Coco Gauff is ready for greatness, on her own terms

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COCO GAUFF IS at a crossroads. She’s sitting in the passenger seat of her first car while her dad, Corey, studies the computer in its dash. Radio off. Windows up. Air conditioning on.

“This was my birthday present,” Coco, who turned 18 in March, says of the black Audi e-tron she’s never driven. “Usually, I hook my phone up in the car, but my dad uses the regular radio, like satellite radio.”

“I’m so old-fashioned,” Corey says.

Corey readjusts the driver’s seat, turns right out of their gated community and crosses the Florida turnpike. He also hasn’t driven this car since he purchased it four months ago. He and Coco, the No. 12 women’s tennis player in the world, haven’t been home much.

There was the Stuttgart Open in April. Madrid and Italy in May. The French Open in June. Wimbledon last week. This two-week stretch in mid-July is the longest they’ve been in Delray Beach all year.

Coco didn’t want a car. She deferred when Corey offered to buy her one for her Sweet 16, then again on her 17th birthday. She also doesn’t want to take her driving test, so she’s still operating on a learner’s permit. “I don’t like driving,” Coco says. Besides, she has Grubhub when she’s feeling Chick-fil-A, and Mom and Dad when she wants to take her younger brothers to see the new Minions movie and go bowling like she did Friday night. “I really don’t need a car,” she says.

Dad gave her one anyway. “He’s tired of driving me everywhere,” she says.

Today, Dad is driving her around Delray, passing through some of the landmarks of her childhood. It’s been only three years since Coco erupted onto the tennis scene with a win over one of her idols, Venus Williams, and it’s clear she’s not about to give up all the comforts of that childhood: post-practice conversations in the car with her mom and dad, crosstown commutes with her grandma and grandpa. But now at 18, she is ready to reach for greatness — and her first Grand Slam title — on her terms. So as Serena Williams, the player she has modeled her career after, leaves the game, Coco is stepping into the spotlight and growing into the player and person she wants to become.

“It says 42 miles ’til I need to charge it,” Coco says after glancing at the mileage display. “We haven’t charged it since we took it off the dealership. I hope one of us remembers how to do it.”

COCO WAS 8 when her parents found themselves at their own crossroads. Corey and Candi Gauff didn’t plan to raise a professional athlete. But they saw something special in their oldest. The way she sat off by herself and concentrated on tasks for long periods. The way, at 3, she crawled out of her stroller and chased her much older cousins around a 400-meter track with a look of determination on her face. “She believed she would catch them,” Candi says.

College athletes themselves, Corey and Candi encouraged their daughter to explore lots of sports in the Atlanta suburb where they lived. Coco tried gymnastics and soccer, played basketball like her dad, and ran track relays like her mom. After a meet when she was about 7, she complained to her dad that a girl on the relay team wasn’t trying hard enough. “I told her, ‘She’s probably trying her best,'” Corey says.

Tennis was different. “Tennis spoke to me,” Coco says. “I liked being alone on the court. I liked the idea of all the mistakes being on me.”

When Coco was about 6, Corey realized he didn’t know enough about tennis. He’d played seriously for a year in middle school, but tennis never spoke to him. He started researching the trajectory of women’s players who were great at a young age: Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters. He searched their stories for patterns.

“They all had strong parental figures in their life early on,” Corey says. “Almost every one of them were homeschooled for the benefit of getting more time in the day to spend on the court. I wanted to take the best of what they did and start to put a plan together.”

Corey Gauff’s 10-year plan. It’s become a fabled part of Coco’s narrative. Corey says he crafted the plan, meant to take his daughter to the pros by 18, in stages. “By 9, we want her to play these tournaments and accomplish this and see where she is,” he says. “If she crosses a benchmark faster, then you change and plan again for the next couple years. The biggest weapon you have is preparation.”

He didn’t just study players. He also examined how the women’s game was changing. How players like Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters introduced power and Hingis won by mastering angles and playing with finesse. He tried to predict how the game would evolve, something he learned from studying another parent: Richard Williams.

