A few hours after winning her first WTA title in Linz and going viral for the umpteenth time, Coco Gauff celebrated her victory the way that most people born in 2004 probably would: on her phone. She fired up her Instagram and turned on a celebratory livestream, bantering with her fans and answering their questions. Before she departed she had one thing to get off her chest: “To everyone who said I couldn’t do it and that I was a one-timer, this was a one-time thing. Joke’s on you!”
Tennis never stops and Gauff had just hours to celebrate her milestone before arriving in Luxembourg for her final tournament of the year. The American was visibly tired after her seven matches in Linz, but her eyes lit up she as soon as she spoke about her trolls. She says she has weaned off Instagram but still sees the nasty messages that some people leave for her.
“After Wimbledon and the US Open people were saying: ‘Oh, you’re just a one-time thing. That’s a lot of hype’,” she said. “People would get mad that other people would talk about me and say: ‘Why aren’t you hyping them? Why do you hype yourself up?’ I try to get people to [understand] that it’s not me posting about myself. It’s other people, I can’t help it!
“I never really took it to heart. I guess I just used it as motivation to prove them wrong that I’m working hard here to stay on tour, not just be here. Yes, Wimbledon and US Open was great, but it wasn’t even really on the schedule for this year.”
In a sport desperately attempting to maintain its relevance in the digital era no tennis player has broken into the public consciousness like Gauff. At Wimbledon Gauff’s third-round match against Polona Hercog registered 5.2m viewers in the UK. In the US each of her grand slam singles matches were the most viewed of the day. Even when she played doubles at the US Open the 14,053-seater Louis Armstrong stadium was full. A 15-year-old has become one of the biggest names in sport.
Six months ago nothing suggested that this would happen quite so quickly. In January Gauff told her friends that her goal of the season was to reach the top 100 from her ranking of 800. It was such an ambitious target that, even after achieving it, she says that in hindsight she would have set the bar lower: “I was losing in the first round of qualifying in a $25k. I was getting frustrated, because I was like: ‘There’s no way this is gonna happen!’”
Gauff arrived at the French Open feeling the pressure she had created herself. She lost in straight sets in the second round of qualifying, a great result for most 15‑year‑olds, but not in her mind. It was a discussion with her father, Corey, that helped to put her season on its trajectory. He told her not to weigh herself down with so many expectations at such a young age. She started to play freely: “I had to remind myself that I am 15 and that I have the rest of my life to continue to improve and play tennis,” she said.
One month later Gauff was at home in Delray Beach, Florida, scouring the internet for a dress to wear at a gala that weekend in France, when she was informed that her application for a wildcard entry into Wimbledon had been accepted. Her plans went out the window. She jumped on a flight to London the next day and began battling against seasoned pros on the ragged grass courts of Roehampton.
Within 10 days she was the biggest sporting story in the world, having torn through the qualifying draw before dismantling the five‑times champion Venus Williams and reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon.
Of all the delirious moments of her run, from her first qualifying round press conference with a handful of journalists in the corner of a portable building, to the madness of her saving match point in a breathless third-round match against Hercog, perhaps the most memorable was when she let the world know what she is about. After her victory against Venus Williams, Gauff was asked how far she intended to go in the tournament after her first grand slam win. Her response: “My goal is to win it.”
Gauff speaks unabashedly about her lofty goals. She frequently says she intends to be the greatest. So far nobody has dared to contradict her. “My dad has always instilled in me that I can do anything I want and he always tells me: ‘Just don’t limit yourself and set your goals as high as possible.’ I think that’s the reason why I believe in myself so much and everything I’ve done, I guess, for 15 has been great. People always talk about my age. For other people it seems to be a big deal but for me it’s just my reality. Ever since I was young my parents have always told me I could do it. So, a lot of the things that happened, yes, it’s surprising but it’s not as big a surprise as it appears to everyone else.”
The teenager arrived at the US Open under the most pressure of her career but Gauff thrived, winning two rounds until a match against Naomi Osaka turned into a moment beyond tennis. The pair had played at the same clubs growing up and would see each other from afar, two young black girls with the same dream. Suddenly they were facing each other in the biggest tennis stadium in the world. Osaka saw the significance of the moment and implored Gauff to stay for the on-court interview. Together, they cried.
Last week in Linz fate struck again. Gauff had entered the qualifying draw but her game was not working and her attitude was too negative. She was easily defeated in the second qualifying round by the world No 130, Tamara Korpatsch, and she resolved to find redemption in doubles. No matter. Forty minutes before play was to begin the next day Gauff was told that a player had withdrawn and she was into the main draw. Gauff went back to the courts determined not to lose for a second time that week. She did not.
Gauff is frequently compared with the Williams sisters and at a certain angle the essence of Venus runs through her game. Like Venus, Gauff is tall, lanky and fast. When she moves, just a couple of Gauff’s long, fast strides are enough to cross the court. But while most players have defined playing styles, Gauff’s game is extremely malleable and it is impossible to know what she will bring. At times she backs her booming serve with aggression, but at others she stands far behind the baseline to grind her opponents off the court. In Linz, out of the blue, she attempted so many drop shots that it seemed to have been planned beforehand. It was not.
“I literally did them once in the first round and then I realised that it worked so I decided to keep doing it the rest of the tournament,” she said, laughing. “It wasn’t really a tactic that my dad or anyone told me to do. It just kinda happened on my own on the court. I guess I just kept using it.”
It would be incorrect to think that Gauff’s life revolves around tennis and nothing else. Long before her name was public knowledge she was toiling away on her Instagram, trying to share her passion of history and educate her followers. During Black History Month this year she would post facts about Juneteenth – the American commemoration of the abolition of slavery – and things she did not learn at school.
“I thought it was just important for African Americans to celebrate [Juneteenth] because we celebrate Independence Day, July 4th, but not many people celebrate that,” she said in June. “I just feel like it’s really important because not everyone was freed. A lot of people did not know about it … and I was really surprised.”
For Gauff one of the benefits of her success is that her widening platform allows her to reach more people with her passions. “Wimbledon has given me an opportunity to raise money and raise awareness for other things and I’m glad that I was able to. With every match I win I seem to get more and more people following me, so that’s good. And that means more and more awareness for subjects I care about. I always wanted to not just be a tennis player.”
What is she passionate about? “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. I do follow the [climate] movement a lot and I’m learning about ways we can better change, at least my lifestyle and the way my family life live.
“It’s great when they say I’m young and I’m doing great things. It will get frustrating when they say: ‘You’re young, you don’t know any better.” I think it’s a good thing to point out that to a younger person but I think we shouldn’t put someone’s intelligence down no matter what.”