On Thursday afternoon, Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff defeated Italian Martina Trevisan in straight sets in the semi-finals of the French Open. In doing so, she collected several superlatives, becoming, most notably, the youngest grand slam finalist in nearly 20 years and the youngest American to reach a major final since her idol, Serena Williamscollected the first of her 23 grand slam titles at the 1999 US Open.
Gauff advanced to Saturday’s final against Polish Iga Świątek, the world number one informant and winner of 34 straight matches, with an even bigger history in sight. But the development is hardly a surprise to those who have mapped her rock-steady ascent through the professional ranks.
Three years ago, in June 2019, Gauff received a call home in Delray Beach, Florida. She learned she had secured a wildcard entry in the Wimbledon qualifiers and, within hours, was on a flight to London. The precocious 15-year-old soared through three rounds, defeating every opponent in straight sets, and became the youngest player in Open Age history to qualify for the main draw. These victories paved the way for what would become the tournament’s match an astonishing first-round frustration on Central Court over five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams.
Gauff later fell to Romania’s Simona Halep in the fourth round, but her Wimbledon debut made her a sudden global sensation. It also opened up her nascent career to a flurry of speculative comments, from the media and teammates alike, about whether it was too much, too soon, whether young teens, kids, in fact, had to compete at a grand slam years before. they were old enough to vote. The kind of work that is a professional tennis player is only recently the Netflix documentary material; the level of boredom inherent in the endless rotation of practice, and play, and training, and physique, such as is needed to avoid the one-time anomaly of early career success simply cannot be avoided.
And so, even as the world twisted and burned in the midst of a global pandemic and social unrest at home, Gauff, her parents and support team were dedicated to the long-term development of both her tennis and character. As evidenced by her performance these past two weeks at Roland Garros, their firmness has paid rich dividends.
“I think it’s really about who you’re around,” Gauff said Thursday. “I mean, I don’t know about other playing situations, but I’m lucky for myself on my team and my family that they never put results as the only thing that mattered. If anything, you know, it’s like I’m acting in court and / or acting out of court.
“You know, one time, I remember that after I lost in the quarterfinals, I broke a racket, and my father wasn’t happy about it (smiling). He wasn’t even mad that I lost. He was crazy about that. But for me, it was obvious that my parents really cared about the character of my personality and not so much about tennis results. “
After Thursday’s semi-final victory, Gauff was asked about the message she had written on television: “Peace End Gun Violence.” Her answer was simple. “For me, it’s a little closer to home.”
Gauff was 13 years old when 17 students were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She has a few friends who were there who came up with it, but who had to go through it, and now, after last week’s massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Gauff added that “Nothing has changed.”
This is not the first time Gauff has used his platform in the service of social affairs. In 2020, days after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Gauff posted a video to TikTok with a picture of her in a black hood, hands raised, under the caption, “Am I the next one?” She made headlines for speaking at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in her hometown.
She is among a budding cohort of athletes who use time in front of reporters to talk about things that have little to do with the rackets or balls in their hands. In tennis, a sport where players may more publicly avoid the complexities of social consciousness because of the simplicity of hard work, Gauff is clear about his choice: “I’m human first.”
“Since I was younger, my father told me I could change the world with my racket,” said Gauff, who cited LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, Naomi Osaka and Billie Jean King among her role models in athletic activism. “He didn’t mean to just play tennis. He intended to talk about such things. The first thing my father said to me after I came out of court was I was proud of you and I love what you wrote on the camera. “
She added: “I think there are more athletes now, I feel better talking about things like that. I feel like a lot of times we’re put in a box that people always say, And I say yes, but at the same time I’m a human first before I’m a tennis player. If I’m interested in that, I wouldn’t even consider political gun violence; I think it’s just life in general. it’s not political at all. “
When she plays Świątek in Paris on Saturday, she will do so as the 23rd best female player in the world, with a chance to break the world’s top 10 if she wins. Regardless of the outcome of the match, Gauff seems ready to transcend the kind of momentary size we attribute to players right now – players who have been playing and grinding for years, but whom we end up celebrating in joyous outbursts. Gauff has plenty of time to do the things in tennis that she hopes to do. She turned 18 in March.
On Twitter, former First Lady Michelle Obama congratulations Gauff on making it to the finale and said she would be rooting for her all the way. Not bad for someone who graduated from high school three weeks ago. But not even a major breakthrough victory on Saturday will disrupt Gauff’s famously flat keel so far.
“If I lift the trophy, honestly, I don’t think my life will really change,” she said. “I mean, I know it sounds a little bad to say that, but the people who love me will still love me no matter if I lift the trophy or not. I mean, obviously if I do, it will probably get more attention from people around the world. But in general, I don’t care how my life changes, because I really don’t think it’s going to change. “