Gauff dreaming big ahead of AO 2020

  • Reem Abulleil

The last time Coco Gauff made an appearance at the Australian Open, the then 13-year-old lost in the first round of both the girls’ singles and doubles events of the 2018 edition.

The young American then received a pep talk from 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, whose management company, Team8, represents her.

“He just told me to keep going, to keep working hard, and he shared some of his stories back when he was a junior. And then the next tournament I played was French Open [juniors] and I ended up winning it – maybe that had something to do with it but I mean, how could you not listen to the greatest of all time?” recalls Gauff of that conversation with the Swiss legend.

Gauff, who was a finalist at the US Open junior tournament in 2017, went one better the following year in Paris, to become the youngest Roland Garros girls’ singles champion since Martina Hingis in 1994.

She became junior world No.1 soon after and concluded her junior career by lifting the Orange Bowl title in December 2018. What happened over the following 10 months is nothing short of remarkable.

In her debut season on the professional women’s circuit, Gauff rocketed up the rankings from outside the top-800 at the start of 2019, to her current position of No.68, which comfortably earns her a direct entry into the 2020 Australian Open main draw. 

I always said, ‘You want to be the greatest? That’s a great goal, there’s nothing wrong with that goal’
Corey Gauff

In less than two years, Gauff went from losing her openers in the junior tournament at Melbourne Park, to being one of the most talked-about figures in tennis.

Last June, Gauff became the youngest player in history to make it through the Wimbledon qualifying rounds to secure a spot in the main draw. Ranked 313 at the time, the Floridian had needed a wildcard to contest the qualifying tournament in Roehampton, and she made the most of that invitation.

Not only did she successfully qualify, Gauff became an overnight sensation when she upset her idol Venus Williams in the Wimbledon first round. She claimed two more victories before her dream run ended in the last-16 at the hands of eventual champion Simona Halep. It was a Grand Slam debut no one would forget anytime soon.

Barely two months later at the US Open, Gauff reached the third round, where she was stopped by defending champion Naomi Osaka. They shared an iconic moment on Arthur Ashe stadium when Osaka consoled Gauff and invited her to do the on-court interview with her so she can address the roaring crowd that had been behind her throughout. The moment went viral online and was replayed on screens the world over from America to Japan.

In October, Gauff capped her 2019 season by becoming the youngest WTA titlist since 2004 thanks to an impressive week in Linz, Austria, where she earned her first top-10 victory – against Kiki Bertens – en route to the trophy. 

Within four months, Gauff – whose name is ‘Cori’ but prefers to go by ‘Coco’ – established herself as arguably the most exciting prospect women’s tennis has seen since the Williams sisters.

“A 15-year-old has become one of the biggest names in sport,” wrote Tumaini Carayol of UK’s The Guardian newspaper.

ESPN’s The Undefeated featured an article on her with the headline, “The girl who would be GOAT”.

“Tennis star Coco Gauff is about to become your new favourite athlete,” was the title of a piece that ran on E! News ahead of the US Open.

Gauff landed on the cover of Teen Vogue, met with Michelle Obama, was invited by the Brooklyn Nets, hung out with Jaden and Willow Smith, was nominated for ‘Game Changer of the Year’ at the People’s Choice Awards, and earned more than half a million new followers on Instagram.  

It may seem strange for some to see a rookie’s name uttered in the same sentence as the term ‘GOAT’ (greatest of all time), but Gauff has not shied away from admitting that her goal is actually to become the ‘GOAT’. 

“My parents always told me to shoot as high as I wanted to,” she told reporters at Roehampton earlier this year.

Her father, Corey, who is also her coach, explains why he instilled in her the confidence to target such lofty ambitions.

“I just always told her, ‘Dream as big as you want, and if it’s a worthy dream, it’s morally right, then I’ll help you try to achieve those dreams’. I always said, ‘You want to be the greatest? That’s a great goal, there’s nothing wrong with that goal’,” says Corey, who along with his wife Candi, have also proven to be a huge hit with tennis fans across the globe.

Corey played Division I basketball at Georgia State University, while Candi ran track at Florida State. Both former athletes provide a strong support system for their daughter, and accompany her at tournaments throughout the year, along with French coach Jean-Christophe Faurel. 

On the court, Gauff is fired up and shows a fighting spirit her father says he could recognise ever since she was a little girl. She has fluid shots, backed by a degree of tennis maturity usually acquired through years of experience on tour; which is baffling, considering 2019 was her first.

Off court, Gauff strikes a fine balance between being a 10th-grader who takes her exams after matches and does impromptu Instagram Live chats to discuss her admiration for Jaden Smith or show her fans her pre-sleep routine; and being a professional tennis player with a growing list of media commitments and a practice schedule that is meant to help her achieve her dream of becoming the GOAT.

After qualifying for Wimbledon over the summer, Gauff sat in a small tent surrounded by a large group of journalists, who quizzed her on everything ahead of her major debut.

Many 15-year-olds would have been intimidated by the attention. Gauff was unfazed.

“I don’t really get nervous, because it’s just a conversation for me. I’ve been doing interviews for a long time, I’m kind of used to it. It doesn’t bother me,” she calmly explained.

While she admits she is well ahead of schedule, and that she cracked the top-100 sooner than anticipated, Gauff is not completely surprised by her results this year. She’s also pleased she now has a bigger platform she can utilise for raising awareness about important issues. 

During Black History Month, Gauff took the opportunity to educate her followers by posting various historical facts “that you don’t learn at school” each day.

“I always wanted to not just be a tennis player,” she told The Guardian in a recent interview. 

“Lately, younger people are leading movements and I guess the world has to get used to it because we’re used to older people telling us what to do. My generation has just decided it was time to speak up on our own about things.”

Gauff has every intention of leaving her mark, whether it’s on the court or off it. The world had better get ready for her!