Young pros look up to their veteran counterparts—but a fortunate few have received wisdom directly from them.These pairings may be opponents while at work, but outside of tournament play, they are friends, mentors and inspirations.

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In 2019, playing her first Grand Slam main-draw match—on Wimbledon’s imposing No. 1 Court—15-year-old Coco Gauff upset one of her idols, Venus Williams. But when Gauff vaulted to the net to shake Williams’ hand, she impulsively grasped the five-time champion’s forearm, held on for what seemed like minutes, leaned over the net and gushed. “I just said, ‘Thank you for everything you did,’” Gauff later said of Venus, then 39, with whom she had shared a practice court but never had a meaningful conversation. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. “I was just telling her she’s so inspiring. I’ve always wanted to tell her that, but I’ve never had the guts.” As a little girl, Gauff had a poster of Venus’ sister, Serena, taped to her bedroom wall. She first encountered the sisters at 8, when she watched Venus play on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

She remembers seeing Serena compete in Key Biscayne not long after. “I first became a fan when I was super young,” says Gauff of the two stars. “What drew me to them was how they play, and just seeing someone come from where they came from make it big on tour. That was definitely inspiring for my dad to get me to play. “I modeled parts of my game after both of them,” adds Gauff. “And definitely their off-court [impacts] and what they’ve done for the game in fighting for equality is super inspiring. That’s why I always look up to them.”

The Williams sisters played few junior events, but like Gauff, they gained notice at very young ages.

The Williams sisters played few junior events, but like Gauff, they gained notice at very young ages.

As much as Gauff has idolized the sisters, the trajectory of her career couldn’t be more different. While Richard Williams shunned the junior circuit for his daughters, Corey Gauff, Coco’s father and coach, entered her in the Little Mo Nationals when she was just 8. She won the tournament. She also won the USTA National 12 Clay Courts when she was 10, becoming the youngest champion in tournament history. That same year, Gauff began training part-time at the Mouratoglou Academy in France, run by Serena’s longtime coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. By the time she turned 13, Gauff was a seasoned international competitor.

“Playing juniors, for me, was all about experience,” Gauff says. “It was a good way to see how I was progressing. Even in matches today, if I’m at a certain scoreline I think about matches that I played in juniors.” After losing to Gauff, Venus said of her opponent, “I think the sky’s the limit.” By the time Gauff beat her again seven months later, at the 2020 Australian Open, the story of how she idolized the sisters was well documented.

But even though Venus and Serena won a combined 10 majors before Coco was even born, and are closer in age to Coco’s mother, Candi, than they are to the teen, she’s quickly become a respected peer. That was evident when Gauff and Serena attended a Mouratoglou-orchestrated pre-season boot camp in 2019 and appeared together in a meticulously choreographed, twerk-filled TikTok video.

“The best advice that she gave me is to keep working hard and focus on my own path,” Gauff says of Serena. “Obviously a lot of people have said things about her and her career, but she was always more focused on her own motivation and her own goals, and that’s why she went far.” And how would Gauff feel if, 20 years from now, she, too, became the object of a young girl’s adoration? “Definitely, that’s the goal,” says the now-17-year-old. “Serena has big shoes to fill, but if I could inspire someone one day, that would definitely mean a lot.”