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Coco Gauff leads Team USA’s quantum leap fueled by USTA Player Development
The 18-year-old’s run at Roland Garros is the culmination of a five-year plan that began with the arrival of the USTA National Campus, and sets the stage for a new generation of American success stories.
Published Jun 03, 2022
WATCH: Go behind the scenes at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona.
Coco Gauff has graduated in more ways than one this spring, collecting her high school diploma while breaking new ground with her tennis and reaching new heights at Roland Garros. Her stellar fortnight and run to the finals in singles and doubles makes her the latest American success story in the five years since the USTA reinvested in its Player Development program and opened its National Campus in Lake Nona, Florida.
“The thing it gave us the ability to do is to be more inclusive of all of our top players,” noted Martin Blackman, General Manager of USTA Player Development.
The National Campus first opened in early 2017 and almost immediately centralized Team USA’s coaching and training resources under one sizeable roof, welcoming its top junior and professional talent in both part- and full-time capacities.
“There’s a common thread when we look at the top players, especially the ones that are under 25, and that’s the fact that they’ve come through our junior pathway structure, which we designed in partnership with the private sector and our 17 USTA sections, Some of them, we worked with directly and we coached, probably 75-80%, but some of them had great situations growing up and we just supported them at home.”
The system, bound by philosophies espoused by famed coach Jose Higueras, received its first boost at the 2017 US Open, when four American women reached the semifinals.
“For me, it was really proof that the system is working and it’s working well,” explained Ola Malmqvist, USTA’s current Director of Coaching.
Since then, U.S. women have made up one third of major semifinalists, including champions Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin and rising stars like Gauff and Amanda Anisimova—both of whom have already captured junior major titles.
“You have that healthy competition amongst the players, pushing each other, and it inspires the next generation,” muses Kathy Rinaldi, U.S. Billie Jean King Cup Captain and Head of Women’s tennis, “so it’s so important to keep that pipeline coming.
“I think American tennis is in unbelievable hands right now.”
Having enjoyed decades of success led by Venus and Serena Williams, Team USA can now boast two generations of American talent all competing for major results. The women’s game sees Stephens, Madison Keys, Danielle Collins and Jessica Pegula alongside Gauff, Anisimova, Ann Li and Claire Liu, while the men’s game pits BNP Paribas Open champion Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Frances Tiafoe against youngsters like Sebastian Korda and Brandon Nakashima.
“We’re a country that expects to have American champions,” admits Blackman. “You can’t underestimate the effect that Venus and Serena have had on the game. They’ve attracted so many girls to the sport. What American champions can do to grow the game, inspire a love for the game. I know I started playing when I was five years old in 1975 because I listened to a broadcast of Arthur Ashe winning Wimbledon.”
But exposure can only do so much: the late '00s and early '10s witnessed a dearth of American talent among the game’s best, and as few as five women in the WTA’s Top 100 in 2007. Since the USTA sought to streamline their wealth of instruction and resources, that number has more than doubled.
“It’s us trying to do everything we can as a country to compete against the world,” says Kent Kinnear, Head of Men’s Tennis. “How can we get as much good information out, how can we learn from the coaches in the field and what they’re seeing, sharing information and pushing hard is really what Team USA is all about.”
“We have the best people, an incredible team,” adds Rinaldi. “When you see these young athletes, they’re so committed, it’s an honor to come to work each and every day to work with these athletes, to work with their parents, to work with their coaches.”
Gauff was taught the game by father Corey, who was awarded the Team USA Developmental Coach of the Year Award after his daughter’s breakthrough 2019 season, which featured an epic run to the fourth round of Wimbledon with a win over Venus.
Rinaldi is often in the stands watching Gauff thrive, both in singles and in doubles with fellow Americans Caty McNally and now Jessica Pegula, with whom she’s reached the finals in Paris.
“When a player looks back on what I’ve done,” Rinaldi says, getting emotional. “I think it would be that I made a positive impact.”
Rinaldi was fresh off leading Team USA to a Billie Jean King Cup victory over Ukraine, another building block towards the goal of creating American success stories.
“For me, an American success story is to see a player maximize their potential, and to use that success to give back to the next generation,” says Blackman.
“Just knowing a player individually and seeing them grow up and get to the point where you’re seeing them on that stage getting the big wins and then remembering them at 11 and 12 is pretty fun,” rejoins Kinnear.
Gauff has had her share of fun this week at Roland Garros, finally free from external pressures and outside expectations, ready to apply all she’s learned from growing up in an inclusive Player Development environment so that she might inspire a new dynasty for Team USA.