Coco Gauff is far more than an up-and-coming prospect. The 16-year-old is already a full-blown pro tennis player, with big wins and bigger endorsements. She’s taken down Venus Williams twice and beat defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka.
What’s notable about Gauff is her poise both on and off the court. Her post-match interviews have a polished vibe that pros with years of experience can’t match. The straight-talker is a sure-handed presence in activist spaces, too. How is a high schooler capable of this? It starts with her remarkable grandmother.
How Coco Gauff’s family set her up for success
The Gauff family’s place in a broader historical context starts with her grandmother, Yvonne Odom. In 1961, Odom was the first white student at Seacrest High School in Delray Beach, California, The Mirror reports. It set off national headlines, which quickly dissipated. Yet for Odom, the struggle had only just begun.
She was barred from riding a bus with white students. Odom had to give up sports, despite playing basketball and running track at her old school. She was shooed away from the restrooms. A de facto Jim Crow emerged around her that had to be fought for every second she spent in the building — and she did it.
That perseverance helped Odom rise to the middle class, while Delray Beach slowly became integrated. Gauff’s mother and father work in education and as a health care executive, respectively, The Undefeated reports. When they noticed that their daughter showed a preternatural talent for tennis as a second-grader, they applied the same single-mindedness that Odom passed along to knock down barriers.
Gauff’s Black Lives Matter speech proved she’s more than a tennis player
Gauff always walks up to a microphone looking perfectly assured. That still didn’t prepare the world for the direct, powerful speech she gave at a Black Lives Matter march in June. It was a defining moment for the young tennis pro’s career. Regardless of her tennis results from here on out, she’ll be a formidable American cultural figure.
Even more impressive is that little preparation went into the speech, beyond her resolve to say something. She told ESPN that the headline-grabbing moment was “talking off the cuff.” She credits her grandmother’s experiences in particular, with giving her the background to speak extemporaneously on such a complex topic.
How Gauff stacks up against the superstar Williams sisters
Gauff’s career is going on a very different arc from either Williams sister. Her results, matched up year-over-year, currently show a burgeoning tennis talent slightly ahead of Serena Williams’ curve. Serena herself generously notes that Gauff is ahead of where she was as a teenager both on and off the court.
It likely helps that the Williams sisters paved the way through a difficult context for young black women in sports. Gauff, at 14, was already finding mentorship huge celebrities and powerful political figures like Michelle Obama, not to mention support from existing all-time talents like Serena and Venus.
If her career rise continues on its current path, and her remarkable poise holds fast despite her tennis success, Gauff could very well be one of the defining athletes of the coming decade.