she lost in the first round of a tournament on clay, the surface she would be playing on in Paris. Those kinds of early defeats were not what her fans anticipated from Gauff, who, three years earlier, at 15, proceeded, with astonishing grace and composure, to the fourth round of Wimbledon, defeating her idol Venus Williams along the way. Soon after that win, commentators seemed to be competing to hail Gauff’s promise. Chris Evert predicted she would win a Grand Slam championship, even at 18; John McEnroe declared that she would be No. 1. She was now on her fourth year of the tour, and although her skills were steadily improving, she had yet to meet those expectations.
On the other hand — Paris. She loved Paris. She loved its croissants, which she ate with honey for breakfast, loved the Tuileries Garden outside her hotel where, now 18, she could walk by herself. To celebrate her graduation from high school, after 10 years of home-schooling, her team had her photographed against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, tossing her mortarboard cap in the air. The photo, posted on Instagram, pulled in as many congratulations as a big win on the court; Michelle Obama even shared the image on one of her own Instagram stories, adding, “The sky is truly the limit.”
At the French Open, Gauff won the first set of her opening match 7-5, then sailed on that momentum to win the second 6-0. In her following match, she showed off the kind of reflexes at net that can make the sport almost comical, lunging right and left before striking the ball out of her opponent’s reach. In the quarterfinals, she defeated Sloane Stephens, the former U.S. Open champion, waiting her out, wearing her out; Gauff’s backhand, in particular, is fail-safe, even when she barely arrives at the ball in time to make contact. Gauff is so fast that Rick Macci, former coach to Serena and Venus Williams, described her as “a track star that has a tennis racket in her hand,” and she seemed to be literally gaining speed as she progressed through the tournament. In the semifinals, she unleashed the power of her serve — one of the fastest in women’s tennis — to close out the match. And then she was in the finals, the youngest woman to advance that far in a Grand Slam tournament since 2004, when Maria Sharapova, at 17, reached the finals of Wimbledon (and won).
In the end, Gauff lost 6-1, 6-3 to Iga Swiatek, a Polish athlete, currently ranked No. 1, who had been on a winning tear for months. But Gauff’s ascent to the finals was the story of the tournament. “We’ve all been waiting for this,” Chris Evert tweeted, even as Gauff herself said that she was “a little bit in shock.” In an on-court interview this summer, Gauff said she felt that she and Naomi Osaka were the future of the game, before catching herself with a giggle. “Actually, I don’t know,” she said. “The future is probably already here!”
If so, the timing is ideal for tennis: Earlier this month, Serena Williams announced she would stop competing at some point after the U.S. Open. The decision would leave the sport bereft of not just her charisma and greatness but also the blockbuster ratings and crowds those qualities reliably draw. Men’s tennis, too, rests precariously on legends whose era will surely wane soon enough: Djokovic is 35; Nadal, 36; Federer, 41.
“I grew up watching her,” Gauff said of Williams shortly after the news broke of her retirement. “I mean, that’s the reason why I play tennis.” Watching the Williams sisters dominate a sport that is still predominantly white allowed her to believe she could do the same, she said. Gauff has been proclaimed the heir to the Williams sisters ever since she defeated Venus at Wimbledon, a comparison that she resisted, even as she acknowledged the honor. “I understand why people compare us, but I think it’s just important that I want to be known as Coco,” she said at the 2021 French Open.
The nature of Gauff’s sports celebrity is already distinct, a reflection of the era in which she has come of age, the generation she’s a part of and her own appealing big-sister sensibility. Gauff has a keen awareness of the public self she helps construct on social media. (After she rolled her ankle and was forced to withdraw from the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati in mid-August, Gauff tweeted to her many well-wishers: “I promise I am ok! The world is not ending lol!”)
