'You Can Be a Role Model at Any Age'

How Coco Gauff became tennis' must-watch young player—and an important, empowered voice for a new generation.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorAugust 31, 2020

Cori Gauff was playing at a smaller pro tournament, with few people in the crowd, in Charleston, South Carolina, last spring. Her parents were there. Some local fans. But hardly anyone knew Gauff's name that afternoon.

She was only 15. Just starting to make her mark. Trying to prove she belonged on a court with women twice her age. She had maybe a few thousand Twitter followers. She wasn't yet Coco.

Right after her match, though, a little Black girl, about five years old, ran up to her and wrapped her arms around her. Barely up to Gauff's knees, she hugged her for a few seconds and looked like she didn't want to let go.

"I like watching you play!" the little girl screamed, smiling.

Gauff was floored. Even the kids at Pompey Park, the public courts where she had been training in her hometown of Delray Beach, Florida, hardly said a word to her.

She'd had some success as a junior, becoming the youngest ever player to make the U.S. Open junior final a year earlier, but she didn't know she had fans. Nobody had ever told Gauff they admired her game before this little girl. Gauff broke into a smile and beamed, looking at her.

This Black girl who looked like her.

This Black girl who was self-assured, brave and charming.

Gauff felt calmed by her. Connected to her. Affirmed by her.

She realized something in that moment: "Somebody is always watching you," Gauff says. "You can be a role model at any age."

Now 16, Gauff still thinks about that girl sometimes. Sees her face. Remembers her excitement. That girl reminds of her purpose, as she's used her voice, her platform, especially this summer, to support Black Lives Matter and to speak out against police brutality, including the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, while he was in custody in May, and the recent Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man.

"I am in tears watching this video," Gauff tweeted after police officer Derek Chauvin was caught on video killing Floyd. "Every day innocent people are dying because of our skin color. No one deserves to die like that. I just can't believe this. This needs to stop. #GeorgeFloyd."

She wants to be a role model for other Black girls and girls of color. "It's important to me," Gauff says. "Growing up, Venus and Serena were my idols, so growing up and having that representation was definitely a big reason I chose tennis. I want to have an impact on girls in my generation."

She tweeted a Change.org petition to charge the officer who shot Blake in the back seven times on Aug. 23 as he leaned into a car where three of his children were seated. His family says he is now paralyzed from the waist down.

"It's been great to see Coco speak so passionately on racial inequality and use her voice for the power of good," says two-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka, who on Thursday striked alongside other pro athletes in protest of systemic racism and police brutality. "It's so impressive at such a young age."

Gauff is guided by her family, who often tell her: Be humble. Remember your roots. Remember where you come from.

She knows that girl could be watching and she needs to set the right example, on the court and off it.

She can often hear her grandfather's voice, quiet and firm, telling her the words he has told her all her life: Learn from your losses. Forget your wins. Eddie "Red" Odom's advice hangs over her like a warm cloth, soothing her, re-centering her. He used to say that same phrase to his daughter, Gauff's mother, Candi, when she was growing up, doing track and field, and then later to Gauff's father, Corey, when he was playing football for Odom.

Those watching Gauff, mesmerized by her poise, her intelligence, her quickness and athletic prowess, her maturity, just see the wins. And there are so many of them: her stunning defeat of Venus Williams in her Wimbledon debut in July 2019, which came in the midst of a run to the round of 16 (where she lost to eventual champion and current world No. 2 Simona Halep) and catapulted her into global superstardom; and becoming the youngest player in the professional era to take down the reigning women's champion earlier this year, at the 2020 Australian Open, when she defeated Osaka in the third round.

Currently ranked 50th in the world, Gauff is scheduled to play at the U.S. Open on Monday.

Gauff is humble. She knows how good—how great—she is and wants to be, but she doesn't equate greatness with wins, with fame, with followers. "I don't even consider myself famous," Gauff says. "It's weird to view myself that way." She means it. Whenever she's asked about what it's like to be famous, she smiles, giggles and deflects. "Some people know me," is her go-to answer, even though she is mobbed by fans, by requests, by autographs, all around the world. Sometimes it can be overwhelming. Suffocating. Strange.

In those moments, she needs to be where she finds comfort: Pompey Park. That's home. The hard-surfaced courts, colored green and blue and white, comfort her. These courts, nestled next to a baseball field, inside a community center, are where Gauff took some of her earliest swings.

