It is three years since a 15-year-old Coco Gauff burst on to the scene at Wimbledon, qualifying for the main draw of a grand slam for the first time, knocking out Venus Williams in the first round and making it all the way to the last 16. This year, she arrives at Wimbledon with a career-high ranking of 12, fresh from reaching her first grand slam final at the French Open, with many tipping her to go one further.
For many players that pressure would be too much to handle but Gauff is not your usual teenager. Even at 15 she seemed unusually mature in her handling of the occasion and her many media duties, honest and happy to speak her mind, not afraid to be herself whatever the subject.
It is a trait that few leading sportsmen and women have. Many are often terrified to be honest, perhaps through fear that their words may be used against them or taken out of context. Gauff actively chooses to take a stand on matters much bigger than tennis. As a 16-year-old she gave an unscripted speech against police brutality toward Black people as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last month, after reaching the French Open final she wrote on the camera: “Peace. End gun violence. Coco.”
As a child, her father told her she could change the world with her racket. After her semi-final win in Paris, Gauff said he told her: “I’m proud of you and love what you wrote on the camera.” She does her research, so she knows what she’s talking about.
“For a lot of things, before I speak out on something, I try to make sure I have all the information,” Gauff says. “If I don’t know the answer, how I feel about my opinion on a certain situation, I’d just rather say I don’t have enough information.
“I’m thankful for the platform that I have and I know how many people that it reaches. I’m aware of that. So I try to make sure I use it to speak out about issues that can maybe slightly change some things. You know, I don’t think I’m going to change the world. I’m not delusional, but I think it could change some people in the world.”
Her words and actions have caught the attention of Billie Jean King, the 39-time grand slam champion across singles and doubles who led the foundation of the WTA and who has been an activist, leader and motivator for the younger players throughout her life. Greatness recognises greatness and in Paris this month King explained why she admires Gauff so much.
“I love the fact that Coco uses tennis as a platform for social change and to help others,” King said. “Of course I like that. I always want every generation, both men and women, to step up, because sports is politics. Politics is sport. So anybody who doesn’t think so, I don’t agree with them. They could be right; I could be wrong. Sports is politics. Because people go, well, you’re in sports. It’s different.”
Gauff was touched by King’s words. “I probably wouldn’t even have the opportunity to play, at least [not] to the extent that I am playing, if it wasn’t for her and the other Original 9,” she says of the group of women who in 1970 broke away and founded the forerunner of the WTA Tour. “So I’m super thankful to get a shout out from her.
“I met her a couple of times, but every time I see her or meet her I get chills just because I’m super grateful that she made that decision then, because it’s kind of hard to go against the norm. They had nothing secured. So having someone like her actually acknowledge me and congratulate me and say she’s proud of me, not only how I am on the court, [but] off of court, means a lot to me.”
As a high-profile young Black athlete, Gauff is an easy target for internet trolls but it doesn’t seem to bother her. Her message on the camera in Paris, she said, was about trying to reach as many people as possible.
“I don’t really care about the praise or the backlash,” she said. “Obviously there was some backlash. People are like: ‘Oh, what’s one message going to change anything?’ And I mean, I understand me writing on the camera isn’t going to change or stop gun violence from happening. But it’s all about getting the message out there and getting to the people in office who have the actual power to change this.
“I know one thing is not going to change anything, but it’s not about me. It’s about the bigger picture. So when I write these things, I don’t care about the praise or the backlash that I get because I didn’t write it for me. I wrote it for those people who lost their lives not only this year, but in the past.
“After the match I didn’t know what to write and I was like: ‘This is something that I can write because I hope that change does happen.’ And I need people to kind of hear my message and those people to kind of make the change happen.”
At 18, Gauff is one of the youngest players toward the top of the game but it seems she was born to lead, whether that be on the court or off it. It is a mantle she is not frightened of and, in fact, actively embraces.
“I feel like my position in the world is a very privileged position and I’m not taking anything for granted,” she says. “Seeing the way that my grandparents and my parents grew up and other relatives grew up – I have a lot of family who are veterans and part of some family following world war two and Vietnam so I feel like the fact that they put their lives at risk, whatever I say is not really putting my life at risk.
“I think just growing up around that and people even at a young age encouraging me to speak out about things makes me not afraid to do it.”
But Gauff also said she does not believe that everyone should feel as if they have to speak out if they are not comfortable doing so. “I think lately I feel like we have this cancel culture thing where people [feel] if somebody doesn’t speak out about something, they’re obviously against it,” she says. “It’s not that. I think they’re just probably not comfortable with it. And that’s OK too.
“That’s why there are activists and there are people who are just not activists. I think it’s important that we don’t push people to do things that they don’t want to do because then the message isn’t genuine and we get into misinformation. And that’s really how misinformation is spread.”
Whatever Gauff does over the next two weeks, she will use the platform her racket gives her. Tennis is lucky to have her.