Before it all stopped, no tennis talent was on a steeper climb than Coco Gauff was.
Ranked 686th in women’s singles at the start of 2019, Gauff proceeded to crack the top 50, win her first WTA title, and make impressive runs at three Grand Slam events, all before turning 16 years old.
Then came the abrupt halting of the tennis tours, and so many other parts of American society, in March.
“Obviously I missed competing and I missed playing, but I think it was a good little break for me because I was able to train,” Gauff said. “I always consider myself still in the development stage, so having those months off to work on certain stuff definitely helped.”
Gauff, now ranked 53rd, returned to competition for the first time since January this week in Lexington, Ky., at the new Top Seed Open, a WTA tournament that has attracted past Grand Slam champions like Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens. Gauff advanced to Friday’s quarterfinal by beating Aryna Sabalenka, the No. 11 WTA singles player and second-seeded player in the tournament, in three sets Wednesday.
The data on Gauff is limited, but the small sample sparkles. In the three Grand Slam main draws in which she has played, Gauff twice beat Venus Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam champion, en route to reaching the fourth round. She lost to the eventual champion at those events twice — Simona Halep at Wimbledon last year and Sofia Kenin at the Australian Open this year — and the other was against a defending champion — Naomi Osaka at the 2019 United States Open, a loss she avenged in January at the Australian Open.
Though she has had time to work on aspects of her game like moving forward, returns and her second serve, the sudden stalling of the tour could be a challenge for a player who has not yet reached the expected pinnacle of her ascent.
“For me, what’s going to happen now will make the difference between players who are just on a roll because they’ve been winning a lot in the previous months and the ones who really are going to be great,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach who runs an academy in southern France where Gauff has trained.
Mouratoglou believes younger players seeking to climb the rankings might have had an easier time staying eager and invested during the uncertainty, and several top players echoed his sentiments.
Serena Williams, 38, who is seeking a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, said her mind-set would have been far different had such a disruption happened before she had achieved her first breakthrough.
“Oh my gosh, when I was looking for my first major I would be like, crazy,” Williams said. “I would be like, ‘Wow this is so intense, this is so crazy.’ But it’s different; I have everything I can want.”
Azarenka, 31, who lost in the first round at Lexington to Venus Williams, traveled to Kentucky without her young son, Leo. She said that a young player with fewer outside interests might be able to better handle the isolation of playing on a tour during the pandemic.
“For me, it was only tennis when I was Coco’s age,” Azarenka said. “I didn’t have any other interest in doing something else, staying home and being a parent instead of going to Lexington to sit in a hotel room all the time. It takes a little bit more — I would say personally at this stage — sacrifice and mental sacrifice than before, or at least from my experience.”
“But if I was 17, I wouldn’t care,” Azarenka added. “I would just go, ‘OK, well, I’m just going to go and play tennis.’”
But Gauff was not solely focused on tennis during the shutdown, as she spoke out during the national conversations on racism and police violence this spring and summer. At a protest in June, Gauff addressed a crowd outside City Hall in her hometown Delray Beach, Fla., speaking compellingly and confidently without prepared remarks.
“It was definitely from the heart,” she said, “and I think that when you speak from the heart, you get the message that you want.”
Gauff said Sunday that she had been asked “maybe two minutes before” to address the crowd, but she did not shrink from the occasion. Gauff’s poise, which has wowed so many in tennis over the past 13 months, has run in the family.
“Why I felt calm was because of my grandmother,” Gauff said. “She taught me a lot over the years.”
Gauff’s maternal grandmother, Yvonne Lee Odom, integrated Seacrest High School in Delray Beach in 1961, becoming the school’s first Black student as a 15-year-old.
“I learned a lot about her stories over the years,” Gauff said of her grandmother, who spoke at the protest right before her granddaughter did. “That kind of prepared me for that moment. I also felt responsible since I do have a big platform; it would be wrong of me to stay silent when this is an issue going on.”
Gauff has also acted in less public ways, like sending emails to the Louisville Police Department seeking justice in the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician killed by officers in March.
In June, Gauff pivoted mid-tweet in one of her several posts about the case:
“I AM SO HAPPY tennis is coming back! I am glad to say I will be playing the- Now that I have your attention Breonna Taylor still hasn’t received justice for her wrongful death.”
“Hopefully it can happen,” Gauff said Sunday. “We just continue to demand justice for her and continue to peacefully protest. Hopefully we’ll see some change.”
By contrast, Gauff has a less results-oriented mind-set on the court.
Her father and coach, Corey Gauff, said the main thing missing from her development during the pandemic was tournament play. Because of closures around Delray Beach, the Gauffs practiced on courts in their neighborhood that they had never previously used.
They also experimented with equipment and adjusted technique because Coco Gauff is still growing physically, her father said, meaning she has been able to add more spin and variety to her shots.
“She’s got a lot more weapons than she did before, and she’s improved some other weapons she’s got,” he said. “Now she’s got to learn how to put all that together, and we’ll see how it plays out in matches.”
Gauff shares her father’s optimism about the pause.
“I think my goal for the rest of the year is to have fun competing again and to really enjoy competing,” Gauff said. “Because I think when I’m not so worried about results or ranking, that’s when I play my best tennis. This whole training block — when we found out there were tournaments again — has just been to continue to improve.”