She also has a sense of urgency about social justice; she was just 16 when she spoke at a rally for Black Lives Matter in her hometown, Delray Beach, Fla. And Gauff has shown consistent composure on the court, even as the burdens for a young tennis star have never been heavier. Tracy Austin, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis all won Grand Slam tournaments by the time they were 17; but they competed in an era when the women’s game demanded less physical strength and training and was less all-consuming. (Austin continued attending high school; Mary Joe Fernandez, a former top player and an ESPN commentator, says she competed for years on the tour without ever doing a push-up.) And although they were all major stars, they were spared the steady toxic blowback of thousands of unedited digital commenters slinging insults about their game, their looks, even their race.
Gauff seems poised to keep building on the strengths that have propelled her to a career-high No. 11 ranking in singles; in doubles, as of this month, she is the No. 1 player in the world. Gauff has the benefit of millions of dollars in endorsements and prize money and a signature sneaker from New Balance — but as she heads to the U.S. Open, which starts on Aug. 29, she is still only 18, a precarious age when many young people toggle between a sense of invincibility and utter insecurity. The weight of what she carries would be a lot for anyone, but maybe especially for a young woman like Gauff; she knows from personal experience that so many girls are watching her, waiting for greatness that could encourage their own. Many are looking to Gauff — a young player who offers the excitement of potential along with exceptional athleticism and an ease with the public — to be the new face of American tennis, to be an inspiring figure even for young people who never pick up a racket. But before she can fully realize her own dreams or anyone else’s, Gauff has to do one thing she has not yet accomplished at the highest level: She has to win.
Coco Gauff, around 2015, with her parents, Corey and Candi, and her younger siblings Codey, left, and Cameron.Credit…Photograph from the Gauff family
Ten years ago, Coco’s father, Corey Gauff, then a vice president of a health care company in Atlanta, called his wife, Candi. He had been hitting with his daughter since she was 6, and at 7, she started working with a tennis pro for at least two hours a day, several days a week. Now that she was 8, he’d seen enough. His daughter had been saying that she wanted to be the greatest of all time since she was 4; they took her at her word. He thought he could turn his daughter into a champion, he told his wife — but they would have to commit.
Corey Gauff had played basketball at Georgia State; Candi set a state record in the heptathlon in high school before attending Florida State on a full scholarship for track. Before devoting her efforts to track, Candi, as a child, was a gifted gymnast. Her mother had invested in gymnastics classes for her; but she never entertained the possibility of moving her daughter, as one coach suggested, to a city where she could get more expert training. Candi Gauff often wondered how much further she could have gone if she had been able to commit to athletic greatness.
Coco’s tennis instructor agreed that she had the makings of a champion — the focus, the love of the game, the easy athleticism. “Let’s give it a year,” Corey told his wife. They would go all out, Williams-family style, moving to Delray Beach, a tennis mecca where he and his wife grew up; they would pull Coco out of school and have her train with the best. Candi, an elementary school teacher, would quit her job to support their daughter’s home-schooling, and Corey would oversee her tennis career. In 2012, when she was 8, they moved in with Candi Gauff’s parents, who were not thrilled at the extremity of their choice. This is what we’re doing, Candi told them, and it’s not up for discussion.
A decade later, the Gauff family still lives in Delray Beach, but in their own home. “No regrets!” Corey Gauff said. He smiled, settling into the relief of an air-conditioned room at the Delray Beach Tennis Center, where Coco often trains. Minutes earlier, he was on the court with Coco, a dutiful daughter who had bestowed on him, among other honors, one that every parent craves: She’d proved him right. By 10, she landed a spot at the training academy in France run by Patrick Mouratoglou, who is best known for working with Serena Williams. Gauff won the French Open junior girls tournament at 14, the youngest player to land that victory since 1994. Before reaching the finals of the French Open this year in singles and doubles, she made it to the singles quarterfinals of the same tournament in 2021.