The Gauffs have never been shy about the Williams family’s influence on their own. If Coco hadn’t seen two young Black girls playing tennis on television, she might not have asked her parents to buy her a racket.

“If it wasn’t for the Williams sisters, Coco would not be a tennis player,” Candi says. “And if it wasn’t for Richard, my husband would not have studied tennis in that format. He’s patented himself off [Richard Williams] and used their roadmap.”

From the beginning, Corey encouraged his daughter to chase big dreams like they did. He told Coco she could be the greatest of all time, even better than Venus and Serena. “I think you can speak things into existence,” Corey says. “I’d always tell her, ‘You can be the best in the world.'”

Less than two years into the plan, the Gauffs realized Coco had the athletic ability and drive to be an elite athlete. But she needed better technical coaching than she was receiving in Atlanta and during summer camps in Florida.

One afternoon during spring break in 2012, Corey called Candi, a teacher, from work. “He said, ‘I think you should go home [to Delray Beach] for a year with Coco,'” Candi says. “‘That’s where the best tennis is.'” Corey would remain in Atlanta and work at his job in pharmaceutical sales during the week, and if Coco was happy and progressing in tennis, he would transfer to Florida in a year.

“Our job as parents is to help support them to be the best they can possibly be,” Candi says. “I didn’t want to look back and say, what could I have done?”

For all the talk of a 10-year plan, Coco has never seen it, never asked to know much about it. But she trusts her parents, who involve her in short-term decisions, even if they don’t always reveal the greater plan. “I don’t know if I’m following the plan or not,” she says.

“SERENA. VENUS. SERENA. Venus. Serena, Venus, Serena, Venus,” Coco says. She smiles, tucks her bottom lip under her top teeth and inhales a giggle. “That’s all I watched growing up.”

Coco doesn’t mind the questions about Serena. She knows the comparisons are inevitable because she has spent years making them herself. She hung posters of the Williams sisters on her wall, modeled her shots off theirs and told anyone who asked that, yes, she wanted to be “the next Serena.” Or she planned to be even better.

Coco felt a connection to the sisters when she stepped onto the courts at Delray’s Pompey Park, when she looked around and wondered how many of the same people had watched them play there, too. Serena and Venus had attended sixth and seventh grade at the middle school where Coco’s maternal grandmother, Yvonne Odom, taught and, for a short time, worked on their backhands on the same courts where Coco practiced hers.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like other women’s players. It’s that all other players existed outside of her awareness. “My coach and I only watched their matches,” she says. “I didn’t really look up to anybody else.”

When she was about 9, Coco was cast as a body double for a young Serena in a Delta Air Lines commercial shooting at a country club in Palm Beach. “It was so cool,” she says.

The director asked Coco if she could hit a serve. What she heard was if she could hit a serve like Serena. “I remember trying to hit the serve so hard,” she says.

“And I made it in.”

“THAT’S RAINBERRY LAKE, where we lived after we moved out of my grandma and grandfather’s,” Coco says, pointing to her old neighborhood out of the car window. “It was hectic living in [my grandparents’] house, but it made us all closer.”

Candi and Corey, who both grew up in Delray, brought their daughter back to where their roots run deep. Coco played tennis and basketball at Pompey Park, on the same courts where Corey had honed his shots, across the street from Corey’s mother’s home, next to the baseball field that bears Candi’s father’s name.

“There’s Pompey,” Coco says. Corey slows the car, turns in front of the tennis courts. “I remember coming here early in the mornings when it was just my dad teaching,” she says. “It was pretty much me and him out there. Anybody in the area has known who I was since I was little because I’ve grown up playing tennis there.”

In Delray, people know one another. Parents look out for each other’s kids, and everyone celebrates when one of their own achieves success. Returning here wasn’t just about better coaches and courts. It was about providing Coco with a place to return to away from the spotlight and pressure, somewhere she feels safe.

