Vogue meets Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old wild card who knocked Venus Williams out of Wimbledon
15th Jul 2019
When Cori “Coco” Gauff stepped onto Wimbledon’s Court No. 1 on the first day of the 2019 tennis tournament, she served the world a slice of sporting history. In case you somehow missed it, after being awarded a wild card, the 15-year-old not only went on to meet her idol Venus Williams, but beat her, knocking out the seven-time Grand Slam champion.
“Everyone has a big dream as a kid,” Gauff tells Vogue in her first exclusive profile since the tournament. “But there are a lot of people out there who are too scared to follow theirs. I am just an example to get out there and go for it, because—with tennis—the worst thing that can happen is that you lose.”
In one short week, the American teenager has gone from unknown tennis hopeful to household name. Not only was Gauff’s win a sporting achievement in itself, but combined with her humility (after the match, she made sure to thank Venus profusely across the net, for everything she’d done for the sport and for being her inspiration), the 15-year-old charmed people the world over. “On my science test I got a B,” she told a packed press conference. “Today I’d give myself an A.”
Gauff usually tries to limit her time on social media during a tournament so it doesn’t influence her game, but when she gave in and opened her accounts the day after her win, her following had grown to 375,000. Tags on Twitter from Samuel L Jackson to Snoop Dogg followed, and a retweet from the former First Lady Michelle Obama calling her “terrific”.
Gauff determinedly went on to prove her success wasn’t a one-time fluke, subsequently knocking out Polona Hercog (ranked 60th in the world to Gauff’s 313th at the time of the match) to make the Wimbledon final 16.
But on Monday 8 July, the former world number one Simona Halep put a pin in Gauff’s Wimbledon dreams, knocking her out of the competition 6–3, 6–3. A heart-wrenchingly tearful press-room debrief followed. “The worst is when the press asks you what you could have done better and you have to answer,” Gauff says. “When I lose, I just want to stay quiet and be alone for 20 minutes. After that, it’s over and I talk to my dad. As long as he’s happy and proud of me then I’m fine.”
It’s the day after her defeat when we meet at the Gauffs’ Wimbledon rental. In the living room, her mum Candi Gauff reclines on the couch watching her daughter’s hero Serena Williams take on Alison Riske on Centre Court. Corey Gauff, her father and tennis coach, is in the kitchen on his phone scrolling through return flights to Florida—land of tennis schools and tennis champions, where the whole family relocated to from Atlanta, throwing everything behind Gauff’s tennis dreams. A group of suited-and-booted men sit formally around the dining table, deep in conversation, presumably about Gauff’s off-court strategy. Being a superstar athlete takes a village after all. So how is she feeling? “I am feeling a little bit better,” Gauff smiles. “I’m not disappointed anymore. Right after the match it’s freshly new, but when you look at the bigger picture and see how great this tournament was for me, I’m excited for Wimbledon next year.”
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Cori “Coco” Gauff exclusively photographed for Vogue International. Image credit: Ronan Mckenzie.
Now that her tournament is over, Gauff gets to indulge her other interests. She’s hoping to book Khalid tickets this summer, and relaxes watching make-up tutorials (favourite channels include Jackie Aina’s and Alissa Ashley’s). She is obsessed with online shopping and considers Rihanna a style maverick. She loves Billie Eilish, hip-hop and rap, especially tracks Icon by Jaden Smith and Humble by Kendrick Lamar. When she’s feeling down she likes to indulge her sweet tooth with warm brownies. “Hitting some tennis balls can actually really help too,” she says. “You let off steam, you can hit that ball as hard as you want.”
Gauff has a tight support network, including a group of girlfriends whom she FaceTimes daily, describing herself as “the goofy one”. Most of them are tennis mad too, having met years ago at various sports schools. When they’re not on the road, they try to hang out as much as possible, arranging sleepovers at each other’s houses to maximise quality time. Gauff’s best friend Jamilah regularly checks in with messages of support, which range from “I always knew this would happen!” to a pre-match “I KNOW YOU CAN WIN!”
“Obviously I miss some things and sometimes I feel left out,” Gauff shrugs, “but then I think I am so lucky to even be in another country right now. So I look on the bright side.”
Gauff’s bright side is almost blinding. Her popularity transcends ages and nationalities, hooking in new fans who previously expressed no interest in tennis. Her match against Hercog drew the highest audience ratings for Wimbledon so far. Furthermore, Forbes suspects Gauff’s Wimbledon success will have made her a young millionaire before she can even drive, collecting over $200,000 in tournament fees, on top of her existing endorsement deals. Wimbledon finalist Halep predicts Gauff’s top 10 status in the near future, while Serena Williams describes her game as “on a different level”.
“A lot of people try and pit us against each other,” Gauff says of her female opponents. “But when we’re not facing each other on court, we’re definitely rooting for one another.” At first, she felt intimidated by the greats she was sharing space with in the Wimbledon locker rooms, but she soon drew energy from their “sweet sisterly support”. She counts herself lucky that the likes of Billie Jean King and the Williams sisters paved the way for equal pay in tennis, one of the few sports to have succeeded in this. She still believes there’s some way to go, however, especially in terms of tournament representation. “During prime time, they always put the men’s matches on,” she says. “I remember when I was younger and I would be confused as to why I would always see Roger [Federer] play? They put Serena and Venus on the show courts sometimes, but not another [woman] who’s won a Grand Slam.”
Despite being born in 2004, sexism is still something this 15-year-old recognises: “I’ve heard, ‘You can’t do this because you’re a girl’ so many times,” she says. “At school I always used to beat the guys at running and it was this big deal—I proved them wrong! I’m a feminist because I believe that everyone should be equal.”
Gauff credits her sage, down-to-earth attitude to her parents and “just literally being myself. I don’t know how to act any other way. People ask me questions like, ‘At 15, how do you do all that?’ And I think, I only know one perspective, which is my perspective. I only know what it’s like to be 15 or younger. The reason I got here was not focusing on my age, but focusing on the game. I still want to do better.”
Up until recently a poster of Jaden Smith was on her bedroom wall in Florida alongside one of Serena Williams. At some point Jaden’s came down and Gauff’s mum tacked up a poster of Gauff instead, who now shares icon space with Serena.
“Watching the Williams sisters growing up, I always looked up to them,” Gauff confesses. “Now I have people saying they look up to me and it’s a big challenge. Every time I walk onto court I keep that in mind. I’m representing myself, yes, but I’m also representing young girls who want to do big things.” Does she have a message for those young girls? “Always dream big. Don’t let anyone limit you in life, the possibilities are endless. If I can do it? You can do it too. Probably three times better.
“It can be frustrating when you lose and you think, ‘I’m doing all this and it’s not working, but it takes those losses to learn, that’s what I really learned in this tournament. The amount of times I lost are the reasons why I’m winning.” So it’s about the long game? With a half-smile, she replies: “The long, long, long game.”