At the tennis center that morning in July, Gauff showed up for practice promptly at 7:30, clearly still waking up, but polite as she greeted the desk attendant and figured out what court she would be practicing on. Having wandered over to the court while inspecting her phone, she seemed happy to see, when she arrived, Alexis Antista, a trainer who works with the U.S.T.A. and occasionally with Gauff. As Gauff warmed up, Antista told her that the previous night she had a dream that she overslept and would be late for practice. That’s some serious anxiety, Gauff told her, not entirely joking. She started jogging around the court, her body slowly coming online. She laughed a little as she ran. “I’m thinking about your dream,” she called out to the trainer.
In middle school, Corey attended a tennis academy in Delray Beach and even played, sometimes, at the site where Coco was now hitting, where a large banner near the entrance reads: “Go Coco Go!” It was a different story back in the early ’80s, when Corey and his cousins, as adolescents, sometimes played there. “I mean, when I was a kid, I used to try to come in with ball machines, and they’d be so nasty to me,” he said. Even now, almost everyone else playing at the center was white, with the exception of 15 or so children, a majority of them Black, who were attending a tennis camp funded by a local foundation. During a water break, some of them stared at Gauff as she pounded her serve on the court next to them, their gazes unwavering as they were called back to their own court for drills. Did they know who that was? One boy smiled shyly. “Coco,” he said.
That morning in Delray Beach, Gauff’s father, arms folded, watched just off the court as she hit balls with Diego Moyano, a veteran coach who has worked with Top 25 players like Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe when they were around Coco’s age. Corey Gauff called out pointers — “You’re taking that big step a little close to the ball!” — that Coco took in without comment; at one point, I thought I heard a barely audible “I know.” Before the practice began, Moyano spoke with great animation to Corey, motioning with his arms as he explained the work he intended to do on Gauff’s forehand. That stroke has been, in the past, a looming limitation that commentators worried over; Moyano was trying to tweak it so that she could better respond to the flattest, fastest balls that come her way. “Yes, beautiful!” Moyano called across the net as she hit a succession of hard, pinpoint-accurate forehands. “Good job!” He was panting with effort as he returned her shots, sweating so much in the 90-degree heat that his sneakers would be soaked through well before the end of the grueling two-hour session. “Sorry,” Gauff said nearly every time she hit a ball past him.
Gauff had been on the road for three months; now she was home for only a few days before heading to Atlanta to play two exhibition matches, a relaxed stop on the hard-court run-up to the U.S. Open in New York. Particularly in doubles, Gauff’s tennis shows an exuberance, an obvious joy in her quicksilver reflexes and on-the-spot inventiveness. In Delray Beach that day, however, her energy on the court was focused, even a little anxious, as she tried to execute Moyano’s suggestions. “I still haven’t learned how to play it,” she called out to Moyano. “I don’t want to miss my target in a match.”
She followed two hours of practice with a 90-minute fitness workout, at which point she finally toweled off to head home for lunch. As Gauff packed up, Antista mentioned to her that she once enjoyed sitting near her father at a match. Oh, Gauff said, a hint of humor buried in her flat affect, was he telling you everything I was doing wrong? She deepened her voice a little: “ ‘Why is she hitting her forehand like that?’”
Her mother is not a hands-on coach, but she was just as invested during matches, Gauff told Antista. “She prays,” Gauff said. “She bows her head when I serve.” (Or at least she assumed that’s what her mother was doing, she later clarified; maybe she just got too nervous to watch.) The two spoke about a team habit that seemed grounded in superstition — everyone in the family box had to sit in the same place they sat when Coco won the previous match. It was her father’s preference, Gauff explained, but it was her mother who made the request because, when her father gets tense, “he doesn’t know how to talk to people,” she said. Corey Gauff’s demeanor in the box was a work in progress after all these years; his wife and daughter were both trying to break him of impulses like pounding a fist into his own thigh when a point didn’t go her way. “She had to tell him,” Candi Gauff said of her daughter, “ ‘When you do like that, I’m trying to see if you’re upset or not, and then I’m not thinking about my game.’”