For the first few years in Florida, Candi attended Coco’s practices and shared the notes she took with Corey, who worked with Coco on weekends. She also oversaw Coco’s schoolwork and made space in her schedule to be a kid, spend time with her cousins, sing in the choir and participate on the church dance team. (Those TikTok skills came from somewhere.)

When Corey noticed Coco’s opponents in local tournaments were gravitating to her backhand, he studied the best two-handed backhands in the game and found a coach to help her improve the shot. “He started her out like Venus, with the racket really low,” Corey says. “Then straight back, like Serena.” Though she’s still evolving, today Coco has one of the most lethal double-handed backhands around.

When Coco was 10, Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s longtime coach, offered her a grant to train at his academy in France. She’d blossomed, learning how to slide on red clay, utilize a slice and play by feel. “I was a player who just liked to hit everything,” Coco says. “That’s where I learned to become versatile. That’s where I realized I could be good at tennis.”

In September 2017, Coco made her junior Grand Slam debut at the US Open in New York. Only 13, she was the youngest finalist in the tournament’s history and didn’t drop a set until the final, where she lost to Amanda Anisimova, another south Florida youngster three years her senior.

Four months later, the Gauffs decided Coco was ready for her junior Australian Open debut and made the nearly 24-hour journey to Melbourne. “I was coming in with big hopes,” Coco says. “I expected to win.”

When she lost in the first round — in singles and doubles — she was crushed. Back at the hotel, Corey couldn’t sleep. He asked his wife if he was the right coach for their daughter, if they were on the right path. Was this all worth it? Missing school dances and summer vacations to fly halfway around the world and be disappointed?

But tennis is a loser’s sport. No one escapes constant defeat, but the best players learn to deal with it, to grow and gain motivation from their losses. It was a harsh lesson to learn so far from home, but an important one.

Corey decided his daughter wouldn’t play another tournament until she was ready. Not to win, but to handle whatever player or result came her way.

For four months, Coco didn’t play another tournament. She and Corey returned to France to work with Mouratoglou and his team. “We wanted to improve her serve, her movement, her consistency from the court, to play with more angles and get more height on the ball,” Corey says. They focused less on results and more on the career and the player they were building.

It worked. She won her first junior Grand Slam title in June at the 2018 French Open. She became the youngest junior girl’s No. 1 in history, signed multiyear endorsement deals with New Balance, Head rackets and Italian pasta maker Barilla. The plan was back on track.

But home in Delray, Coco has said she felt isolated and depressed. She was no longer the little girl who wanted to be alone on the court. She wanted time to be a kid away from tennis. She wanted friends. Her parents realized they needed to adapt the plan for the teenager in front of them.

“You can get off track when you’re scheduling everything for a player and schedule too much into the day,” Corey says. “We don’t always get it right, but we try to be mindful that sometimes the best activity is to sit around, do mindless things and not be on the clock.”

When selecting the brands Coco would represent, her parents and agent looked for family-minded companies that wouldn’t ask too much of her while she is young. And Coco started playing doubles, where she could work on her volleys and let her hair down with a teammate.

“Doubles is fun,” Corey says. “Singles is never presented as fun. It’s not fun. It’s intense. Nobody is there to say, ‘Attaboy’ or ‘Attagirl.’ You do all the lifting on your own.”

CANDI SAT IN her car in a hotel parking lot in Bonita Springs, Florida. It was May 2019, two months after Coco’s pro debut (two years ahead of the plan). Coco and Corey had been on the road for a long stretch, and Candi was thrilled to drive cross state and see her daughter play.

She didn’t like what she saw. In the first round of qualifying, Coco suffered her worst defeat of the year, losing 6-1, 6-1 to a player ranked outside the top 300.

“It wasn’t the loss,” Coco says. “It was how I lost.”

After the match, Candi returned to the hotel to wait for Coco and Corey. She wanted to give her daughter some space. “That’s one thing Caroline Wozniacki’s dad told me,” Corey says. “‘When they get off the court, give them a couple hours before you talk about the match.'” When Coco arrived, Candi asked her to climb into the passenger seat. “I’d like to hear how you’re feeling,” Candi asked her. But, Candi remembers, Coco “was not being very verbal.”

