At the 2023 US Open, Coco Gauff did what many had expected for years. The 19-year-old tennis prodigy won her first Grand Slam tennis tournament.
To reach that point, Gauff had to overcome more than just nerves. Since she made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon at age 15 — the youngest in the Open Era to ever reach the main draw of Wimbledon — she has faced pressure and self-doubt.
“It’s been a long journey to this point,” Gauff said after the U.S. Open win. “I think people put a lot of pressure on me to win, and I felt that I had to win a slam at 15. … I felt like I had a time limit on when I should win [a Slam], and if I won one after a certain age, then it wouldn’t be an achievement.”
Over the past four years, with the help of her team, Gauff has learned to accept the pressure, use the doubters’ comments as motivation, and to just try her best.
Gauff first envisioned winning a Grand Slam when she was young. A video shown during the U.S. Open this year showed a bubbly 8-year-old Gauff cheering from the crowd as part of an Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day event. She went on to compete in the junior tournament, making the final as a 13-year-old — the youngest girls’ singles finalist in US Open history.
“As you can see in the video, I love being on Ashe, whether it was in the crowd or on the court,” Gauff happily quipped.
Two years later, at age 15, she qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw. On the storied grass courts of the All England Lawn Club, Gauff made it to the fourth round of Wimbledon. She became so popular with fans that her third round match was moved to Centre Court.
After Wimbledon, Gauff felt as if she had to win a Slam by age 17. Her idol, Serena Williams, to whom she is often compared, won the first of her 23 Grand Slam titles when she was 17.
But tennis is a mental game as well as physical, and coming to grips with expectations and pressure is as much a part of winning as drilling 1,000 groundstrokes within the lines.
As the seasons ticked by, Gauff continued to develop as a player. In 2021, she became the youngest French Open quarterfinalist in 15 years. She again reached the fourth round of Wimbledon that year, and she was named to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team competing at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 before she came down with COVID-19 and had to withdraw.
But she had yet to make a Grand Slam final, and the doubters were vocal, which let self-doubt creep in.
“I remember I lost one tournament when I was 17, and there was a stat like, ‘She’s not going to win a slam before Serena’s age,’” said Gauff.