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On Thursday afternoon, Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff defeated Italy’s Martina Trevisan in straight sets in the French Open semi-finals. In doing so, she racked up several superlatives, becoming, most notably, the youngest grand slam finalist in almost 20 years and the youngest American to reach a major final since her idol, Serena Williams, collected the first of her 23 grand slam titles at the 1999 US Open.
Gauff advanced to Saturday’s final against Poland’s Iga Świątek, the in-form world No 1 and winner of 34 straight matches, with even bigger history in the offing. But the development is hardly a surprise for those who have charted her rock-steady ascent through the professional ranks.
Three years ago, in June 2019, Gauff received a call at home in Delray Beach, Florida. She learned she’d secured a wild card entry into the Wimbledon qualifiers and, within a matter of hours, was on a flight to London. The precocious 15-year-old soared through three rounds, defeating each opponent in straight sets, and became the youngest player in the Open era history to qualify for the main draw. Those victories cleared a path to what would become the match of the tournament – a stunning first-round upset on Centre Court over five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams.
Gauff eventually fell to Romania’s Simona Halep in the fourth round, but her Wimbledon debut made her an overnight global sensation. It also opened her nascent career up to a flutter of speculative commentary, from the media and fellow players alike, about whether it was too much, too soon, about whether young teenagers, children, actually, needed to be competing at grand slams years before they were old enough to vote. The kind of work that goes into being a professional tennis player is only recently the stuff of Netflix documentaries; the level of tedium inherent to the endless rotation of practice, and play, and training, and physio, the kind needed to avoid the one-off anomaly of an early-career success simply cannot be avoided.
And so, even as the world contorted and burned amid a global pandemic and social unrest at home, Gauff, her parents and supporting team devoted themselves to the long-term development of both her tennis and character. As evidenced by her performance these past two weeks at Roland Garros, their steadfastness has paid rich dividends.
“I think really it’s about who you surround yourself with,” Gauff said on Thursday. “I mean, I don’t know for other player situations, but I’m lucky for me in my team and my family that they never put results as the only thing that mattered. If anything, you know, it’s like how I act on the court and/or act off the court.
“You know, one instance, I remember after I lost in the quarter-finals, I broke a racquet, and my dad was not happy about it (smiling). He wasn’t even mad that I lost. He was mad about that factor. But for me, it was an eye opener that my parents really just care about the character of my personality and not so much on tennis results.”
After Thursday’s semi-final win, Gauff was asked about the message she wrote on the television camera: “Peace End Gun Violence”. Her answer was straightforward. “For me, it’s kind of close to home.”
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) June 2, 2022
Gauff was 13 years old when 17 students were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She has a few friends who were there, who made it out, but who had to live through it, and now, in the wake of last week’s massacre at an Uvalde, Texas elementary school, Gauff added that, “Nothing has changed.”
It’s not the first time Gauff has leveraged her platform in the service of social issues. In 2020, days after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Gauff posted a video to TikTok with an image of herself in a black hoodie, hands raised, under the caption, “Am I next?” She made headlines for speaking at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in her hometown.
She is among a burgeoning cohort of athletes who use time in front of reporters to speak up on issues that have little to do with the racquets or balls in their hands. In tennis, a sport where players are perhaps more likely to publicly eschew the complexities of social consciousness for platitudes on hard work, Gauff is clear on her choice: “I’m a human first.”
“Since I was younger, my dad told me I could change the world with my racquet,” said Gauff, who cited LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, Naomi Osaka and Billie Jean King among her role models in athlete-activism. “He didn’t mean that by like just playing tennis. He meant speaking out on issues like this. The first thing my dad said to me after I got off court, I’m proud of you and I love what you wrote on the camera.”
She added: “I think now athletes are more, I feel like more fine with speaking out about stuff like this. I feel like a lot of times we’re put in a box that people always say, Oh, sports and politics should stay separate and all this. And I say yes, but also at the same time I’m a human first before I’m a tennis player. If I’m interested in this, I wouldn’t even consider gun violence politics; I think that’s just life in general. I don’t think that’s political at all.”
When she plays Świątek in Paris on Saturday, she will do so ranked the 23rd-best female player in the world, with a chance to crack the world’s top 10 if she wins. Regardless of the match’s outcome, Gauff seems poised to transcend the kind of momentary greatness we assign to players in these moments – players who’ve been playing and grinding for years, but whom we end up celebrating in elated bursts. Gauff has plenty of time to do the things in tennis she hopes to do. She turned 18 in March.
On Twitter, former First Lady Michelle Obama congratulated Gauff on making it to the final and said she’d be rooting for her all the way. Not bad for someone who graduated high school three weeks ago. But not even a breakthrough major victory on Saturday will interrupt the famously even keel that’s gotten Gauff so far so soon.
“If I do lift the trophy, honestly, I don’t think my life is going to change really,” she said. “I mean, I know it sounds kind of bad to say that, but the people who love me are still going to love me regardless if I lift the trophy or not. I mean, obviously if I do, it will probably be more attention from the people around the world. But in general in that aspect, I’m not worried about how my life is going to change, because I really don’t think it’s going to change.”