Candi told her daughter she was disappointed. Not that she lost, but that she looked like she didn’t care. “I said, ‘I don’t see no fire. I don’t see that you want to be out there.'” She told Coco if she didn’t want to play tennis, didn’t want to play at this level, that was OK. That was her choice. “We sacrifice,” Candi said that day. “But we sacrifice knowing you’re giving your best. And what I saw today was not your best.”

Coco said she felt she was trying, that she did want to play, but the scouting report had been wrong and she didn’t know how to adjust. So, she gave up.

“You know how to return a serve, right?” Candi asked her daughter. “You know how to hit a tennis ball? How to run after every point?”

“Yeah,” Coco responded.

“Then you know how to win every match.” Candi asked her to think about the best players. To think about Serena. Does she stop running for every point? Does she stop believing she can win, even when she’s facing match point? No, Coco told her. Never.

“That was the change,” Candi says. “From that moment on, it was like, boom.”

At her next tournament, Coco lost in the second round of qualifying at the French Open, but she chased down every point. Her parents told her they saw the fire.

SHORTLY AFTER ROLAND GARROS, Coco was offered an unexpected wild card into qualifying at Wimbledon. Her parents weren’t sure if she should accept. She’d already said yes to the French, and they figured she’d also go to New York, where she would feel more comfortable and be closer to home. But Wimbledon? It seemed like such a big stage.

But Coco told Corey she wanted to play. So, he accepted. And she performed, winning three tough matches to become, at 15, the youngest player to qualify for the tournament’s main draw.

When the draw was released, Corey couldn’t believe his eyes. “I just started laughing,” he says. “How can she be playing Venus Williams in the first round?”

Candi and Corey wondered if they’d made the right decision. They worried Coco would be disappointed again, like she was at the junior Australian Open.

But when Corey told Coco her opponent, she was thrilled. “It was a dream,” she says. “I always wanted to play them, but I thought they’d be gone before I got on tour. Did I think I could win that match? No. Because Serena, Venus, Serena, Venus. All the time, in my head.”

Coco had never seen Court 1 in person, so the day before her match, she walked out with her parents. “It’s so big,” she said.

“But the lines are the same,” Candi told her. “The net’s the same height.”

Pretend it’s Pompey, Corey told her. That’s something he says from time to time, when he sees in his daughter’s eyes that a moment feels too big. “He says, ‘Take your mind back to Pompey,'” Coco says, “’to where it all started.'”

On the day of the match, Coco pictured Pompey instead of Court 1. She never looked at the scoreboard so she wouldn’t see her opponent’s name. She felt the fire. And she fought. But up a set and a break at match point, a thought crept into her mind. “Venus and Serena, they always have these moments where they’re about to lose and then they beat them,” Coco says. “I was like, ‘Ugh, I’m going to be one of those stories. I don’t want to be one of those stories.'”

When Venus returned a crosscourt forehand into the net at match point, Coco’s knees buckled. In all her dreams about this match, she’d never seen herself beating Williams. She walked to the net, shook Williams’ hand and pulled her in close. She didn’t let go until she said what she’d already told Venus so many times in her mind.

“I said, ‘Thank you for everything,'” she says. “I said, ‘I wouldn’t be playing tennis without your influence.'”

“I DIDN’T PLAN on it,” Coco says, and runs her manicured fingernails through her long braids. She has new studs in her ears. “It just happened.” She’d been thinking about a second piercing for a while, and yesterday after dinner at the mall she and her cousins saw a sign in the window at Claire’s: 20% off in-store purchases with an ear piercing and starter kit. “I was like, this is the time,” Coco says.

In the car, she thinks back to her win at Wimbledon, about the effect of “Cocomania” and the overnight fame that came far ahead of schedule. Suddenly it wasn’t just her saying she wanted to be the next Serena; reporters and fans wanted it, even expected it. After the tweets and the calls and the advice from Michelle Obama — “It’s OK to say no sometimes,” the former first lady told her — Coco says she started to believe her own hype. She thought every tournament revolved around her, and whether she won. “I got too caught up on what people thought about me when I lost,” she says.