Although Corey Gauff is forever trying to improve his tone of voice — he jokes that his natural instructional style is “command and control” — his coaching, from all accounts, has been consistently well-balanced. On the tour, he is known as Pops, a burly, middle-aged dad taking it upon himself to tell one player he needs a haircut or let another one know he needs to grow up and act like a man on the court. After Coco defeated Venus Williams at Wimbledon, Serena Williams, at a news conference, wished the Gauffs well. “I just love Coco and her family,” she said. “They’re just really sweet. Her dad is just a good guy.” Naomi Osaka expressed similar sentiments. “You guys raised an amazing player,” she said, looking up at the stands at the Gauffs, during her on-court interview, shortly after she defeated Gauff in the U.S. Open in 2019. Corey and his daughter pray together before every match — not for a win but for the continued good health of both players. (It would be “stupid to waste a prayer on results,” Coco told me, laughing a little at the thought of it.) The family, which signed with the same management firm that represents Roger Federer, has been cautious about overloading Gauff with endorsements, leaving her more free to focus on her game and her life outside it. Even her deal with New Balance is relatively low stress, without penalties for skipping tournaments.
A camera once captured Corey Gauff talking to his daughter during a courtside coaching moment, when she was 15, and just a few points away from winning her first W.T.A. pro tournament in singles, in Linz, Austria. Although she was ahead, Coco was visibly agitated, overwhelmed by the stress of the moment. Her father leaned toward her, his eyes lit up, a smile just the right size on his face, offering her a confident patter of reassurance. “You’re not going to sprint to the finish line, we’re going to walk to the finish line,” he said, his voice gentle. “Take your mind to another place right now, OK? Remember we talked about that?” (Coco responded to this minute-long motivational speech in classic teenage mode: “What side do I need to hit to?” she asked as she stood up. “Just tell me something!”)
Any time a sports parent is so invested in his teenage child’s professional success, tensions around control will inevitably emerge. In the first round of the French Open this year, Gauff seemed to be working something out on court after the chair umpire told her to stop her father from making movements with his hands that could be mistaken for coaching signals, which were not allowed. “We don’t have any signals, so I don’t know what you want me to tell him,” she said, firm but unfailingly polite.
She made herself clear, but during a changeover, she came back to the umpire, at which point it seemed likely that the incident had sparked an internal conversation about something else. She was trying to make the umpire understand how little feedback she wanted from her father in those moments. “I’m just shocked — because even after the match, even since I was a kid, I told my dad: ‘Don’t say anything. Like, shut up.’” The umpire started to respond, but Coco kept talking, still respectful, but insistent. “So that’s why I’m shocked. After every match, I literally tell him: ‘I just want you to clap. Don’t say anything to me.’” She laughed the kind of laugh that’s half “this is ridiculous” and half “this is actually funny.” If the umpire expected her to dictate her father’s behavior, she said, “at that point, you can just give me a coaching violation, because I can’t control what he does with his hands.” She wrapped up with a slight non sequitur. “I’m just letting you know that it’s the first time a ref has said this to me, that’s all,” and then she walked toward the baseline, the set of her shoulders revealing the intensity of her emotion. She won the match without giving up a single game in the second set.
About two years ago, Coco Gauff’s agent told her that he wanted her to be more conscious of what she was putting on her TikTok feed, with content that better reflected her as a professional tennis player. “That’s not what I am,” she told him. “I’m a girl who plays tennis.”
For those looking for Gauff, the professional tennis player, they can find her on Instagram, where her feed is a steady stream of killer shots in slo-mo and glamour poses in European cities; it also features promotions for New Balance and a plug for her new NFT collection. But if her Instagram feed represents the professional, packaged Coco Gauff, her TikTok represents the personal one, a young woman who is decidedly more age-typical than the exceptionally mature person she usually reveals on the court or at news conferences. Until very recently, her TikTok feed has only occasionally been about tennis; it’s a point of pride for her that at one time she estimated that only about 30 percent of the people following her even knew she was a professional athlete. Judging from that feed, the life of Coco Gauff — a girl who plays tennis — entails reading fantasy novels that make her stare off into the distance; dressing up to cosplay manga characters; watching a peppy, pretty gamer named Valkyrae whose livestreams, she says, “got me through some pretty crap times”; wearing crop tops and drinking iced chai-tea lattes with oat milk, brown-sugar syrup and sweet-cream cold foam.
