At 16, Coco Gauff’s voice is already as strong as her serve
‘What a profound, mature, insightful and knowledgeable young lady … at that age, she understands what we’re experiencing is wrong, and she realizes that her voice truly matters’
Just days after the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Coco Gauff appeared at a rally held in front of the Delray Beach City Hall in Florida to share her feelings about his death.
The time Gauff spent on the microphone came in just under three minutes. But the words she shared — which included quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and urging people to vote for her future — were powerful.
“I’ve heard many things this past week, and one of the things I’ve heard is ‘it’s not my problem,’ ” Gauff said. “So I tell you this: If you listen to Black music, if you like Black culture, if you have Black friends, it’s your fight, too.”
Katrina Adams, the immediate past president of the USTA, watched that video when it hit social media and, at its conclusion, smiled.
“My first reaction was, wow, what a profound, mature, insightful and knowledgeable young lady,” said Adams, who was the first Black woman to lead the USTA when she took the helm in 2015. “At that age, she understands what we’re experiencing is wrong, and she realizes that her voice truly matters.”
If you follow Gauff on social media, you get a sense of the passion she brings to her followers in light of recent killings of Black Americans. The willingness and ability of Gauff to use her platform has brought pride to a few of the Black women tennis players who, in the era before the emergence of Serena and Venus Williams, believed that expressing outrage would have derailed their careers.
“When I was coming along in the ’80s, I knew I was ‘representing the race,’ ” said Leslie Allen, a former player and USTA tennis executive who outlined her issues with the sport in her first-person story for The Undefeated last week. “I didn’t have the luxury of being disruptive because I wanted to keep the door open for the Black players that followed me — players like Zina Garrison, Chanda Rubin, Serena, Venus and now Coco.”
When Allen won the Avon Championships in Detroit in 1981, she became the first Black women’s tennis player to win a significant tour event since Althea Gibson in 1958.
“For Coco’s entire life, Black women have been at the top of the sport,” Allen said. “It helps her in that she can’t imagine a world without Black women being successful in tennis. That gives her the freedom to be able to say what needs to be said.”
Kyle Copeland-Muse, who played on tour following a collegiate career wherein 1978 she was the first Black tennis player at LSU, said fear kept women from her era from speaking out.
“We didn’t have that latitude, and we would have been punished severely,” Copeland-Muse said. “We would have been labeled for being difficult.”
That meant, for Copeland-Muse, biting her lip on multiple occasions like the racist slight she was the victim of before a tournament in Tampa, Florida. Playing alongside Lori McNeil in doubles, the players from both teams of the featured doubles match were introduced by the emcee, who also happened to be a tennis designer. After introducing the opponents, the emcee said, “please welcome these two Black players,” as he introduced Copeland-Muse and McNeil.
“I just froze,” Copeland-Muse said. “I said, ‘I’m not going out there.’ He didn’t introduce our opponents as ‘these two white players.’ He had to make the introduction again, describing us as ‘these two up-and-coming players’ before I would go out. I wanted to say more. But it would not have been wise for our careers to make a bigger scene.”
Copeland-Muse takes pleasure in the fact that Gauff doesn’t have such fears.
“At 16, she’s more gutsy than Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods will ever be,” Copeland-Muse said. “I just love to see it with Coco. There’s a fearlessness with Coco and some of these younger athletes that puts out the message, ‘We’re not gonna be polite. We’re going to tell you exactly what’s happening in this word.’ ”
MaliVai Washington, who played on tour for 10 years and reached the 1996 men’s Wimbledon final, said he admires Gauff embracing being a leading voice in the current movement.
“How many 16-year-olds are stepping out front and center like Coco, maybe Greta Thunberg?” Washington said. “I don’t know Coco’s parents, but they must have done a significant job with her to have the confidence and self-awareness to even want to put herself out there with such a hotbed issue. That’s the sign of tremendous family support.”
Gauff’s family makes it easy for her to draw inspiration. During a speech in Delray Beach, Florida, Gauff cited the battles faced by Yvonne Lee Odom, her maternal grandmother. Odom was a promising basketball player at Delray Beach’s all-Black Carver High School before transferring to Seacrest High School, where she became the first Black student in 1961.
Odom was happy at the all-Black Carver High School, where she played basketball as a freshman and was expected to be named the captain in her sophomore season. But those plans changed when a group of prominent African Americans who lived in the area came to her father, a prominent minister, and expressed a desire to have Odom integrate Seacrest High School in Delray Beach.
“I was told later they were looking for someone who would be successful, a Jackie Robinson type,” Odom told The Undefeated last summer during an interview for a story on Gauff. “I was very involved in my school, but I felt it was something I could do.”
Odom has shared with Gauff all she was asked to do in her full year as the school’s only Black student. To use the faculty restroom (Odom declined). To not ride the school bus (“they thought the kids would beat me up”). To not participate in physical education classes. (“I did that for half a semester and then said, ‘No, I’m a PE person.’ ”)
Most of the memories, for Odom, of that first day of school are clear from the time she arrived at the school at 10 a.m. (past the official start of the school day) to the moment she sat in the principal’s office with her father for an initial meeting.
It was later that Odom found out that her father was strapped when they left for the school that morning. “He told me he had his gun, and this is a preacher man,” Odom said, laughing.
His words to the principal: “I’m putting my daughter in your hands. I expect you to protect her.”
Once at the school, Odom, a retired educator, was on a mission. “If I’m going to integrate,” she said, “I’m going to integrate.” That meant running for school office (she won the primary, but lost in the general election), and attending all school events, including games, dances and the prom.
The message that Odom wanted to convey back in 1961 rings particularly true today.
“Don’t just look at me,” Odom said, “and make a judgment that you don’t like me.”
That’s a message that Gauff has embraced, which was clear with what she packed into her 2½-minute speech earlier this month, which ended with her making a pledge to those who had gathered.
“I promise to always use my platform to spread vital information, spread awareness and fight racism,” she said. “Black lives have always mattered. They mattered then, they matter now and they’ll matter in the future.”
The former players who watched that tape came away believing that the representation of Black women in tennis, with the careers of Serena and Venus Williams soon coming to an end, is in good hands.
“There are professional athletes in their 20s and 30s who will not get in front of a microphone and do what Coco did,” Washington said. “But, right now, there are people in sports like Coco willing to put their necks out there like her and cause some waves.
“If she continues to do that,” Washington added, “she will be, at the end of her career, looked upon not just as a great tennis player, but as a great human activist.”