American teen Gauff impresses in junior Slam debut
By Ashley Marshall
Tuesday, September 05, 2017
In many ways, Cori "Coco" Gauff is your typical 13-year-old girl.
She likes watching "Dancing with the Stars," listening to Beyonce and playing Temple Run on her cell phone. She giggles when she says he has a love-hate relationship with algebra and spends her free time watching her younger brothers play baseball and flag football.
But in many other ways, there's nothing typical about this tennis prodigy, who is already makes waves in the tennis world despite becoming a teenager less than six months ago.
She received a sponsorship deal from Nike when she was 10 years old and trained at Patrick Mourotaglou's tennis academy in France, where she met her idol Serena Williams. Earlier this summer, she led Team USA to the World Junior Tennis championship in Prostejov, Czech Republic, and on Monday in New York she won her first junior Grand Slam main-draw match in front of more than 200 fans on Court 6 as the US Open entered its second week.
"I'm happy they like me," Coco said with a wide smile in a small interview space inside the media center at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. "It was very positive. Even when I lost a point, they were still cheering me on.
"I thought I played well. I was happy that I was able to win my first Grand Slam main-draw match. Surprisingly, I wasn't nervous. I settled down and just played it like a regular match. My dad told me to pretend it was a practice match back home and fortunately the crowd was cheering for me very loudly so I’m happy to have them on my side."
As an encore, less than 24 hours later, Coco upset the fifth-ranked junior in the world, Carson Branstine, in straight sets to move into the round of 16.
Despite being just 13 years old, Coco looks, and plays, as though she's much older. A growth spurt over the past year has seen her shoot up four inches to 5-foot-10. With a wide wingspan and an improved backhand, she’s becoming a dangerous threat from either flank behind the baseline. Now, she’s focusing on her transition game and her volleys, something that will make her a more well-rounded player.
Coco credits her athleticism to her parents, even if her height is definitely from her dad.
"I've always been tall for my age," she said. “My mom's 5-5, but my dad's whole side of the family is 6-3 for the men and 5-10 or higher for the girls. Sport runs in my family. If I didn't play tennis, I'd definitely be playing a sport. "
Her dad, Corey, played Atlantic Sun Conference collegiate basketball for the Georgia State Panthers and still holds the school record for most steals in a game, while her mom, Candi, was an elite 110-meter hurdler and, before that, an award-winning dancer and talented gymnast.
Coco started playing tennis when she was 7 years old after deciding she didn't enjoy playing soccer.
"I wasn't much of a team person," she says. "I loved tennis. I was so-so about it in the beginning because when I was younger I didn't want to practice at all. I just wanted to play with my friends. When I turned 8, that was when I played 'Little Mo' and after that I decided to do that for the rest of my life."
Little Mo is a national tournament for children 8 years old and under. After winning that, she started playing more matches and more tournaments, growing with confidence as she went. She won the U12 USTA Clay Court Nationals tournament in 2014 and, five days before Christmas 2016, captured the Girls’ 12s Junior Orange Bowl -- a tournament which has included Madison Keys, Laura Siegemund, Sesil Karatantcheva and Tatiana Golovin as past winners.
Playing, and winning, big matches on big stages doesn't faze the teen, who plays with a lot of emotion and handles herself with confidence. While most players would be happy to just be competing in a junior Grand Slam, Coco is setting her sights higher.
"Honestly, my dad and I always play a tournament to win it," she said. "Hopefully if I can get to the finals and win the tournament, it would be a good experience, but I'm already proud of myself for making it to the second round."
There were no big celebrations after her first-round win, a 6-2, 7-6 triumph over Serbian 17-year-old Draginja Vukovic, on Court 6, the same court where CiCi Bellis made a name for herself in the main draw as a 14-year-old against Dominika Cibulkova in 2014. Instead, Coco had to complete some homework.
She started online school when she was in third grade and now takes classes through Florida Virtual Flex, an online public school for the state of Florida that allows students to study at their own pace. When she’s back at home in Florida and not on the tennis court or at the computer, you’ll find her playing with her siblings, listening to music or watching her favorite shows.
She enjoys watching 9-year-old Codey’s football practices and 4-year-old Cameron’s T-ball games and watching “13 Reasons Why” and “Riverdale” on Netflix. She has Rihanna and Nicki Minaj tunes on her cell phone and is a big fan of Cardi B and her new song, "Bodak Yellow". If she isn’t playing Subway Surfer, she’ll pick up a new book to read. The latest, "The Hate U Give," is a New York Times best seller on the young-adult chart and something Coco is excited to dig into once the US Open is over.
"School is definitely a priority of my parents," Coco said. "They both went to college and my grandmother and mom are both teachers. School takes priority over tennis and if my grades weren't good I'd probably take a break from tennis for a while to get those back up."
Her grandmother Deborah, "Mama D" to Coco, is one of her biggest fans. She traveled to New York with Coco's mom and dad and is often the most vocal of her courtside supporters.
"She's still learning when she can cheer and when she can't cheer, but she's getting better," Coco said in between laughs. "She's very loud at times. She gets very pumped up during the match. I get that from her. I like it."
Part of that raw emotion also probably comes from watching 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, whom Coco grew up idolizing and later got to meet during a trip to France.
"The first time I met Serena, I did a commercial when I was 10 and met her briefly," Coco said. "Then I met her again at the opening ceremony for Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy in Nice. It was like a dream. It felt like it wasn’t really real. She told me to keep doing what I’m doing and to keep working hard. We got to take a picture and she complimented me on my dress and said I was super tall. I was her height, but I'm pretty tall for a 12-year-old.”
As for the future, Coco says she believes she can do anything if she works hard enough.
"Next year I'll be 14 and I'll be able to play some pro tournaments," she said. "I don't know exactly which level yet, but hopefully some 15K or 25 Ks. Next year maybe I'll play the hard court 18s in San Diego and maybe I could do well enough to get a wild card into qualies here. For the next couple years, when I'm 15 hopefully I'll be able to get into Grand Slams on my own. I'm excited to see what the future has for me.
"I always believe that I can do anything when I put my mind to it. And right now, that's about being the greatest of all time. I feel like I can do that. I just need to stay focused and keep working hard and believing in myself and having positive support around me. It won't happen in the next couple years, but hopefully 10, 15 years from now, I'll be considered one of the greatest."