Coco Gauff emerges as latest women's tennis star making an impact beyond realm of sport

American teenager has already reached dizzying heights and looks set to makes waves for many years

Coco Gauff has been in red-hot form at the US Open. AFP
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It doesn’t take long listening to Coco Gauff in a press conference before one starts to think, ‘We really are not worthy of this eloquent 19-year-old’.

A prodigious talent that exploded on to the scene at the age of 15, Gauff earned scores of fans across the globe thanks to her tennis. But soon people realised she is most impressive off the court; her voice more powerful than any serve she can hit; her poise ever present, even in the trickiest situations.

Women’s tennis has a rich history of multi-generational icons making an impact beyond the realm of the sport and Gauff is primed to be another one, emerging as a deserved new face of the WTA tour.

This week, Gauff has become the youngest American to reach the women’s semi-finals at the US Open since Serena Williams in 1999 – the latest in a series of ‘first since’ feats she has achieved in the last couple of years.

At a time where pressure on young athletes is at an all-time high, with social media taking over and millions of dollars often at stake, Gauff has shown there can be a reasonable way to handle the hype.

“It's important that you really know yourself, because it's very easy to feed into what you should and what you shouldn't do when everyone is giving their opinions,” the Floridian said this week.

“For the most part I've done well with it. I think it's because of my family. They have always kept me grounded and always set the importance of my self-worth, because sometimes you can lose your sense of self in this environment, going from country to country, social media, all of that. I think they really help me embrace it instead of shy away from it.”

Gauff’s parents, Corey and Candi, and her grandmother, Yvonne Lee Odom, have played a key role in helping her navigate her career with a level-headed perspective. They’ve allowed her to be herself and act her age, while understanding the importance of using her voice.

Back in 1961, her grandmother was chosen to integrate Seacrest High School and Gauff credits her for inspiring the inner activist in her.

“She had to deal with a lot of things, like racial injustice. Her leading the way that she is and being so kind to everyone regardless of their background is something that I take inspiration from,” said Gauff, who has attended Black Lives Matter rallies, given speeches, and frequently utilises her platform to raise awareness on Black history.

“For her to go through what she did during that time is something that I think what I do putting out a tweet or saying a speech is so easy compared to that. So that's why I have no problem doing the things that I do. She always reminds me that I'm a person first instead of an athlete.”

Perhaps that is Gauff’s true superpower: understanding that there is more to life than tennis – a lesson most players take years to fully comprehend.

She admits it took her a while to realise she didn’t have to be ultra-focused on the sport all the time and has started to unlock the joy she knows she can experience while doing her job.

“I have a lot of joy in me but I just seem to bottle it up when I play. Now I'm really just having fun and laughing and smiling, and I think it's making tennis more enjoyable,” she says.

Gauff’s new approach has helped her win 16 of her last 17 matches on tour – a stretch that included title runs in D.C. and Cincinnati, and a maiden semi-final showing at the US Open, where she takes on Karolina Muchova in the early hours of Friday morning.

Her press conferences throughout this two weeks in New York have been a masterclass in communication, in which she has discussed everything from the importance of HBCU universities – “having spaces where Black people can feel free to be creative and live their life is important,” she says – to being star-struck by the Biebers, to the meaningful conversation she had with former 'first couple' the Barack and Michelle Obama.

The day the Obamas attended Gauff’s match, she had a confrontation with the chair umpire, urging her to give her opponent Laura Siegemund a time violation for taking too long between points. With 23,000 screaming fans and a marquee audience watching on, Gauff made sure she chose her words carefully as she advocated for herself mid-match.

She later revealed Michelle Obama said she was impressed by how Gauff handled the situation.

“She said it's good to speak up for myself. I think she was happy that I spoke up for myself,” said Gauff.

And even if she doesn’t walk away with the Grand Slam trophy, she would leave New York knowing she left it all out there on court.

She acknowledges there is a certain amount of pressure that comes with what she is trying to achieve, but has found a way to view that pressure in a different light.

“It's just putting my life into perspective. At first I used to think negative things, like, why is there so much pressure, why is this so hard?” she said.

“I realise in a way it's pressure but it's not. I mean, there are people struggling to feed their families, people who don't know where their next meal is going to come from, people who have to pay their bills.

“That's real pressure, that's real hardship, that's real life. I’m in a very privileged position, I'm getting paid to do what I love and getting support to do what I love. That's something that I don't take for granted.”

Women’s tennis is in safe hands for the foreseeable future.

Updated: September 07, 2023, 8:04 PM