Sweet 16: Coco Gauff celebrates landmark birthday after year of firsts

Sweet 16: Coco Gauff celebrates landmark birthday after year of firsts

While she won’t have the opportunity for at least a month to begin another chapter on the court, the American will have unexpected time to commemorate everything year 15 brought.

INDIAN WELLS, Calif—The mood was a bit subdued mid-morning this past Monday in Tennis Channel’s production tent. It was the first day the on-site team had to fully process the aftershocks of the BNP Paribas Open being the first in a series of several tennis tournaments ultimately cancelled, as precautions to combat the spreading of the coronavirus increased exponentially.

The first player on the day’s docket would quickly change the vibe, much like she did when bursting onto the tennis scene nine months earlier at the All England Club. Acknowledging those she passed with her warmth and vivacious presence, Coco Gauff reminded everyone inside why there’s a positive future to be excited about. Standing in the “white box,” Gauff was every bit the professional beyond her years that has won the hearts of fans at each venue she's graced, nailing each take with poise, precision and pleasure.

Matt Fitzgerald/Tennis Channel

At one point, she hollered to her Team8 agent, Alessandro Barel Di Sant Albano, “Alessandro! Are you getting this?” Barel Di Sant Albano, who was catching up with a Tennis Channel employee, quickly reacted by pulling out his phone to film a video, eliciting a smile from his client.

Today, Gauff celebrates her 16th birthday. While she won’t have the opportunity for at least a month to begin another chapter on the court, the Delray Beach, FL resident will have unexpected time to commemorate everything year 15 brought and enjoy a landmark birthday like her typical teenage friends.

“My Sweet 16 won’t be big compared to other Sweet 16s, but big for me,” Gauff told Tennis.com, later noting her family's festivities are generally calm. “The date is definitely going to be moved up. I was going to have to celebrate it in April, but I’ll probably move it up to this week, or next week.”

There’s nothing normal about what Gauff has achieved in her early teen years, having reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon and the Australian Open (where she ousted defending champion Naomi Osaka), winning her first WTA singles title in Linz, two doubles crowns with 18-year-old tour bestie Caty McNally and cracking the WTA’s Top 50. All of this was accomplished despite eligibility restrictions that limit the number of tournaments Gauff can play, which aims to prevent burnout and allow players to grow into coping with the pressures that come with being in the spotlight.

Matt Fitzgerald/Tennis Channel

On the court, it’s clear Gauff feeds off the energy big crowds and large occasions bring. The same held true, predictably, on the white box. Throughout the week, several players were given the opportunity to take one set of camera equipment, worth a few grand, with free rein to walk around and shoot selfie portraits of their choosing. Some were skeptical, asking things like, “what do you want me to do?”, while others, when prompted to raise the lens with one hand, said they were afraid to risk something happening to the gear.

Not Gauff. For a solid two minutes, she let herself go, spellbound on stage. Spinning around, Gauff offered up duck faces, kisses, tongue flickers and hair flips. At one point, her confidence was on full display when she took a few seconds to adjust the camera’s position and soon retreated to lighting up the monitors.

In the background, dad Corey chimed in, “She’s having way too much fun right now.”

Corey and wife Candy have been along for every step of their daughter’s meteoric rise. The energy the couple exudes from the player box is compelling in its own right, and it’s become obvious a powerful connection lies between prodigy, her biggest champion, Candy, and Corey—who in this environment—plays the role as encouraging coach. Away from the court, unless Candy can arrange for Beyoncé to send out a birthday shoutout, it’s Corey who is better equipped at shopping for his daughter's special day. “My mom, her presents—she’s going to get mad—they aren’t too good," laughed Gauff. “My dad’s are, though.”

Matt Fitzgerald/Tennis Channel

When it came time to wrap the shoot, the American replicated one of her most unforgettable Wimbledon postcard moments. Reminiscent of her Centre Court debut, where Gauff saved two match points against Polona Hercog in a stirring third-round comeback, she floated through the air to soak up a moment of bliss. When the tennis calendar closes in 2020, Gauff hopes to come up for another high, behind the wheel for her driving test. “I got my permit late. You have to hold it for a minimum of a year, so I won’t get my license until November, unfortunately,” she disclosed.

As Gauff landed perfectly on the marked “X” and hit us with one final grin, it left little doubt about her inherent ability to meet the challenge in front, and all on the road that will follow—at the Florida DMV and stadium courts around the world.