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Coco Gauff is finding her voice

At 19, the most impressive part of the US Open finalist isn’t her tennis, but her presence

NEW YORK — Young Coco Gauff made US Open history on Tuesday.

With a convincing straight sets victory over Jelena Ostapenko (6-0, 6-2), the 19-year-old Gauff became the first teenager since Serena Williams to reach the semifinals at the US Open. She took a step closer to winning her first major (Note: Gauff defeated Karolina Muchova 6-4, 7-5 on Thursday to advance to Saturday’s final against Aryna Sabalenka).

During her postmatch session with reporters, Gauff didn’t recoil or deflect her connection to Williams. She reveled in the connection and embraced it.

Williams is Gauff’s role model, her hero and continues to be her North Star.

“Being in any sentence with her is great,” Gauff said of Williams. “I mean, she’s the greatest player of all time. You know, I’m nothing close to that yet. I’m just really honored to be in the same sentence as her.”

The more I listened to her, the more apparent it became that the most impressive part about Gauff is not her tennis but her presence.

Over the years many young phenoms have been paraded through the US Open interview room. I can’t think of one 19-year-old who offered more insightful observations than Gauff, and that includes 19-year-old Venus Williams and 19-year-old Serena Williams.

Because they were the first Black female tennis superstars, because they were “different,” they were often guarded, leery of a probing, mostly white tennis media eager to explore the Williams sisters’ mystique. Their father Richard and mother Oracene were ferocious protectors.

Because they endured and broke down a wall, Gauff has been able to blossom and be her authentic self. This underlines the importance of role models and pioneers.

“She’s my idol,” Gauff said of Serena Williams. “I think if you told me when I was younger that I would be in these same stat lines as her, I would freak out. I’m still trying not to think about it a lot, because I don’t want to get my head big or add pressure, but it is a cool moment to have that stat alongside her.”

Tennis player Coco Gauff celebrates her defeat of Jelena Ostapenko in the quarterfinals of the US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 5 in New York City.

Robert Prange/Getty Images

Gauff will face yet another challenge Thursday when she takes on Karolina Muchova in the semifinals. The pressure of being a fan favorite at the Open, and the ever present specter of filling Serena Williams’ unfillable shoes, looms. Gauff said as the year and matches have piled up, she has built up her mental endurance. Gauff won the Mubadala Citi D.C. Open last month. On Aug. 20, she won the Cincinnati Open, her biggest victory thus far.

“I always had the physical endurance, but it built my mental endurance,” Gauff said. In the past, Gauff said, she succumbed to the pressure of big moments.

“What I learned about myself is that in these moments that I should not put so much pressure [on myself] in these matches, because when you’re playing these tournaments, the pressure is always on,” she said.

“Right now, I feel emotionally fresh, which I think was the problem in the past in Grand Slams. I would emotionally be drained. Obviously, I’m physically fresh and emotionally fresh, and I think that just came from experience. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been tricking myself or maybe when this is over I’m going to hit a wall. But I’m really proud of how I’m able to get through these matches.”

Gauff’s best performance at a major came at the 2022 French Open. Since a first-round exit at Wimbledon in July, she has won 17 consecutive matches.

Gauff is also learning how to be her own best advocate. She’s learning to put her foot down. In a match on Sunday, Gauff said, “No!” During the second set of her match against Caroline Wozniacki, when games were slipping away and momentum turning, Gauff turned to her consultant Brad Gilbert and said, “Please stop.” After Wozniacki forced a third set, Gauff told Gilbert. “Stop talking.”

She defeated Wozniacki to advance.

“I’m still learning to speak up and say things that I don’t like and do like,” Gauff said. “Just from being coached my whole life, being young, I’ve just been used to saying yes, yes, yes, even in situations where I wanted to say no.”

She added Pere Riba as her full-time coach and Gilbert as a consultant. She also added Jarmere Jenkins, who worked with Serena Williams.

Her parents have shifted roles, becoming less coaches and more parents. “They’re just really my support system,” Gauff said. “They’re helping me remember, you know, my clothes and everything, and my dad is still sending me scouting reports for every match. But my mom is more so, you know, just being mom. My dad just being dad other than the scouting report part.”

More than anything else, Gauff said, she is embracing the fun of being in high-stakes, top-tier tennis. Tennis is fun but also a business.

“I wish I embraced the fun parts a little bit sooner,” she said. “Not even just the tour, just, like, sports in general, you feel like you have to be, especially individual sports, you don’t have the one teammate that always is making jokes or the one teammate that maybe messes up at the wrong moment where you can laugh at. So, it’s really just you. I feel like now I’m just being all those types of teammates for myself and I’m enjoying it.

“I thought to play and win you have to be ultraserious and ultrafocused, which, that is true, but also you still have to enjoy it. I think that’s what’s been the change is that I’m having more fun.”

Tennis player Coco Gauff hits a forehand during her US Open quarterfinal match against Jelena Ostapenko at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 5 in New York City.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Gauff was asked about the challenges of living life — growing, maturing, making mistakes on a public stage where every move is dissected, every victory and loss judged.

It’s a challenging life.

“I would say it’s definitely weird,” Gauff said. “I think in the sports, it can be difficult sometimes because I think, people do forget that you are a person, so they see you as an athlete and they’re rooting for their favorite person, and when you lose, they say all types of things about you.

“I think it’s important that you really know yourself, because it’s very easy to feed into what you should and what you shouldn’t do when everyone is giving their opinions. I think for the most part I’ve done well with it. I think it’s because of my family. They have always kept me grounded and always see the importance of my self-worth, because sometimes you can lose your sense of self in this environment, going from country to country, social media, all of that.”

Gauff added, “When I was a kid, I just thought about winning tournaments. I don’t know why I never imagined, the dreams never came with the people in the stands and autographs. That was never in the dreams. It was just, like, the trophy.”

Finally, Gauff said, she has embraced finding the joy in a demanding sport that has given her much and provided unforgettable experiences many teenagers will never experience.

“I think it’s just putting my life into perspective,” she said. “At first, I used to think negative things, like, why is there so much pressure, why is this so hard. I realize in a way it’s pressure but it’s not. I mean, there are people struggling to feed their families, people who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, people who have to pay their bills.

“That’s real pressure, that’s real hardship, that’s real life. I’m in a very privileged position. I’m getting paid to do what I love and getting support to do what I love. I have a lucky life, and so I should enjoy it. I know there are millions of people who probably want to be in this position that I am now, so instead of saying, ‘Why this, why that?’ I should just be, like, ‘Why not me? Why am I not enjoying this?’ I should. So that’s the reason why, I think it’s just putting my life in perspective and realizing how grateful and blessed I am.”

As her media session wound down, Gauff was asked about her grandmother. Gauff fused past and present and subtlety raised the issue of activism, specifically why she has not been shy about using her elevated platform to comment on social issues.

Her grandmother, Yvonne Lee, integrated Seacrest High in Palm Beach County, Florida, in 1961. Gauff has supported the Black Lives Matter movement. During a peaceful rally in her hometown, Delray Beach, Florida, Gauff told a crowd, “I demand change now. You need to use your voice. No matter how big or small your platform is, you need to use your voice.”

“I think 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.

“She had to deal with a lot of things, like racial injustice. For her to go through what she did during that time is something that I think what I do — putting out a tweet or saying a speech — is so easy compared to that. So that’s why I have no problem doing the things that I do. She always reminds me that I’m a person first instead of an athlete.”

Beyond tennis, Coco Gauff is finding her voice, and the process is a joy to behold.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.