She was seven when she started going to Pompey Park, just a year after she began playing tennis. Her hand knew how to grip the racquet. Her mind told her where to aim. She was good, but she wasn't trying to be great. Not yet. She just liked the way it felt, possessing that power. Launching that ball.

The courts were not in great shape back then. They wouldn't be resurfaced until many years later. But she didn't care. She needed to be there. She could feel her family there, who are all from Delray Beach. Odom founded a Little League that gave opportunity to Black children, and the baseball field at Pompey is named after him. Gauff's grandmother, Yvonne Odom, integrated a local high school in 1961. Her parents, who both went on to play college sports, grew up here.

These days, Gauff could play anywhere in Florida. In America. In the world. Any state-of-the-art facility she chooses. But she comes back here. To the public courts. The hard surface. The green, blue and white. The smell of saltwater from the beach and sugary ice cream from shops down the block.

Everyone knows everyone. People drive by, honk their horns and say hi. Say "good shot." Say they are proud of everything Gauff has become.

Gauff still has normal teenage priorities beyond her developing game: She recently received her driver's permit, though she's working on parallel parking. It's been a struggle. She's a good driver, but she's a little nervous about her upcoming test, which is scheduled for November. But when thinking about the kind of car she wants, she immediately says a Tesla. Her dream car. But then she backtracks. That's not really her. "I'm not flashy," she says. "That's a big responsibility to have an expensive car like that. I'll probably just get a mini SUV or something."

She's had a lot more time to practice driving in recent months, back home social distancing with her family. There have been fewer people on the road, too, given the COVID-19 pandemic. It's the first time in a long time she's been home for an extended period, given her grueling match schedule usually occupies 11 months of the year.

She's been practicing gratitude. Watching her mother bake. Reading Alexandra Bracken's The Darkest Minds series. Playing Fortnite with her two brothers. Enjoying Sundays, a sacred day in the Gauff household. Training outdoors. Sprinting on sidewalks, blasting "The Box" by Roddy Ricch in her headphones.

She is normally always on the move. Sometimes hopping on a plane the very same night after a match. Her world spins quickly, intensely. She is so focused on the next match, she rarely has time to process or celebrate. After her win over Venus at Wimbledon, she didn't get to celebrate it right away. She was thrilled but returned to her hotel at 11 p.m. She had another match to play. "I was already focused on the next match," she says. She didn't begin to really enjoy the victory, or process the magnitude of it, until December of that year.

Learn from your losses, forget your wins.

Her mind sometimes travels to a loss. One that motivates her.

She was 11, losing in a tiebreaker in the third set of a junior tournament. Devastated, her body crumpled. She fell to her knees and covered her face as the tears streamed down. "I had to walk away from everything for a bit," she says. She rewatched the match a week later, realized her mistakes. And she practiced correcting them over and over.

This is what she does now: watches herself, learns from herself. This shutdown has given her more time to turn inward. Process. Pause. "Life was moving fast," she says.

So much has changed for her, and so quickly. She still thinks it's surprising, exciting, that famous people follow her. Ordinary people emulate her.

"I don't think that's something anyone really gets used to, unless you're Beyonce or something," she says.

She's at an age when she's discovering who she is, what she values. Where she's been, where she aspires to go. How she can achieve dominance and sustain it. "She's got pressures I don't think any of us can understand," says Evan Zeder, New Balance's senior sports marketing manager, who works closely with Gauff.

"She's definitely on track to be a future face of women's sports and sports in general," says Alessandro Barel Di Sant Albano, her agent.

And on that path, there have been difficult moments. Moments people don't see or understand. "It's not picture perfect. There's been ups. There's been downs. Luckily for me more ups than downs," Gauff says. "A lot of second-guessing. A lot of hours. A lot of determination. You have to stay motivated."

Her own expectations, and the expectations of everyone around her, continue to rise. "Sometimes I forget my age," Gauff says. "Sometimes I forget that I'm still learning. In life, in tennis."

Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Others around her forget, too. "It's hard to believe that she's only 16 years old," says Kathy Rinaldi, captain of the USA Fed Cup team. "It feels like she's accomplished so much already, yet she has time on her side with a long successful career ahead of her."

