Coco Gauff inspires on and off the court

Young players look up to Gauff, a tennis phenom at 19 who also addresses social justice issues.

When Coco Gauff steps onto the court to play her semifinal match at the U.S. Open on Thursday, she’ll be the first American teenager to reach the final four since Serena Williams.

Gauff, 19, has captured the attention of the tennis world, but also younger Black tennis players who look up to her as a symbol of what they can be.

At 19, tennis phenom Coco Gauff is an inspiration to younger Black players. Here, she plays a shot against Russia’s Mirra Andreeva at the French Open in Paris in June. (AP Photo by Christophe Ena)

“There was a time when Serena and Venus were the only two Black women on the main stage,” Kimberly Selden and Virginia Thornton, the cofounders of Black Girls Tennis Club in Chesapeake, Virginia, told theGrio in an email. 

“They’ve paved the way for so many other inspiring success stories like Coco Gauff,” they said. 

Samuel Kennedy serves as the executive director and head tennis coach at the South Atlanta Community Tennis Association, which helps at-risk youth attain academic and athletic success through tennis.

“The girls are very excited that they’ve got an image that looks like them,” Kennedy told theGrio. “And I think that’s very important.”

Kennedy said he got a look at a young Gauff’s preparation and development when he oversaw a tennis program near where she took her private lessons. 

“Her enthusiasm when she was young, you just knew she was going to get there,” Kennedy said.

Gauff’s success started before she was a teenager.

In 2014, she won the United States Tennis Association Clay Court National 12-under title. In 2017, she finished second place at the U.S. Open Girl’s Junior Championships, and in 2018, she was the junior champion at the French Open.

She exploded onto the scene in 2019 when, as a wild card entry at Wimbledon, she beat one of her idols, Venus Williams, in the first round. She was only 15. 

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” Gauff said during her press availability after her win. She said she told Venus Williams, “She’s so inspiring. I always wanted to tell her that.”

Gauff understands her celebrity extends off the court. In media interviews, she’s discussed the impact the Williams sisters had on her growing up, and she wants to offer the same inspiration to young aspiring tennis players. 

She’s also been active on social justice issues. At 16, she gave a speech on racial injustice during a peaceful protest in front of City Hall in Delray Beach, Florida, in June of 2020, just weeks after the murder of George Floyd. 

Coco Gauff, Black women,
Coco Gauff has reached the U.S. Open semifinals. Here, she celebrates after match point against Laura Siegemund of Germany on Aug. 28, the first day of the Open. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“I think it’s sad that I’m here protesting the same thing (my grandmother) did 50 years ago,” Gauff said in widely praised remarks captured on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

On Thursday, tennis regains center stage when the sixth-seeded Gauff faces 10th-seeded Karolina Muchova as she seeks to continue a string of firsts. She’s the first American teenager since Serena Williams to make the Open quarters in back-to-back years.  She’s also the first American teen to reach the semis since Serena Williams in 2001.

(Gauff isn’t the only young Black player to make waves during the tournament. Ben Shelton, just 20, became the youngest male in three decades to reach the quarterfinals when he outlasted Frances Tiafoe in four sets. Shelton plays Novak Djokovic, one of the world’s best, on Friday.)

“It feels great,” Gauff said after her win. “I’m so happy. Last year, I lost at the quarterfinal stage, and I wanted to do better this year. I still have a long way to go, but I’m happy and I’m ready to get back to work for the next one.”

Gauff’s game includes a strong serve: At the 2022 Open, she launched one clocked at 128 mph, the second fastest ever recorded on the women’s side. She’s not afraid to rush to the nets because her speed and power can put away points.

But it’s her status as an inspiration that may outlive whatever success she has on the court.

When speaking of Gauff, Kennedy said the girls in his program “are trying to dress like her, do their hairdo like her, trying to emulate her game. They have someone to look up to as a positive role model.”

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