Was it just five months ago that Coco Gauff danced her way into 2020? It may be hard to remember now, but at the end of her off-season training block in Florida, Gauff and her hitting partners—one of whom was Serena Williams—celebrated the start of a new tennis season by choreographing a dance routine and recording it for Instagram. The video ended with Williams doing a split, and quickly went viral. Gauff, a teenager who wasn’t even part of the tour at the start of 2019, had obviously come a long way in a short time.
Like the rest of us in this year of pandemic and protests, Gauff has come a lot farther in 2020—but not to a place she wanted to be. Last week, the 16-year-old posted a new Tik Tok video that was a far cry from her December dance with Serena. In her new clip, Gauff dons a black hooded sweatshirt, turns to the camera somberly, and asks “Am I next?” Dramatic music plays, while images of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other African-American victims of violence at the hands of law enforcement, or self-proclaimed law enforcement, appear on the screen. Gauff closes with a challenge: “I am using my voice. Will you use yours?”
The impetus for Gauff’s TikTok was Floyd’s death. After watching police officer Derek Chauvin grind Floyd’s head into a Minneapolis street last week, something seemed to snap in Gauff, too.
“I am in tears watching this video,” she wrote on Twitter. “Everyday innocent people are dying because of our skin color. No one deserves to die like that. I just can’t believe this. This needs to stop.”
As recently as May 17, Gauff was tweeting, “I flew a kite for the first time today and it was really fun. Just wanted to tell you guys that. OK bye.”
As Deadspin’s Carron J. Phillips wrote, “Gauff probably went to bed Tuesday night tired and mentally exhausted, like most of Black America. But that’s the norm for us in this country. It’s an emotional war, and we’re all veterans…On Tuesday night, Coco Gauff, the black girl, first, and tennis star, second, was enlisted. At the tender age of 16.”
Yet just as Gauff was ready for her pro debut at Wimbledon at 15 last summer, she seems to be ready to take on this historical moment as well. So far in her young career, she hasn’t shown any fear of politics, or any desire to “stick to sports." Last year, Gauff posted about Juneteenth and Black History Month, and pledged her allegiance to Greta Thunberg.
“My generation has just decided it was time to speak up on our own about things,” Gauff told The Guardian last fall. “I do follow the [climate] movement, and I’m learning about ways we can better change, at least my lifestyle and the way my family live.”
By engaging with politics, Gauff is following in a tennis tradition that may not be well-known to casual fans. Last week, in an article about Gauff, The Guardian described her as “a 16-year-old sensation in a sport where top players have traditionally avoided speaking out on social issues.”
It’s true that tennis is not known as a hotbed of radicalism. It began as an upper-class pastime and has never shaken that reputation. It was segregated in the U.S. until 1950, and was largely the province of private clubs until the ’70s. But that conservatism also inspired a strong progressive reaction. This is, after all, the sport of Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and Martina Navratilova, of the Original 9, the WTA, and equal pay at the Grand Slams.
By this point, there’s also a strong African-American tradition in women’s tennis, one that descends from Venus and Serena Williams to Sloane Stephens to Gauff. While Naomi Osaka plays for Japan, her father is Haitian, and she has lived most of her life in the U.S.
None of these women have been afraid to speak up or take leadership roles. Venus was instrumental in making equal pay at the majors a reality. Serena has spoken out about police shootings—“I won’t be silent,” she said after Philando Castile was killed by Minnesota police in 2016. Stephens is a member of the WTA player council and has broken new ground by working across the gender aisle with the ATP. Her peer, Madison Keys, is an advocate for Fearlessly Girl, which focuses on combating bullying and negativity among young women. And over the last week, Osaka has put Floyd’s killing at the center of her social-media universe.
“Just because it isn’t happening to you,” Osaka tweeted, “doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all.”
On Saturday, Osaka posted a photo on Instagram from the Minneapolis protests, with the caption, “If you stand for nothing you fall for everything.”
Gauff has made her stand. She has seen too much in 2020 to be content with just swinging a racquet and making dance videos. “I promise to always use my platform to help make the world a better place,” she wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
That sounds like an innocuous statement, but the reality is, speaking up about anything, and especially about race and politics, rarely comes without controversy. Gauff may be criticized for her “Am I next?” video, and it may alienate some of her fans. Yet the fact that she’s willing to risk that criticism to show her solidarity with her fellow African-Americans is the most important reason yet to support her. Here’s hoping Gauff’s and Osaka’s platforms keep getting bigger, and that they never stop using them.