But when reporters asked if she felt the pressure, if she worried about burnout or expectations, she told them she felt none of it. That she enjoyed the pressure, that she got a kick out of hearing commentators dissect her game on TV, and that she wanted to win more Slams than Serena. “I was lying,” she says. “I lied a lot. I was feeling pressure, but I didn’t want to believe it.”

Six months after Wimbledon, at the 2020 Australian Open in January, Coco upset defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round. She was the youngest player to defeat a top-five seed in nearly 30 years. But instead of feeling proud of what she’d accomplished, “I didn’t even celebrate,” she says. “I was like, I need to win the trophy.”

In the next round, she faced eventual champion Sofia Kenin and lost in three sets. She had played her way into the fourth round of a major, at age 15, ranked No. 67 in the world, but felt only disappointment.

“There’s big successes and there’s little successes,” Coco says. “I was so focused on the big successes, I ignored the little ones.”

GRANDMA YVONNE DROVE her to Pompey Park on a Saturday afternoon in June 2020, four months into the COVID-19 shutdown and one month after the murder of George Floyd. The past few months felt isolating in a different way from traveling on tour and now here she was, surrounded by her community in the place where her family had stood up time and again. Marching to City Hall in a Black Lives Matter protest that day, Coco planned to blend into the crowd.

She listened as her grandmother spoke passionately at the podium. She thought about the lessons she’d learned from her, the first Black student to integrate Delray’s Seacrest High School in 1961, and her grandfather Red, a former collegiate and minor league baseball player who started the first Little League in Delray for Black players in 1971. They were educators, and they taught her to be involved, to study up on the issues that mattered to her.

She’d been having difficult conversations with her friends and family lately, and posting about racism and police violence on Instagram even though it made her parents uncomfortable. Corey’s plan for her tennis career was carrying her to the highest levels of the sport, but she had a plan, too. To become the woman she wanted to be when she stepped off the court.

“When I leave this world, I don’t want to be remembered as just being good at tennis,” Coco says. “I want to be remembered as a good person and a good advocate.”

Standing behind her grandmother at the park, she thought about her younger brothers, Codey and Cameron, and her dad and grandpa and how angry and scared she felt every time she looked at them. Then she thought about something Corey has said to her since she was little.

“He told me, ‘You can change the world with your racket,'” she says. “I never really knew what it meant when I was young. But tennis is a platform to reach more people. Tennis has never been a sport where people spoke out about certain things compared to other sports. I felt like it would be irresponsible of me not to say anything.”

She walked to the podium with poise and confidence and spoke off the cuff. “My name is Coco and who just spoke was my grandma,” she said. “And I think it’s sad that I’m here protesting the same thing she did 50-plus years ago.”

For two-and-a-half minutes, Coco implored the crowd to love one another, have tough conversations and use their voices. She promised to continue to use her platform to spread “vital information and awareness.” Her speech wasn’t planned, but it was powerful. “I heard many things this past week. And one of the things I’ve heard is, ‘It’s not my problem,'” she said. “But if you listen to Black music, if you like Black culture and if you have Black friends, then this is your fight, too.”

COCO AND HER parents stepped out of a taxi onto Avenue de New York in Paris in May. She reached into her bag and retrieved a black cap and gown and her high school diploma, which she earned from the Florida Virtual Flex homeschool program. The day before the start of the French Open, she pulled the gown over her white, knee-length dress and posed in front of the Eiffel Tower. She tossed her cap into the air like she’d seen other students do. “It felt nice to accomplish something outside of tennis,” she says.

“It was closure,” Corey replies.

At Roland Garros, she played without thoughts of school assignments and test scores in the back of her mind. Between matches, she walked the streets of Paris, watched birds fly from tree to tree in the park, rented a bike and explored the city. In postmatch interviews and news conferences, she spoke with ease and maturity about not letting results define her as a person. After her semifinal win — her first in a Grand Slam — and one week after a gunman killed 21 people at a Texas elementary school, she wrote “Peace” and “End gun violence” on a television camera lens. She lost the final to Poland’s Iga Swiatek, who was on a historic 37-match win streak.

