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Coco Gauff exclusive: ‘I thought people would only like me if I won’

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Coco Gauff Exclusive: 'I thought people would only like me if I won' - GETTY IMAGES
Coco Gauff Exclusive: ‘I thought people would only like me if I won’ – GETTY IMAGES

Coco Gauff is not afraid to admit it. In the summer of 2019, when she suddenly became the next tennis superstar at the age of just 15, she briefly fell into the trap of believing her own hype.

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Win over Venus Williams at Wimbledonand advancing to the fourth round – the youngest player to do so in 29 years – Gauff found herself on the front pages of the papers, billed overnight. as a contender for every tournament she entered.

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Three months later, at the US Open, she lost to then-champion Naomi Osaka in the third round. Gauff, she admits now, was crushed. “It’s not like I believed I could win the tournament,” Gauff says, reflecting on his tears at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

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“This is what I expected. Match with Naomi [at the US Open]Now, looking back, I would say that this girl had no chance of beating her, but in my head at the time, it seemed like I should have won. At 15, I put on so much.”

Along with a frenetic rise to teenage fame, Gauff, who is only 18, realistically talks about her first year on tour, wracked with anxiety, with a refreshing ability to laugh at her younger self.

She talks about being 15 in the way an older and wiser sister might—with a mixture of protection and light-hearted mockery. When she meets Telegraph Sport in Berlin, having just reached the final of the French Open, fans crane their necks to catch a glimpse of her.

The center of attention is constantly, but Gauff is always polite and patient with everyone she meets, she introduces herself by name and thanks for her time.

Entering the players’ tent, she greets the other players with a slight smile and gives a slight wave to her father and coach Corey, who is sitting on the couch out of earshot. The intense pressure Gauff has experienced in her short career would have made any parent feel secure.

Check out footage of Gauff’s new face in her famous victory over Williams, with the words “prodigy” and “future champion” thrown around like candy.

Venus Williams congratulates Coco Gauff on winning the first round of Wimbledon - AP
Venus Williams congratulates Coco Gauff on winning the first round of Wimbledon – AP

Overnight, she achieved worldwide fame, major sponsorship deals and magazine cover shoots. Not that it was completely unexpected – barely finishing elementary school, the girl from Florida was already telling everyone who was ready to listen to her: “I want to be the biggest.”

At the age of 10, she was chosen to train with Patrick Mouratoglou, former coach of Serena Williams. As an outstanding junior, she won the French Open girls’ title at the age of 14 and reached the US Open junior final. But her fateful promotion to the big leagues still took some getting used to.

Looking back at her breakthrough blur now, Gauff wishes she could give her 15-year-old self some direct advice. “I would say, ‘You’re crazy, you put so much pressure on yourself,’” she laughs. “She was crazy.”

“I think I’ve learned a lot in the last three years,” she says now. “That moment – the victory over Venus at Wimbledon – made me believe that my dreams were closer to reality than it seemed. It was definitely a lot to deal with. The most important thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to care about what other people expect of you. Just enjoy the moment. I didn’t enjoy the moment then.”

Going to Wimbledon next week, Gauf’s mentality has changed significantly. Unlike a sports psychologist or a new coach, she attributes the epiphany to solo walks in the Tuileries Garden during the French Open. She had just celebrated her high school graduation and was in a thoughtful mood.

“It just sort of happened by itself,” she says. “I went for a walk in the morning, people watched. You take a step back from life and your own head. When I saw the ducks in the lake, that brief moment… I don’t know how to put it into words without sounding crazy, but it made me feel like there’s more to life than tennis and it took a lot of weight off my shoulders. . And I played the same way in Paris.”

There was no retinue around, and she had space for reflection. “Usually before tournaments, especially during Covid, I was in a hotel. I think I got too into tennis, tennis, tennis. I almost had protagonist syndrome.”

Achieving that “zen”, as she calls it, was the key to her first major final, as well as a doubles final with compatriot Jessica Pegula. Although she was well beaten by world No. 1 Iga Swiateka dominant force in tennis, Gauff has made as much progress off the court as she has on it.

“People come up to me and say they support me no matter if I win or lose, and it almost brings me to tears,” she says. “Because when I was younger, even at 15 or 16, I thought people would only like me if I won.”

Coco Gauff shows impressive performance in French Open final - GETTY IMAGES
Coco Gauff shows impressive performance in French Open final – GETTY IMAGES

It shows how grounded she remains, which she thanks her family for. Persistent tennis parents, especially fathers who coach their daughters, often get a shady reputation – with high-profile examples of abuse and burnout before a player reaches his prime.

But Gauf’s father went the other way. Having trained her since the age of six, he prudently recently hired trainer Diego Moyano to complement her training.

“We heard horror stories about tennis fathers,” she says. “I am so grateful to my father. Between him and my mom, he always pulls me out of tennis by telling me to do something else if I’ve only been playing tennis for a few days.”

Her parents insisted that she finish school., and intend for Gauff to attend college classes in parallel with the game. They also encourage her to speak up about social issues that have hit her hard.

In 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Gauff gave a speech at a protest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. It went viral. And when she won her semi-final in Paris this month, she wrote “Stop Gun Violence” on a TV camera in response to the Texas school shooting.

“The first thing my dad said to me after I left the court was, ‘I’m proud of you and I love what you wrote on camera,’” she said at the time.

Coco Gauff's message to the camera at Roland Garros – CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES
Coco Gauff’s message to the camera at Roland Garros – CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

According to her, this activist streak is in her blood. Her maternal grandmother, Yvonne Lee, was the first black student to enter a high school in Florida over 60 years ago.

“It’s a problem [racism and gun violence] this, regardless of the policy you believe in, can definitely be resolved,” says Gauff. “I think it’s important for me to talk about it. If I don’t, I’m doing a disservice to my family because my family – and especially my grandmother – were pretty much activists, so I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the people who came before me. , my ancestors.”

When she speaks confidently about some of the toughest issues of our time, it’s easy to forget that Gauff is still a teenager. Until she lightheartedly talks about the joy of life without homework, binge-watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and her younger brothers mocking her final loss at the French Open.

“At Wimbledon you feel like a queen”

“My brothers broke me,” she says. “Cody [14] it was like, “You’re in Paris, you’ve just reached the final and you’re crying.” To my little brother [Cameron, nine], he’s like, “You’ll turn into a meme! Better stop crying.” Cody probably doesn’t know how much the joke meant at the time, but it meant a lot to me.”

If she was dejected after the defeat in Paris, then Gauf recovered easily and reached the semi-finals in Berlin on grass. Now she’s overturned as one of the new young generation of applicants at Wimbledon, including 21-year-old favorite Swiatek and US Open champion Emma Raducanou.

“It’s definitely happening,” she says of her peers. “It’s pretty cool. I didn’t know Emma and Iga either from juniors, but we always played in the same tournaments and ITF at the same time. Seeing everyone you’ve known for a long time succeed is awesome. I always root for Iga, Emma or Leila [Fernandez] when I’m not playing them.”

Wimbledon, she insists, remains the tournament at which she is most nervous. Walking down the tunnel to the Central Courtyard, listening to raps from J Cole or Jaden Smith on her headphones, she feels conflicted between the teenage spirit she represents and “all royal status” at SW19.

“Other tournaments are related to pop culture and urban areas, but there you feel like a queen.”


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