GETTING TO KNOW COCO GAUFF
The biggest trophy of 14-year-old Coco Gauff’s young career remains in its box, safe and secure on a table in the family room of her house in Delray Beach, Fla.
Awarded to the winner of the French Open junior girls’ championship, the shiny circular dish is still marked by fingerprints from this past weekend. Wrapped up and protected, though, it’s impossible for America’s latest Grand Slam winner to see her reflection, like she did when she posed with her prize for photographers in the famed Bullring on Saturday afternoon.
But she knows it’s there, even if most of the past week still feels like a dream. After all, the box is sitting on a table reserved for such memories, where it’s flanked by frames containing precious family photos, local tennis trophies – “ones I won a long time ago, like when I was 9 or 10,” she insists – and baseball and basketball trophies won by her two younger brothers.
Gauff’s Roland Garros trophy successfully survived the 14-hour trans-Atlantic flight from Paris in the teenage champion’s hand luggage and then the car ride from the airport to her home on Florida’s east coast some 90 minutes drive north of Miami.
Now it has to survive something else: her five-year-old brother Cameron.
“We decided to leave it in the box because my brothers have a trend of accidently breaking things,” Gauff said with a laugh. “They broke a couple of my other trophies before. The one when we won Junior Fed Cup, he broke that one.
“When we got back after the final, we were playing hide and seek, and he hid under the table, and when he was getting out, he accidently bumped into it and knocked it over. It was a little glass trophy, so it smashed.”
Going from Grand Slam champion to hide-and-seek contestant is all part of the process for the teenager, who went from raising a trophy in the last-ever singles match to be played on Roland Garros’ soon-to-be-demolished No. 1 Court to taking online classes and completing homework in the space of 48 hours.
Upon arriving back in the U.S. on Sunday, Gauff had to catch up on her language and history classes. The following day, she was back on the practice court. This coming weekend, Gauff will travel to Louisiana to spend time with her paternal relatives. Then on Monday, the teen will be back to grinding it out in the 64-player qualifying tournament of a $25,000 USTA Pro Circuit event at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La.
“I think I’m the same person,” said Gauff, who said she plays to win every match, regardless of whether it's in front of 3,800 attentive fans hanging on every point or a scattering of people on mostly empty steel park bleachers. “But definitely my confidence has improved a little because I never thought I would do this. Now I know that I can win in tough situations.”
That same person is still just your regular 14-year-old girl at heart, someone who enjoys listening to music, chasing her younger siblings, binge-watching Netflix shows and playing video games.
Right now, that playlist includes Beyoncé, Rhianna, Drake and Migos. Jaden Smith’s music is also a regular on her phone, particularly "Icon," a track from Smith’s debut album, "SYRE."
“He’s my favorite all-time,” Gauff said of Smith, the son of rapper, actor and "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" star Will Smith.
Gauff also enjoys playing the popular video game "Fortnite" with 10-year-old brother Cody – “I would say I’m a little better than him,” she said with a big-sister-knows-best giggle – and watching TV series, like American teen dramas "13 Reasons Why" and "Riverdale."
She watched everything in her Netflix queue during her two weeks in Paris and said she didn’t think she’d still be playing matches on championship Saturday. Now she's on the lookout for the next big show.
But contesting the junior girls’ final was the least Gauff deserved for a spectacular week in the French capital that saw her defeat 16-year-old No. 2 seed Xinyu Wang in the third round, sixth-seeded 17-year-old Eleonora Molinaro in the quarters and 15-year-old No. 15 seed Leylah Fernandez in the semifinals.
In fact, Gauff didn’t drop a set until the final against fellow American and unseeded Cincinnati native Caty McNally, who toppled a number of top-ranked players on her own journey to the final, including No. 1 En-Shuo Liang.
McNally, who went on to win the girls' doubles title later Saturday afternoon, started the quickest in the final, breaking three times in taking the opening set before Gauff broke four times in the second to send the finale to a decider.
Sixteen-year-old McNally had a 3-0 lead in that third set and served for the championship at 5-4, but Gauff rallied both times, showing the kind of resolve and championship grit that was on full display in the US Open girls’ final last September, when she saved 10 match points in an eventual straight-sets defeat to Amanda Anisimova.
In Paris, Gauff said she was determined to not lose her second major final, despite trailing for large stages of the match.
“I always had the belief. I didn’t really think about the score,” she said. “I was just trying to play points because once you win points, the points turn into games and games turn into sets.
“It’s pretty amazing that people were actually cheering me on. I never really thought I’d get to the point where people were cheering my name or the whole stadium was chanting my name. People I don’t even know believed in me even when I was losing, so I started believing in myself that I could come back.”
As for match point, it’s a moment she will never forget.
Gauff served up the middle to the McNally forehand, and the pair traded a couple cross-court balls. McNally drew Gauff into the net with a backhand slice and forced Gauff to make three volleys, one low to the backhand side and then on consecutive balls to her right, the second of which McNally was unable to chase down.
Gauff threw her racquet high into the air – there’s a chance it still hasn’t come down – before falling onto her back on the iconic terre battue court, her hands over her face.
“It still seems surreal to me,” said Gauff, who trained at coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy in the French Riviera the week before the tournament. “Everything was super quiet. People were cheering, but I didn’t really hear anything until I opened my eyes and got back up. When it was over, I was really happy and surprised. It really showed that all my hard work the past couple months has paid off and that I had the potential to win a Grand Slam.”
Gauff will try to add a second junior Grand Slam title to her collection next month in Wimbledon, the third tournament she’ll play after Baton Rouge next weekend and the Junior International, a Grade 1 grass-court tournament in Roehampton, England, a short drive from the southwest London’s famed Centre Court.
Then her goal for the summer’s hard-court swing is centered around playing ITF $25,000 tournaments, culminating in a trip to New York and the US Open, which she describes as her favorite Slam.
It’s easy to sometimes forget that Gauff, with her long limbs, unbridled confidence and even bigger game, is still just 14 years old. It’s somewhat harder to think of a reason why people wouldn’t want to cheer for this talented youngster with the big personality and the temperament to match.
Gauff may have been surprised that the tennis fans in Paris last week were chanting her name. But if she continues on her current path, fans across the world might be watching her lift trophies much sooner than even she realizes.
If everything goes according to plan, the Gauffs may just need a bigger table.