As Coco Gauff was handed the winner’s cheque for $3 million (£2.4 million) at the US Open, she took the opportunity to lean into the microphone.
“Thank you Billie for fighting for this,” she said, speaking directly to tennis icon Billie Jean King.
It was poignant, because this year marked 50 years since equal prize money was first awarded at the US Open in large part due to King’s campaigning. But it was also completely fitting for Gauff to take the moment of her greatest individual achievement and instead point to a wider, greater purpose.
Gauff’s activism and outspoken nature are the very traits that make her the champion tennis not only wants but has been sorely lacking. Four years on from her bursting onto the scene as a 15-year-old, her climb to the top of tennis is happening at exactly the right time.
King and the “Original 9” members of the WTA fought for equal prize money, respect and better conditions. Venus Williams was then pivotal in convincing Wimbledon to join the other three major tournaments in awarding equal prize money in 2007. Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams, among others, were pivotal in pushing for better maternal conditions on tour.
More recently, in 2020 Naomi Osaka protested against racial injustice and police brutality in the USA, by wearing face masks bearing the names of black Americans killed by law enforcement.
Gauff has followed their lead, and it is what has separated her from her peers in this new generation of tennis players.
Aged just 16 she spoke bravely at a Black Lives Matter rally in her native Florida. Upon reaching her first-ever major final at Roland Garros in 2022, Gauff made a statement about the recent mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, writing “Peace. End gun violence” on the on-court camera.
In her semi-final in New York this past month, her match was delayed by 50 minutes by climate activists and Gauff’s response again pointed to the bigger picture: “Throughout history, moments like this are definitely defining moments. I definitely believe in climate change. I always speak about preaching about what you feel and what you believe in. If that’s what they felt they needed to do to get their voices heard, I can’t really get upset.”
Her maturity, and her grace, in the face of challenges, injustices and inconveniences remains startling considering she is still only 19. It makes her stand out too, as the current crop of top tennis players are not always so keen to engage on wider cultural issues away from their individual results.
Tennis has a bonafide superstar in Carlos Alcaraz on the court, helping to fill the shoes of the so-called “Big Three” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But he is not yet close to being a leading voice on issues beyond tennis. He may never want or need to be. Federer and Nadal, for all their talents and other worldly achievements, never took too strong a viewpoint on cultural issues or political movements, nor would they count themselves as activists. It never hindered their career prospects either.
For better or worse, because of the inequalities that exist in world sport, women are expected to be the full package in order to cut through to the masses, in a way that men do not need to. Dominant players of recent times like Iga Swiatek (Poland) and Aryna Sabalenka (Belarus) have not yet achieved that global appeal despite having superior results to Gauff, no doubt in part due to the smaller markets they hail from too.
But Gauff’s status as a prodigious American talent, remarkable breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2019 and sustained outspoken persona has seen her speak to the masses.
She credits her grandmother, Yvonne Lee Odom, who was the first black person to integrate at her high school in Delray Beach, Florida, as a source of inspiration. “She’s probably the sole or one of the main reasons why I use my platform the way that I do and why I feel so comfortable speaking out,” Gauff said during the US Open.
“She had to deal with a lot of things, like racial injustice. What I do, putting out a tweet or saying a speech, is so easy compared to that. That’s why I have no problem doing the things that I do.”
Now she is a grand slam champion, tennis has a leader who reaches beyond the sporting realm, to new and young audiences in particular. She was heralded as the star of this US Open from the first round, taking over the torch from Serena Williams, who retired last September, and the tournament attracted a record 957,000 spectators over the entire fortnight. Even the Obamas showed up to support her.
Gauff also gained 195,480 new Instagram followers and another 110,200 on TikTok following her US Open win, according to CasinoAlpha.
The viewing figures are impressive too. Gauff’s victory had 3.4 million viewers on ESPN in the US – the most the network had ever brought in for a major women’s final and out-performing Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev’s men’s final, which had 1.1 million fewer.
Gauff has the power to not only carry women’s tennis into this new era, but tennis as a whole. She is the sport’s new spokeswoman, and the world will be eagerly watching and listening.