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Coco Gauff and family following familiar path to greatness

The teen tennis sensation is winning at Wimbledon using Williams’ blueprint

There’s an oft-repeated story that Richard Williams mapped out the path to tennis stardom for his daughters Venus and Serena before they were conceived.

That wasn’t quite the case for Corey and Candi Gauff, but the two realized their daughter, Coco, would be special by the time she was in second grade.

So the Gauffs followed the Richard Williams path to success: The parents sacrificed their careers, Candi as an educator and Corey as a health care executive, and placed all their chips on Coco. Corey Gauff, who was a college basketball player, had very limited tennis experience but gambled that he could lead Coco’s journey as her coach.

That gamble has paid off.

Coco Gauff, at the age of 15, is the hottest player in women’s tennis after the first week of Wimbledon — her first Grand Slam tournament. On Friday, she rallied from a set down and fought off two match points in the second set to beat Polona Hercog and advance to Monday’s fourth-round match against former world No. 1 Simona Halep.

When Richard Williams guided his two daughters, there were many people who called the man crazy. (He learned the game from a guy named “Old Whiskey.”) But what Williams accomplished with little tennis expertise provided a blueprint for the Gauff family.

“We hadn’t seen many African American women in the sport, so when [Venus and Serena] started winning and having success and trailblazing, some of the challenges that they went through made it a lot easier to get into the sport,” Corey Gauff said earlier this week on Good Morning America. “And it allowed us to be a lot more confident about choosing [tennis].”

The Gauffs, like Richard Williams, kept the training in-house. Corey Gauff became Coco’s full-time coach, while Candi oversaw her daughter’s home schooling. Corey joked in an interview last year with the South Florida Sun Sentinel that they went from a “single-income family” to a “no-income family.”

“No-income family” meant few funds to attend the expensive tennis academies (tuition costs for the 2018-19 academic year at the IMG Tennis Academy ranged from $61,900 to $81,900). And while attending those academies benefited the careers of players such as Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, Coco has demonstrated to the tennis world, especially considering the poise she showed in playing from behind against Hercog, that her ceiling might be considerably higher.

“We’ve been working on her poise all year,” Corey Gauff told reporters at Wimbledon earlier this week. “After that comes together, then you can improve your game. Because when you’re poised, you’re not emotional.”

The ability to control her emotions likely came from Coco’s parents. While Coco’s father did play in an NCAA tournament game as a freshman at Georgia State (he played 22 minutes and scored six points against the famed Arkansas “40 minutes of hell” defense led by Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller), her mother might be the family’s best athlete. Before her track career at Florida State, Candi Gauff was the Florida state champion in the heptathlon while at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach, earning the Sun Sentinel Track Athlete of the Year award for Palm Beach County in 1987 and 1988.

That athletic pedigree from both parents is also likely where Coco gets her confidence. Asked how good she expects to be during an interview in the video series No Days Off, Coco responded: “I want to be the best ever. I want to be better than Serena.”

Coco has a ways to go, but she’s off to a tremendous start. In the women’s Open era, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, just 26 players under the age of 16 had won at least one match in their first Grand Slam. Nine of them went on to win major titles, and six of them would become No. 1 in the world.

While tennis fans might have just been introduced to Coco this past week, people in the game have long known who she is. She traveled to France for a training session with Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, when she was 10. And she’s represented by Team8, the agency headed by Roger Federer.

Coco, going into Wimbledon, had career earnings of $75,011 while playing mainly International Tennis Federation events. In reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon, she’s guaranteed $223,464 for the tournament — easily surpassing her career earnings in three matches.

Next up for Coco: Halep, the No. 7 seed at Wimbledon who was the top-ranked women’s player at the beginning of the year. It will be the toughest opponent of Coco’s young career.

But why not Coco Gauff? Over the last 10 Grand Slam events, nine women have won titles. With a women’s field that’s wide-open, who’s to say Coco doesn’t have a shot?

In the latest entry on her mom’s Instagram page, which came after her win over Venus Williams, there’s an image of Coco with the message: “Destined for greatness: Continue to put in the work.”

Who knows where Coco Gauff’s career goes from here? But the Gauff family, to their credit, has followed a plan that has proved to be successful.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.