The first time I watched Coco Gauff compete on clay, at a junior tournament in Boca Raton, Fla., she was 13 years old and told me something rather bold, even for a prodigiously talented teen: “I want to be the greatest of all time.”
I was taken aback in the moment, though in retrospect, it was clear Gauff wasn’t saying anything she hadn’t previously thought about. She spoke it with a quiet confidence, rather than dreamy bombast, and I’m sure she gave other reporters similar quotes. Gauff has been in the spotlight for some time, and she’s thrived in it, embracing the opportunities to showcase her refined-but-still-growing game, along with her zest for competition.
That day, Gauff also spoke with me about her father, Corey. One quote she told me didn’t generate headlines or inspire social-media posts, but it was just as much a part of what makes Coco the player and person she is today. Asked about her desire to turn pro as early as possible, Coco spoke less matter-of-fact about her father, and with more emotion: “He’s helping me get there.”
Family is as much a part of Coco Gauff’s tennis as her forehands. Corey and Coco’s mother, Candi, are both former college athletes, and in addition to passing along some coveted genes, they continue to support their daughter in any way possible.
“We approach tennis and sports as a family,” said Corey Gauff in the first episode of In Their Shoes, from New Balance. “Ever since she was a little girl, I always told her she could change the world with her racquet.”
Gauff trains on hard courts in Delray Beach, but has always been adept on green clay, a surface prevalent in the Sunshine Shine—as well as the Palmetto State, where she’s competing this week. The 17-year-old is playing the Volvo Car Open in Charleston for the first time, and she hopes to rebound from a one-and-done exit at last week’s Miami Open. Her opening-round opponent, the crafty Tsvetana Pironkova, will pose an immediate challenge. (The two have never played each other.)
While the crowds that would traditionally follow Gauff won’t be anywhere near their usual size due to pandemic protocols, Gauff believes the comfort of the clay could help see her through what is a loaded WTA 500 draw.
“The green clay I’m more used to,” Gauff told press in Miami, in comparing it to red clay. “It’s definitely a little bit—I guess depends on the clay. Sometimes the green clay is faster than red clay. Sometimes it’s slower. It all depends on the clay.
Gauff gets airborne on the terre battue in 2020. (Getty Images)
“It’s going to be my first pro tournament on or at least WTA on green clay, so I'm excited for that.”
No matter the surface, though, Gauff has a game that can win on it. She’s a former Roland Garros junior champion, she’s reached the fourth round at the Australian Open and Wimbledon (beating five-time champion and idol Venus Williams at the latter), and she won her first WTA title on indoor hard courts.
Gauff’s other comfort, of course, is her family—so it helps when your father is also your coach.
Such a relationship can blur the line between personal and professional. For some athletes, that’s a burden. For Gauff, it’s a blessing.
“Most of my family lives in Florida,” said Gauff, sister to two younger brothers. “It’s nice to be surrounded by the people you love.”