“I had a perspective shift in Paris,” she says. “I realized life is so much more than tennis and winning and losing. This life is enjoyable. I don’t want to regret not having as much fun as I could have because I was worried about results.”

For so much of her life, Coco and her dad followed the Williams blueprint. But she knows now that it is unrealistic and unfair to define her success against the greatest women to play the game. Her dad’s 10-year plan is in the rearview, and she doesn’t want to get caught up in anyone else’s timeline. She knows she needs to win one Grand Slam before she can win 23.

“My goals are the same,” she says. “But the mentality behind them is different. I want to enjoy the tough moments.”

She’ll test that mindset many times over her career. But if she’s learned anything from watching the Williams sisters, it’s that they kept the fire through it all.

“For a long time, I was stepping onto the court trying to be the next great American whatever, the next Serena,” she says. “But that’s not why I play tennis. I used to say I wanted to be the greatest because that’s what people wanted to hear. Now I say it because it’s what I want for myself.”

COREY PULLS THE Audi into the tennis center’s parking lot with 25 miles remaining on its maiden charge.

“I should probably watch you do this,” Coco says. She grabs her bag and trails Corey to the EV charging station. He follows the prompts on the screen, pushes a few buttons. Coco grabs the charging cord and walks toward the car as Candi arrives, fresh from dropping Cameron at practice. “Do you know how to attach it?” she asks. “Do you?” Coco replies, and they laugh.

“She’s been gone so long, we haven’t been able to try this,” Candi says.

Coco and Candi connect the charging cord to the car. Corey hops back into the driver’s seat.

“I think it’s charging,” Coco says.

“It says it’s connected,” Corey says.

“Oh, it says it’s not charging,” Coco says, and slinks away from the car. “Well … you guys can figure this out.”

In four days, Coco will leave home again and won’t return until after the US Open in September. She is using the time in Delray to work with her dad and coach, Diego Moyano, on sticking her volleys, holding court position, and putting more balls into deep play. One of the best movers on tour, Coco is still improving the consistency of her serve — one of the fastest in the women’s game — and her forehand. Although she finally stopped adding inches to her height (5-foot-10), her arms grew a half-inch recently, which changed the geometry of her game, so she’s working to adjust and find extension on her shots when the ball is close to her body. And she’s learned from the emotional experience of her first Slam final.

Back on the road, she will defeat Osaka in the second round of the Silicon Valley Classic in August and win the doubles title at the Canadian Open, where she will become the second-youngest player in history to reach the world No. 1 ranking in doubles. And she’ll take walks and listen to the birds and post lip-syncs and “fit checks” on TikTok. Then it’s on to New York.

“It’s my favorite Slam,” she says. “Playing in front of the home crowd. I hope I can win in front of them.” She pauses, takes a moment before continuing. “That’s the goal, but we’ll see. I know one day I’ll hold the trophy there.”

When Coco learned that Serena plans to hang up her racket after New York, she added one more wish to her list: “I’m hoping my draw can work out, so we play each other.”

Then, three days after the US Open final, she has an appointment at the Delray Beach DMV to take her driving test.

Wardrobe and prop styling by Mila Kastari; Hair and Makeup by Nordia Cameron-Cunningham; Look 1: Mesh top by I Saw It First; tank by Beach Riot; bomber jacket by Lolo + The Boys; shoes by New Balance; Look 2: Shoes, sports bra and leggings by New Balance; custom sheer skirt; necklace by Eliou; wristbands by American Apparel; Look 3: Shoes, sports bra and joggers by New Balance; necklace by Eliou; bracelets by Pichulik; Look 4: Shoes, joggers, sports bra, and jacket by New Balance; necklace by Eliou; bracelet by Pichulik; Look 5: Shoes, top, skirt, and socks by New Balance; generic visor; wristbands by American Apparel

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