Gauff is trying to remain who she is: the same person that prays with her parents before every match, gives them a kiss on the cheek. The three of them pray about making sure that Gauff has fun. That she enjoys the moment. They ask God for safety—no injuries—not just for Gauff but for her opponent, too.

She is still the same Gauff that is "addicted" to competing, as she puts it. She still feels nervous before every match. Not because of the crowd size but because she wants to succeed badly. It's a feeling she describes as: "Like a block in your throat when you're about to cry. Some people, when you're about to cry, you feel a thing in your throat and you're trying to hold it in—except I'm not going to cry. It's more being nervous."

And then she closes her eyes. Prays more. Warms up harder. The nerves dissipate. Muscle memory leads. She is here, but she is there. Pompey. The green and blue and white. She leans into her why, why she is here. Why she plays. The joy she feels. The responsibility to that little Black girl in the stands.

That's something she hasn't always been able to do.

When Gauff was 12 years old, training daily, she had to leave regular school and take online classes to further her career. She watched her friends continue to go to school, eat lunch together, have fun together. It hurt. It felt isolating. "I kind of felt lonely," Gauff says.

Her life was different. She knew that she loved tennis and that the sacrifice would be worth it, but some days she just felt tired. She knew elite athletes go through similar stretches in which they temporarily lose their love for the sport. "I've never lost passion for it," she says. "Only once in my life I think I lost it." It was around this time, at age 12, when she had that feeling.

She had to recalibrate. Learn to take breaks. "It's important to take breaks from stuff you love to do. Just like desserts—you love it, but you can't eat it all the time," she says, laughing. "Every sport is almost like that. You love it, but you can't overdo it because you'll start to lose love for it."

The competition stiffened around her as she rose through the ranks. Turned pro. Her first year on the circuit was rocky. In the months before her 2019 Wimbledon run, 15-year-old Gauff had failed to make it out of the early rounds of several pro tournaments.

She started to doubt herself. Second-guess herself.

Maybe I shouldn't have turned pro so early, she thought. Maybe this wasn't the right path for me. Maybe I'm not ready.

She was trying to be perfect. Trying, trying, trying.

Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Wanting to be the best. Wanting, wanting, wanting.

Listening to what everyone was saying about her. Everyone else's expectations of her. She never cared about what people thought, but she felt like she wasn't performing up to the standard that she set for herself. She was so young, so full of promise, and now, she felt like she might not be living up to that promise.

She started to get down on herself. Disappointed in herself. "She was incredibly frustrated," says Albano. She thought she should have been able to handle the transition to the pros seamlessly. No hiccups.

She has always been hard on herself. When she was 12, you could see the frustration on her face, in her body language, when she'd make a mistake. She would tap on her leg repeatedly. The frustration, almost bubbling out of her, was barely kept at bay. I've gotta do this! she'd think to herself.

"You could see that she would just eat away at herself," Albano says.

She turned to her family. Asked them if she could really compete at the pro level. They helped her realize that the one person she has to face every night, when her head hits the pillow, is herself.

She has to be satisfied with her own efforts.

She has to remember to have fun. That's what all of this is about. Not what anyone else thinks.

"That's when I realized to play for myself and not everybody else," Gauff says, adding later: "I had to stop thinking about what people expected from me."

Her family told her they were proud of her—that she shouldn't worry about results. Results will come. You're way too young to be worried about winning at a professional level.

When she let go of worry, when she let go of the need to be perfect, the need to achieve results, ironically, the results came. "When I really started enjoying it, that's when I started doing well. When I wasn't as worried about winning or losing," she says.

She played magnificently at the French Open qualifiers in 2019. Even though she lost in the second round, something shifted in her: "That's when I realized I was playing for me." She wasn't as crushed as she normally is when she loses. As a kid, she would cry when she lost a match and not want to do anything for three days.

She's worked on her body language, on not showing frustration during these moments. She's learned to keep a steady head. To remind herself that even though she doesn't want to, she is still allowed to make mistakes.

She is allowed to be human.

"The shift was giving herself more patience, understanding she's going to lose some points occasionally," Albano says. "And just really coming of age."

Part of her coming of age was owning her aspirations. When she first started working with Zeder, he noticed: "She would say that she didn't feel like she earned certain things." But as she gained more experience, thrived at Wimbledon, her confidence grew.