Mixed in with Gauff’s every-girl TikToks are posts in which she sometimes lays bare a sense of vulnerability. “I kept trying so hard to fit in and I did not have any confidence,” read the text in one, with the hashtag #blackgirlmagic. Another TikTok describes herself in two separate shots: “Always includes everyone,” reads one, “because no one ever included her,” reads the other, along with additional text: “Maybe it’s because I was the loner home-school kid lollll.”
When we spoke in a meeting room upstairs at the Delray Beach Tennis Center, Gauff said that she genuinely liked having time alone — but that she sometimes questioned whether she should be more enthusiastic about spending time with friends. “Most of the time when my friends do ask me to hang out, I don’t want to,” she told me. It’s not just that she’s exhausted from touring, she said; part of what holds her back is how she sometimes feels after socializing. “I feel like I overthink things,” she explained. “I’ve been home-schooled since third grade, so it’s definitely, you know — I don’t know sometimes how to socialize, I guess, in a normal way. All my friends say I do fine, like I’m not weird or anything. But it’s just something that my brain thinks — that maybe I said something wrong or did something wrong or these people are watching. And you know, no one is watching, no one cares. But it’s definitely something I think about.”
Gauff might have felt that way regardless of home-schooling; plenty of young people agonize over what they say or do at social events. But Gauff seemed to be thinking about a way that her early commitment to playing professionally might have shaped who she was now. She was also prepared to join, in her own teenage way, a conversation that has been underway about mental health in professional athletes. “Shoutout to my social anxiety for this one,” she wrote on one TikTok this summer. When one commenter wrote that she couldn’t have social anxiety because she played before thousands, she wrote back, sarcastically: “Thank you! I no longer have anxiety thanks to you, bud!” But she also commiserated with followers who wrote in about their aversion to socializing or how they felt when their friends ghosted them.
Naomi Osaka recently said, via a tweet posted by the W.T.A., that Gauff was “the 1st player to message me” back in 2021 after Osaka announced her decision to withdraw from the French Open and talked about the depression and anxiety that she experienced on the tour. “I’ve never forgotten that,” Osaka tweeted about Gauff’s support. “I have so much love for her and I think she behaves well beyond her age.”
Even before Osaka spoke about her struggles, Gauff had taken it upon herself in 2020, at 16, to talk openly about the emotional ups and downs that she experienced a couple of years earlier, as a young tennis prodigy. In an as-told-to post that appeared on “Behind the Racquet,” a website created by Noah Rubin, a professional tennis player, Gauff referred to herself during that period as “depressed.” She made it clear she had no regrets that she had continued to pursue professional tennis. But resolving to do so, at the time, she said, required “many moments, sitting, thinking and crying.” Shortly after the post appeared, her family quickly moved to correct the record, dismissing the word depression as a formal diagnosis that was not appropriate or accurate in her case. (Rubin acknowledged his role in the misunderstanding.) Corey Gauff told me that during that phase, Coco was “just tired.”
Gauff, talking in the meeting room at the Delray Beach Tennis Center, made it clear that she did not think of herself as particularly hindered by social anxiety, but she did want to convey the idea that athletes who are extraordinary on the court can also struggle in ordinary ways. “It’s something different for me when I’m on the court and off the court,” she said. “And I’ve seen other athletes say the same thing. And because people find our job hard, they think that we should be able to adjust to this life, and deal with this life — that we are invincible. And because of the physical things athletes can do, they think it correlates to mental. And athletes do have to be mentally strong when they’re competing on the court. But I’m able to perform in tennis because it’s just what I’ve been doing my whole life. But there’s certain things in real life I kind of get anxious about. And I don’t think the two intertwine at all.” To be a tennis champion, in Gauff’s model, requires no pedestals or pretense; part of being a leader, for her, entails acknowledging the ways that fragility and power can coexist in the same person.
