The moment Coco Gauff sits on a couch in a shady spot at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center and says, “I feel like me, as a person, didn’t change,” you hope that it’s true, that it’s true today and next week and next year and beyond.
There are the plain facts: Two months ago, she could have entered the qualifying draw for this week’s Citi Open and been little more than a curiosity, a promising player who had success in juniors, known only to tennis cognoscenti. Now, she played what normally would be an obscure match Saturday as a flat-out star. She is 15, and her mere presence — playing or not — helps shape Washington’s annual tennis event. She is a value add, a reason to come out.
“The outside has changed,” Gauff said. “That’s what’s different,” and there’s no getting around it. Michelle Obama mentioned her in a tweet. Solange Knowles DM’d her on Instagram, congratulating her, saying, “You’re so sweet,” which wouldn’t have happened before she beat Venus Williams at Wimbledon, before she reached the round of 16. Solange, of course, is Beyoncé’s sister, and Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles, reached out through social media, too.
“I’m getting closer and closer and closer to Beyoncé,” Gauff said.
This is a lot for a 15-year-old. It’s a lot for anyone. When Wimbledon began, she had 30,000 Instagram followers. Now, she has 386,000. What does that mean? It means more people know what she thinks, what she eats, what she wears, what she listens to. It means more people think she matters.
“I should see if I have the world record for biggest jump in followers,” she said.
She did not thump her chest when she said it. Save that for the biggest moments in the biggest matches.
About that: Saturday’s qualifying match against Maegan Manasse, which Gauff won, 6-4, 6-2, to advance to another match Sunday, was her first competitive tennis since she lost in straight sets to eventual champion Simona Halep, ending a captivating Wimbledon run that reshaped what people expect of her, if not what she expects of herself. That will, for Gauff, forever be a before-and-after fortnight: Before Wimbledon 2019, she could go to a movie theater or walk through an airport unnoticed. After Wimbledon 2019, she is a star who must keep her gaze forward, lest the outside distract her.
“But my dreams haven’t changed,” she said.
This was striking at Wimbledon, and it’s striking now. Even as she looked absolutely astonished following match point against Williams, even as she sobbed in celebration, Gauff was clear that she had prepared for such moments. It’s reminiscent of a young Tiger Woods, who boldly asked what, exactly, is the point of entering a golf tournament if your intention is to do something other than win it? Had she approached facing Williams, one of her heroes, with the objective of seeing how many points she could win, she would be limiting herself. And it’s clear that Coco Gauff isn’t about limits.
“I think my dreams, they’ll always be the same until I actually accomplish them,” Gauff said. And they are, for the record: “Be No. 1, win grand slams. My overall goal is to be the greatest of all time.”
How she says that and manages not to sound brash is beyond me. Yet she does.
On limits, because she faces them even as she dismisses them: Gauff played in the qualifying portion of the Citi Open because the entry deadline came before Wimbledon, when her world ranking was 300-something. She couldn’t accept a wild card into the main draw because she already had maxed out at three of those. Star or not, that leaves you slogging it out on a weekend when the tournament doesn’t really begin until Monday.
But the other limit Gauff faces is left over from another era: the WTA’s limits on the number of tournaments that teenagers may play. Yes, they may help prevent burnout. Yes, they may help physical development. But they don’t prevent teenagers from training like veterans, and they do limit the earning potential of players who could compete right now. Plus, at the moment, the world needs more Coco Gauff, not less.
“I understand the rules, and it’s meant to protect the young player,” she said. “Obviously I want to play more tournaments. But I do wish they could adjust it maybe just a little bit.”
That’s in part because Gauff’s father, Corey, who doubles as her coach, has done much of the adjusting already. Since Coco began her rise at age 8, the Gauffs have managed her career cautiously.
“He tries to space out the tournaments so it allows me time to train,” Coco said of her father. “Even when I was a junior, I didn’t play nearly as many tournaments as the other people did. My whole life, I’ve never played too many tournaments because he always wanted to give me time to develop.”
Which gets us to this week, to Washington, the first event post-Wimbledon 2019. Is it possible to simultaneously be a star and still be developing? It has to be, because that’s what she is.
When she rose from the couch Friday afternoon, Gauff walked into the sun, flanked by a WTA official and her agent, then through a gate that led to the back door of a giant tent. There, Mark Ein, the D.C. investor and entrepreneur who took over the Citi Open this year, was banging the drum about a “reimagined” event, with new food and new fan experiences, blah blah blah.
But a sporting event is only as good as the athletes competing in it. Gauff had to wait for others to withdraw to even slip into the qualifying matches, but her appearance put another feather in Ein’s cap. Her presence at the draw party brought television cameras that might not have been there otherwise. She answered questions she wouldn’t have dreamed of a month ago.
“I’m still getting used to the press conferences,” she said.
What she’s used to is the tennis. Friday also included a practice session, which is what feels normal. “I’m definitely excited to play a tournament in the States again,” she said.
When was the last time she did that? She looked up, going over in her mind. There was Paris and London . . .
“Mi . . . am . . . i?” she asked, unconvinced. “I think Miami. I don’t really remember.”
This is a lot. Simultaneously becoming a star and remaining a growing young woman is a lot for a 15-year-old. It’s a lot for anyone. We are post-Wimbledon 2019, and the outside of Coco Gauff’s world has changed forever.