She grew. 

"I think she now feels like she earned this platform and earned some of the things that are happening around her," Zeder says, "but recognizes there's still a long way to go [to accomplish] her ultimate goal: holding a Grand Slam trophy."

"She's evolving," he says.

Part of that growth is realizing the joy is in the doing. The working. The many hours she spends by herself, when her arms are heavy. When the sun is beating down on her back, and she is out of breath.

The joy is remembering her eight-year-old self, winning her first international tournament. So happy to just compete. So happy to just be there.

The joy is her learning to stay in the moment; stretching it as wide as it can be stretched. Letting fun wrap itself around her, propel her forward. Be her guide.

And, not letting herself beat herself.

"A lot of times when I lose," Gauff says, "it's because of the mind. The mental aspect."

Gauff's perfectionism has two sides: "It's a bit of a burden and a blessing in one," she says.

There's the blessing: It makes her work harder, makes her stay on the court longer. She won't leave until she masters something.

Then there's the burden. Her expectations for herself are higher than anyone's, and she's hard on herself when she doesn't meet them.

When she misses, even in practice, sometimes her dad, who is also her coach, will say: "That's a good mistake. I want you to miss like that. It was a good shot."

Corey Gauff watches his daughter practice.
Corey Gauff watches his daughter practice.Photo by TPN/Getty Images

"But it's out," she'll say.

"It doesn't matter. It was a good miss."

"If it was a good shot it would have been in."

In these moments, she is learning to take a step back. Breathe. Remember perspective without losing her edge. Her fire. "Sometimes I can get really frustrated and then I start to lose track of what I need to do because I'm frustrated at that one shot," she says. "Sometimes even in matches, I get so frustrated on one shot that I end up losing three points because I'm still mad about that one point."

Her drive helps her dig deep when she's down in a match, like her remarkable comeback to defeat Polona Hercog during her 2019 Wimbledon run. She refused to quit. "When I'm losing a match, I somehow find a way to get myself back in it. Mostly it's not even just me playing better. It's a lot of just will. And determination," she says.

It's a switch she feels, waiting inside her for the right moment to burst on. "It's not something you can teach," she says. "It's something that's just within a person."

For her to flip that switch, she has to talk herself into it. Be positive. Make sure she is not allowing negative thoughts to fester. It's not easy to do that, being alone on the court. On her own island. Not having anyone to pick her up.

Stay in the moment, she tells herself, before running through her routine, the one that her mom has instilled in her: go to her towel, block out the crowd and shrink the moment—make it seem not as big as it feels, as if it was a practice match.

Candi and Corey watch their daughter at the 2019 U.S. Open.
Candi and Corey watch their daughter at the 2019 U.S. Open.Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

And then she looks back at her family one last time, watching her. So excited for her. She isn't afraid of losing. She's cognizant of something deeper. Much deeper:

"I've never been fearful of really anything other than letting my parents down."

Remember your roots. Remember where you come from.

Her family is a balm in her ever-changing world. Her brothers just want to play catch with her, as they all love baseball. Her parents, her grandparents, still treat her like the 16-year-old that she is. Who loves TikTok. Loves pasta.

"They allow her to be a young kid still," Albano says.

But a kid who lives an adult life. Who faces adults on the court, and who isn't afraid to speak her mind to them on social media, either.

"This whole summer has shined a light on it, but that's who she is," Zeder says. "When she wants to advocate for something, she will speak up. Her generation is not afraid to speak up."

"I feel like I've grown so much in all that's happened, being able to handle it better," she says. "You definitely do have a lot more people who have eyes on you, and you notice every move."

When she needs inspiration, Gauff often remembers the sacrifices her parents made for her to get here. Her mom taught for 19 years and then quit her job to take her to practice and help with homeschooling. Her dad was a vice president of a pharmaceutical company and quit to be her full-time coach. He moved the family from Georgia to Florida because it has better academies.

They often remind her to not overcomplicate things, overthink things, when she plays. Her dad purposefully never gives her overcomplicated scouting reports. "You'll figure it out on the court," he tells her. "You always figure it out."

She heads back to the court. Back to her calm. She bends down into a stance. Lets any worry go. She knows a little Black girl could be watching.


Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and The Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.