The appeal of a prodigy is a power of its own. Prodigies burn with talent; they are all upside. But they are also in flux developmentally; they may not yet have the lung power to manage the thinness of the air at the very top. At a stage when young people most crave a crew, the teenage tennis star at a Grand Slam is alone on the court, on display, her every grunt registered, the control of her emotions a performance that commentators will critique for the entertainment of millions of unseen viewers. At Wimbledon this year, playing on Center Court, Gauff, lunging for a ball, landed in a spectacular spill on the grass. That she managed to bounce back up with a self-amused smile floored Mary Joe Fernandez, who took a fall like that, she said, when she was around 14 — and dreaded the prospect of playing on the slippery grass of Center Court at Wimbledon forever after. (Fernandez is married to Tony Godsick, who runs the agency that represents Gauff.)
The field is filled with prodigies whom tennis commentators deemed the future of the sport, only to drift off course. Sometimes, they buckle emotionally under the pressure of celebrity; Jennifer Capriati, who reached the semifinals of Wimbledon at age 15, in 1991, was in drug rehab by the time she was 18. (She eventually revived her career, winning three Grand Slam titles in her 20s.) Athletes’ bodies change; they get driver’s licenses and are lured into social lives. Or their parents linger on too long as coaches without seeking additional professional support. Donald Young was the No. 1-ranked junior in the world in 2005, but he continued training at the tennis center outside Atlanta, where his parents worked as coaches, long past the point that U.S.T.A. officials felt was advisable. On the tour, he has so far topped out at No. 38.
As tough as the tour is for prodigies, the pressure only mounts with time, says Martin Blackman, the general manager of player-and-coach development at the U.S.T.A., who has known the Gauff family since they moved to Delray Beach for Coco’s tennis. “What you have going for you when you’re young and you’re talented, is you’re hunting,” he said. “You’re not expected to win yet, so there’s not a lot of pressure on you. You’re playing with house money. You’re playing to win, and a lot of these more established players are playing not to lose. You’re in a much lower pressure scenario, and it’s a lot more fun.” When she first went pro at 14, Gauff could only defy expectations. “And then you get to the point where everyone has seen how good you are, and the expectations are there — you’re not surprising anybody anymore,” Blackman continued. “So, you know, then it tips a bit.” At that point, “the pressure can really mount internally and externally.” That’s when, for example, Tennis magazine weighs in. In January, the magazine’s website asked, as part of its Top 10 “burning questions” of 2022: “Is It Time for Coco Gauff to Deliver?”
Members of the Gauff team have always felt that Coco has the leisure of youth, which means she has years to keep improving her skills before she comes close to suffering the limits of age. At the same time, they recognized that she hadn’t been winning tournaments, which was clearly the goal every time she played in one. After Gauff lost in the first round in Australia, her father waited until the worst of the disappointment was over and then laid down a challenge in the hotel room where she was staying. “If you want to beat everybody, you’ve got to work harder than everybody, and I told her, I just wasn’t convinced that we were working harder than everybody,” he said. “And if you want to get to that level, that’s got to be absolute. Because when you work the hardest, you’re supposed to win.” They resolved, in talking about it, that she was going to do more drills, spend more hours on the court and play more matches.
The other major change they made was bringing on, in April, Moyano, who would be her full-time coach and travel with her on tour. When I asked Corey Gauff about this shift in her team, he said that nothing substantial had changed — that he’d always had professionals working with his daughter. He would remain highly involved and function as the general manager. But Coco made it clear that Moyano’s role was also intended to give her and her father a little bit of breathing room. “We were together on the court, at home and in between,” she said. “I think we both needed space from each other.”
Gauff has two younger siblings who are often on her mind; they show up a lot on her TikTok, gamely dancing in sync with their sister or indulging her love of cosplay with a costume of their own. Cameron is only 9, but Codey, who is 14, is a serious athlete in his own right, considered among the top baseball catchers for his age nationally. Because Corey Gauff was traveling with his daughter, he watched most of his son’s games on an iPad. “I would say I did feel guilty,” Coco said. “You do feel bad that you’re taking all of a person’s time and you’ve still got two other people who need that time. So that’s another reason why I decided to get a coach.”
In recent months, commentators have noted that Gauff, who has reached two quarterfinals and one semifinal in smaller tournaments since the French Open, has seemed more relaxed and at ease. Her reserves of mental strength seem deeper — she won one three-hour match in Toronto after a tiebreaker — even as she shows more lightness on the court. At one recent tournament, seconds after she won a match, she approached the chair umpire, who had an unusually sonorous tone. “You should be a voice actor!” she told him, as if this thought had been the only thing on her mind in the final moments of the match. “I’m serious!” she said. “You sound like a cartoon character — in a good way!”
In Atlanta, at two exhibition matches, which don’t count toward a player’s rankings, she drew from the crowd’s energy and amplified it, pretending to be a ball girl in one match, and in another against Sofia Kenin, a former No. 4-ranked singles player, handing her racket to a ball boy who played match point for her (and won). Whatever social discomfort she might sometimes feel in ordinary life, “tennis is the one place I feel completely myself,” Gauff wrote in a reply on one of her TikToks. That ease in that environment is evident to anyone who has ever watched her with the crowd after a match, when she seems to enjoy every young fan, always noticing and commenting, with a smile, on a girl’s braids or a boy’s twin brother or a child’s glittery T-shirt.
At the French Open, a reporter asked Gauff to talk about whatever perspective she had gained about her game over the years. “I put myself in a bubble to the point where it was, like, tennis, tennis, tennis, tennis,” Gauff replied, referencing the past. “My grandmother, she’s always like, ‘There’s more to life than this.’” She came to realize that her grandmother was right. “I can relax in these situations. It’s just a tennis match. It’s not the end of the world. There’s so many people going through so many, like, uncomfortable situations. For me to be — I mean, obviously being nervous is natural — but for me to think that winning a tennis match or losing a tennis match is the end of the world, I think just kind of shows what kind of privilege I have.” Having that mind-set, she said, “probably helped me.”
Gauff’s grandmother desegregated the main high school in Delray Beach; her grandfather founded a baseball league for Black youths in the 1970s, when access to the sport for Black children was still a challenge. When Corey Gauff was a basketball player at Georgia State, he told me, he and two of his teammates were pulled over by officers who forced them to the ground; one held a gun to Gauff’s head. It turned out to be a brutal case of mistaken identity. Coco’s family’s history clearly informed her words when she volunteered to speak at the Delray Beach Black Lives Matter rally on June 3, 2020. “I saw a Dr. King quote that said, The silence of the good people is worse than the brutality of the bad people,” she told the crowd. “So you need to not be silent, because if you are choosing silence, you’re choosing the side of the oppressor.”
The expectation that Gauff could have an impact beyond tennis is bound up with the pressure to win: It’s champions who generally take the microphone. But whatever Gauff’s current singles ranking, Tracy Austin says, Gauff is already considered a leader on the tour. “She was 16 — to give such a profound speech about social justice at that time, at that age?” Austin said. “She’s already a leader now. But what kind of leader can she become at 25?” Evert agreed with Austin’s assessment, tweeting in 2020: “I believe we have a future leader, role model and activist in @CocoGauff.”
“You can change the world with your racket,” Gauff’s father always told her. That goal was not a perk of becoming a tennis star; it was a driving reason to become one in the Gauff household. “I always told her, ‘Play for that little girl who was watching through the fence,’” Corey Gauff recalled to me. “ ‘She’s the one looking at you. If you can’t play for you, play for her. And if you can’t play for her, then just don’t play.’” Being a role model for girls, especially girls of color, is a meaningful way that Gauff finds motivation in the sport, regardless of how much the Williams sisters have already changed tennis. “There’s always going to be work to be done,” Gauff said. “Long, long after I’ve finished tennis and long after I leave this earth.”
That sense of purpose suggests that Gauff is already becoming, to paraphrase what she told her agent, a young woman who plays tennis, as opposed to someone whose identity is inseparable from her ranking. At the close of a recent match Gauff played against Naomi Osaka, she thanked some fans in the front row who had been holding up a sign that Gauff called “probably the best” she’d ever seen. The sign, decorated with rainbows and both players’ first names, said nothing about tennis or winning. It read: “Thanks for being you.”
In late July, Gauff and her team flew to San Francisco several days before the start of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, her first hard-court tournament of the summer. It was also her first tournament since Wimbledon, where she lost in the third round. An avid baseball fan, she took in a Giants game with her family and was thrilled to throw out the first pitch. The next day, Gauff, warming up on a practice court with Moyano, was clearly feeling good, laughing easily along with her dad when a stray ball plowed into him. All week, other players told her she was hitting well; compared with Florida, where she sweats so much that the racket sometimes flies out of her hand and across the court, San Jose was easy on the body. Heading into her first match, she decided she would try to summon the fun she had in Atlanta — she would aim for “being super hype and bringing on the drama,” like Serena, while also playing it cool, like Federer.
By the time Gauff’s first-round match started, long after 7 p.m., the sun was on its way down, and the weather was mild, with a friendly breeze. The crowd at the small stadium was loud and enthusiastic. Gauff was playing Anhelina Kalinina, a Ukrainian player who reached her career-high ranking of 34 in late June. Gauff wore an outfit that New Balance had designed for her in California sunset colors, a pale orange peachy top with a strappy back and a highly-flammable-looking pink-gold skirt with a sparkly, metallic sheen.
Kalinina could barely get a racket on many of Gauff’s serves, hitting wonky shots that Gauff invariably sprinted down and finished off. Over the course of the match, which lasted less than an hour, she raced to seemingly unreachable spots, not just returning the ball but hitting it so hard she put her opponent on the defensive. At one point, Kalinina sent Gauff running so fast to make contact, Gauff somehow landed with her legs spread halfway to a split. Kalinina missed the shot as Gauff remained frozen in split stance, incredulous, almost amused by her own speed, pressing down on her racket as if it were the one thing stopping her from sliding down.
It wasn’t just the athleticism of the get that stood out, but her delight in the moment. You had the sense that she wasn’t smiling on court just because she was winning, but that she was winning, in part, because she could smile. The match, one of the best of her career, she thought, ended a few minutes later, 6-1, 6-0.
Afterward, Gauff made her way down a line of spectators eager to snap cellphone photos and get autographs on tennis balls. “Don’t worry, we’ll get it,” she said, promising everyone that she would stay as long as it took, as well-wishers and children and their parents flung themselves in front of her, their cameras raised high, calling her name. “We’re gonna get everybody,” she said as she smiled and smiled and smiled. A tall young man asked her if she was free Saturday night. “If I’m still here!” she said.
She headed back to change, where she found her father and the rest of her team playing spikeball, a handball game around a small, low net, in a field by the players’ lounge. Intending to head inside for a cool-down and a shower, she joined in for a moment or two, the mood light, the team happy. Usually after a match, Gauff is exhausted, eager to get the news conference over and done, and head home. She couldn’t avoid the news conference, she knew, but after she took a few moments to cool down with her physiotherapist, she decided to skip the shower. She headed back outside to join her team. For a little while longer, she would play.
Susan Dominus is a staff writer for the magazine. In 2018, she was part of a team that reported on workplace sexual-harassment issues and won a Pulitzer Prize for public service. Arielle Bobb-Willis is a photographer based in Los Angeles known for her use of vivid colors and documenting people in disjointed positions. She photographed a number of musicians for this year’s Music Issue, including Mary J. Blige and Mitski.